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.

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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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“I cannot stress enough how important it is to get women a seat at the table.”

Winner of Best Business Idea at this year’s Pioneer Awards, Hetty Bonney-Mercer shares how she plans to empower women in Ghana with her business, FemInStyle Africa.

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A great business idea begins when someone identifies a problem that needs solving. Sometimes, these are problems you never knew you had, as the buyers of products like these will testify.

In Hetty Bonney-Mercer’s case, however, the business idea came from a problem she found impossible to ignore. Taking home the Best Business Idea prize at this year’s Pioneer awards, it looks like the judging panel agreed.

FemInStyle Africa is a magazine for women, by women, encouraging them to live their lives to their full potential. The idea for the magazine came from a desire to present an alternative narrative for women in Ghana.

As Hetty explains, “I first had the idea when I was part of a group of women whose gender activism took Ghana by storm in 2017.” The group wanted to flip the script on toxic gender narratives, but they weren’t able to do so without resistance: “The more politicised we became, the more backlash we received. Despite being a population with an equal gender split, the idea of women occupying media spaces was unacceptable.

“In Ghana, the traditional view that the role of women is to keep the home still persists. Just 13% of national politicians are female, and when a woman is given a platform on events such as International Women’s Day, it is always a certain type of narrative being pushed; that keeping a home and a husband is the most important thing, no matter what a woman has achieved. On International Menstrual Hygiene Day, the topic was discussed by an all-male panel!

“My co-founder and I realised that we needed to create a space where we could amplify the voices and experiences of women exclusively. We wanted to change a narrative that is harming future generations of girls.”

Hetty had been working on the early stages of her business idea when she saw an email from Birkbeck about the Pioneer programme.

“I thought that this was the opportunity I needed to develop the business. I sent it to my co-founder and she encouraged me to go for it.

“I gained so much from the programme: I made some really great friends and received incredible support from the speakers and fellow students. It was amazing to be in a room filled with so much passion: everyone there had a problem to solve. Coming from a background in Politics and International Relations, I learned the practicalities of running a business from some amazing female entrepreneurs who spoke on the programme.”

The FemInStyle Africa magazine website is currently under construction and will feature five columns: politics, gender activism, working women, financial advice and travel and style. The target readership is women aged 16-45, although Hetty wants the magazine to be read as widely as possible: “We want sixteen-year-olds to read the politics column or our profile of working women and see women who they’ll aspire to be like. For more mature readers, we want them to read something and see their own experience and values reflected. We want young people to see the possibilities of what could be, despite the societal pressures around them.”

The online magazine is a starting point, but Hetty’s vision for FemInStyle Africa extends much further. “We’ve set ourselves a six-month deadline to produce the magazine in print as well. In Ghana, data is a matter of class. Not everyone can afford to be online. We’re hoping to make the magazine free to reach as many people as we can.”

There are also plans in place to establish a mentoring programme alongside the magazine, providing further opportunities to empower young Ghanaian women. It is a project close to Hetty’s heart: “I cannot stress enough how important it is to get women a seat at the table. We want women to come on this journey with us and see that their futures are not pre-determined.”

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“It’s crazy to think that an idea I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Alexander Flint Mitchell took home the prize for Best Business Pitch in June’s Pioneer awards. He reflects on a life-changing year of building his business, Blind Cupid.

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When Alexander Flint Mitchell enrolled onto Birkbeck’s MSc Business Innovation last September, it was with a view to changing career direction and developing the business idea that had been on his mind for the last five years.

Handing in his notice just one month later, you could say things had moved a little faster than expected. “Looking back on it, that was probably a bit naïve,” Alexander admits, “but if you want to achieve something big, you’ve sometimes got to take a leap into the unknown.”

The motivation for this leap of faith? A little idea for an app called Blind Cupid.

Blind Cupid is a dating app with a difference, using a never-before-used science to match people based on their fundamental values, giving users the chance to see bios and compatibility scores before they reveal pictures to potential matches.

“A lot of dating apps claim to be all about personality,” says Alexander, “but it’s really just a slogan. In their questionnaires, they will ask about polarising issues like politics, which is valid, but simply agreeing on something doesn’t mean that you’re compatible. Take Brexit, for example: people voted Leave on both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s essential to understand the rationale behind the belief.

“The questionnaire that we use for Blind Cupid goes right to basic principles. The greatest feedback we have received so far from users is that they could see the value in the product even from just filling out the questionnaire – before they’d received any matches. When we tested the product, 80% of the test group went on four or more dates with their matches – that’s way higher than anything else in the market.”

Was the concept for the app born out of Alexander’s personal experience? “People ask me that a lot,” he says, “but in reality, the idea just came to me in a lightbulb moment, fully formed. I came up with the concept aged 21, while studying Law and working in the City. I found the reality of being a lawyer very boring and would end up spending most of the day daydreaming about this app. I knew that I was going to do it eventually, but I wanted to do it properly.”

In 2019, Alexander applied for the MSc Business Innovation at Birkbeck, specialising in entrepreneurship. “Studying in the evening meant that I could continue working in the City until the business was up and running,” Alexander explains. “I thought that, worst case scenario, I could find a role in venture capital, but I really wanted to give Blind Cupid a go.

“The course was everything I wanted to learn. One of the early modules, Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, required us to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan for Blind Cupid, and that’s when I decided to quit my job.”

As Alexander worked through the masters and the Pioneer programme, his business and networks grew. “I’ve made some amazing connections and put together a dedicated team – we’d meet at 8am and still be working together at 1am, before we were earning any money to do it, which just shows the commitment we all have to the business.”

Alexander’s Pioneer experience culminated in June’s virtual awards ceremony, where he took home the award for Best Business Pitch. “It was a shame not to be able to do the finale in person, but I was really surprised and pleased by how many people came along to the virtual ceremony. When pitching Blind Cupid to investors, it usually takes a full hour to go into all the detail, so drilling it down to three minutes was a real challenge. I’m thrilled to have won the Best Business Pitch award; it feels like all the hard work is paying off.”

Alexander is currently fundraising for Blind Cupid, with the aim of getting the product on the market within the next three months. Encouragingly, it seems that he’s also hit on an idea that can withstand the current tough economic conditions: “Strangely enough, the dating industry is booming at the moment. Regardless of what’s happening in the economy, people have a natural desire to have someone in their lives romantically, and that doesn’t go away in a recession.

“The decision to do the master’s was a life-changing, life-affirming decision. It’s crazy to think that the idea that I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

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