Around the world in an MBA

Marketing Manager and MBA student Lorena Ramirez shares her journey on the MBA, across three continents and what she has learned along the way.

Picture of Lorena Ramirez

The first time I heard about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was while living in Peru. I’d been working in the fashion industry for the last ten years and was ready to expand into different creative areas. I was looking for a Masters degree that focused not only on fashion, but on creativity and innovation.

There are lots of really good MBAs in London, but the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was different. There is nothing else in the market that mixes art, design, business and social innovation in that way.

I fell in love with the course immediately, but attending face-to-face sessions in London wasn’t an option for me, so I was forced to put my plans on hold.

Moving to London

It just so happened that, months after discovering the MBA, my husband was offered a job in the UK. We moved to London without any hesitation: I arrived, found a job, got pregnant and applied for the MBA! I had my interview with Dr Pamela Yeow, the Course Leader, about a week before I gave birth.

I had my reservations about starting a Masters with a newborn baby, but when I won a scholarship for the course I felt like it was a sign to just do it. I started the programme and absolutely loved it. On a course like this, it’s so important that your peers are with you on this journey. For a lot of MBAs, the average age is around 24 or 25. I’m 37, and while the youngest person in our cohort was 25, the oldest was 60. Through the MBA, I met people in media, television, different organisations and entrepreneurs. The diversity of ages and interests in my cohort was what I enjoyed most about the experience.

Then my maternity leave finished, the pandemic hit and I found myself working full-time with a baby under highly pressured circumstances. Sadly, I couldn’t continue the MBA with my cohort, but Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins were very understanding and supportive. It was not an easy decision, but looking back, I think it was the right one. I wouldn’t have had the time to properly enjoy the reading and the learning process if I had continued then.

Picture of Lorena with her son

Recognise this scenario? Lorena trying to work and study, featuring her son Noah.

A new challenge in Ceuta

Despite having to put my studies on hold, this has been a whirlwind year: I was promoted to Marketing Manager for Spain for my organisation and relocated to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in Morocco. Ceuta is a small, quiet city, so it’s a big change from London!

In my new role, I am already applying the learning from the first module of the MBA, which is all about how to solve complex problems. Right now, in Spain, the gambling industry is facing new marketing regulations which drastically change the way it has worked for the past twelve years. This has a huge impact on our work, meaning we have to really think outside the box when it comes to promotion.

Changing the way an entire company works is very difficult, especially when you lead teams. For me, the MBA was the perfect preparation to face this challenge. On the course, we completed a project with the London Ambulance Service – what we are learning is not theoretical, it’s real life, day by day. In my work now, we essentially have to reinvent all the departments and how we’re working. For this to be a success, you have to change the way of thinking not of the directors but of the users and your team, and that is the most difficult thing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study to have a preparation to understand this better.

Where next?

From March 2021, I’ll be travelling to London once a month to re-join the MBA programme – I can’t wait to get started again!

In the long term, I would like to go back to sustainable fashion, for which my current experience in online marketing will be really valuable. I’d like to work with artisans, especially Peruvian artisans, linking them with brands across the globe. Most artisans around the world don’t speak Spanish or English, so it can be difficult to reach them, but I hope to do this through a foundation or social enterprise – I think the MBA will lead me to the right way to do this.

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Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

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Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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An MBA with a difference

Sammera applied for the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA to build the skills to have a greater impact in the charity sector. Her efforts have been recognised by a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, who support British Muslims into higher education to better society.

Picture of Sammera

As Head of Development at the British Asian Trust and with over fifteen years’ experience of charity and voluntary work, Sammera speaks with authority when she talks of the need to innovate in the third sector. 

“Innovation and creativity are central to developing products or services in any leading organisation,” she explains, “but in the fast-changing and highly competitive environment in which charities operate, it is essential. There’s also the added challenge of adapting within a strictly regulated and scrutinised environment.” 

Sammera wanted to return to education to consolidate the skills she had learned through her working life. The Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA appealed as it provided the opportunity to bring together creative and business disciplines. 

“I didn’t want to do anything too conventional – I wanted to bring in a creative angle,” says Sammera. “The four units of the MBA programme link in with my work, so I can apply what I’m learning in my day to day integrating the business management theories practically. There are elements of the course that require independent investigation and research, while others focus on entrepreneurship, leadership and change.” 

In January 2020, Sammera successfully interviewed for a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, which will partly cover the costs of the MBA programme. The Aziz Foundation offers Masters scholarships to British Muslims in order to empower one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country to bring positive change to society as a whole. 

For Sammera, the MBA is an opportunity to gain the skills she needs to make an even greater impact: “At the British Asian Trust, I have learned the value of social finance, making sustainable changes for the longer term and helping marginalised communities in South Asia. Beyond this course, I hope to continue to empower the diaspora and wider communities locally and internationally.” 

Dr Pamela Yeow, Programme Director of the MBA, said: “We designed the MBA to equip students with the tools to make positive change. I am delighted that the Aziz Foundation has recognised Sammera’s commitment to the charity sector and that they have seen the potential for her to have an even greater impact with the help of the MBA.” 

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“I used my work as a kind of petri dish for everything that I explored in the classroom”

Roscoe Williamson, Creative Strategy Director and Partner at MassiveMusic reflects on how the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA has helped him shape his career path.

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With a twelve-year career in the music industry under his belt, you might be surprised to hear that Roscoe studied Chemistry as an undergraduate. Its hard to know what you want to do with the rest of your life at 18 years old,he explains, Chemistry was a bit of a slog, so I had a real hunger to go back into education later in life, to learn and expand my horizons around topics that genuinely interest me.

Roscoe was keen to develop strategic leadership skills to advance his business, but coming from a creative industry, it was important to find a programme that valued creativity: I was particularly interested in bringing creativity into business and applying design and systems thinking to the corporate world. I was interested in a few courses that took a creative approach to business education, but I chose the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA because it had both the innovative outlook and the solid finance and strategy side.

The MBA focuses on three curriculum units: Provocation and Enquiry; Entrepreneurship in Action; and Effecting Change: Collaboration in Practice. The eighteen-month programme culminates in an extended live project or dissertation. I enjoyed most aspects of the course and the exploratory learning style that was encouraged,explains Roscoe, The whole experience was like tasting a knowledge cake with lots of segments. I left behind those I didnt like so much, while my final research project allowed me to really get into what I liked the taste of.

Roscoes academic dissertation explores how organisations can nurture, scale and grow creativity and innovation. His findings point to ways in which organisational creativity can be led by individual behaviours, teams dynamics and organisational structures. Analysing organisational creativity and innovation from managerial, psychological and sociological perspectives allowed me to identify gaps between academia and practice and understand how to get the best of both,he explains.

Roscoes dissertation is in the final stages, but the changes in his work have been felt already: I wouldnt have enjoyed the course nearly as much if I hadnt been working at the same time. As well as becoming more efficient at managing my time, I used my work as a kind of petri dish for everything that I explored in the classroom. Ive been lucky to have a really supportive business partner who gave me time to devote to the MBA he says he has seen a change in me and the business already. Through the MBA, I got partially interested in strategy and realised strategic thinking is something that we needed more of.

Completing the MBA with a new job title of Creative Strategy Director, it seems that Roscoe has wasted no time in implementing what hes learned to his business. In the future, he plans to create a content hub, where he intends on sharing his leanings to the wider world.

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