Universities and entrepreneurship: Achievements and challenges

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, reporting on business engagement for Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Karan Bilimoria

Karan Bilimoria

Support for entrepreneurship in UK universities has come a long way over the past 30 years, according to Lord Bilimoria, CBE, DL, Founder of Cobra beer.

He was speaking with Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck and Fellow of the British Academy, in a conversation that comprised this year’s Lord Marshall Memorial. The discussion was titled, “The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Developing Enterprising Students: The life, career and considerations of Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL”.

What emerged from their conversation were specific ways in which universities can help those with entrepreneurial potential develop tactics and strategy as well as ideas to take to market.

Hosted by the Department of Management, part of Birkbeck’s School of Business Economics and Informatics (BEI) and held annually since 2013, the lecture series commemorates Lord Colin Marshall, former Chairman of Birkbeck’s Board of Governors (2003-2010) and Chief Executive then Chairman of British Airways (1983-2004). Speakers are invited on the basis of their achievements in academia, public service or commerce, and began with Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of International Airlines Group (made up of British Airways and Iberia), followed by David Bernstein CBE, Chairman of the British Red Cross.

Entrepreneurship as vital economic driver

Professor Bourke’s deft questions drew out Lord Bilimoria’s passion, optimism, concerns, observations and reminiscences about entrepreneurship through reflections on his experience and stories from his life, from precociously talented student to continent-spanning business leader and voice for enterprise in the House of Lords.

Lord Bilimoria noted that entrepreneurship, once widely regarded in the UK as unworthy of academic or professional attention, is now seen as a vital economic driver: “We’re behind the curve but… we’re catching up.”

Illustrating this trend, he cited Cranfield’s Business Growth Programme; the popularity of student entrepreneur societies at Cambridge and Oxford; and initiatives such as Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, and Enterprise Tuesday, where members of the University’s community could learn about activities including raising finance, business planning and marketing, hear speakers, enter a competition and earn a certificate. He was also positive about the commercialisation of ideas from university research into business.

Birkbeck’s contributions here include continuous development of its enterprise offering for students and activities in the Department of Management, the expansion of which into the Clore Management Centre and into Stratford testifies to the Department’s rapid growth and achievements.

In addition, nearly 200 years of innovating to adapt study to working lives helps Birkbeck develop its own spirit of practical enterprise and nurture that spirit in its students and their projects, as does the University’s openness to considering partnerships and joint initiatives with other organisations.

Lord Bilimoria: Lifelong learning for entrepreneurship

With his impressive background in education and training, Lord Bilimoria could be seen to personify the value of lifelong learning for entrepreneurship. He qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young (EY) – a profession that, he noted, requires its members to undertake continuing professional development (the kind of development, perhaps, that could also benefit entrepreneurs in taking their ideas to market); he graduated in law from Cambridge, and is an alumnus of the Cranfield School of Management, London Business School and Harvard Business School.

As well as keeping up with fresh approaches and theory, he also found direct, practical benefits through such learning. On the Cranfield Business Growth Programme (“where every participant was a fellow chief executive founder entrepreneur”) he described how he would have two notepads: one for taking notes from the class; the other for jotting down ideas gained through the teaching and through talking with his classmates; and that he would take those ideas back to his business.

He also spent nine years on the Harvard course (“I’m a slow learner!”) and has returned repeatedly for refreshers to keep up with changes.

Asked if, looking back, he would do anything differently, he replied: “I regret not having done a proper doctorate.” Perhaps he would like to remedy that at Birkbeck,Tricia King, the University’s Director of External Relations, suggested good-humouredly.

Entrepreneurs themselves, as well as their ideas, require development and, as Chancellor of University of Birmingham, Lord Bilimoria has focused on teaching, introducing the Teacher of the Year Award, with winners chosen by students. Here the entrepreneurial quality of innovation has proved important in the selection of nominees: “When you read the citations… you see… they think outside the box.”

This sentiment is verified by the Birkbeck Excellence in Teaching Award (BETA), this year won by Dr Wendy Hein of the Department of Management for her innovative and inter-disciplinary teaching.

Asked about diversity, Lord Bilimoria emphasised the value of different perspectives that different backgrounds and cultures can bring, acknowledged much remained to be done, particularly in terms of gender diversity, and rigorously questioned an immigration policy that inhibits institutions from attracting and retaining the most talented staff and students and prevents them from contributing to wider UK society.

This event also illustrated something Lord Bilimoria was clearly too modest to say himself: that universities can provide platforms from which achievers could inspire potential achievers – even towards insights that perhaps only experience can offer.

Many such insights emerged from Lord Bilimoria’s own story. He learned about focus by observing his father: “Clear desk, clear mind”.

He experimented with different ideas, developing the idea for Cobra Beer, and went into business, experiencing the moment of choosing: “Ideas are one thing, action is another… To take that risk, that leap is the first decision…”

Working on the business taught him about partnership: “I teamed up with a business partner… you can’t do it alone…”

When a chance encounter introduced him and his partner to the biggest brewer in India, he also learned about luck, which he defined as “when determination meets opportunity – If you’re determined you’ll see the opportunity, otherwise the opportunities pass you by.” He added: “Luck is something they don’t teach you [at] business school; there are no case studies on luck.”

His determination also served him well when running the enterprise from his home in a small flat (which taught him about every aspect of the business), when spotting opportunities to bounce back from mistakes and from events such as the 2008 financial crisis, and perhaps when seeing the determination in the applicant who was to become a legendary salesman for the business.

Lord Bilimoria’s approach was to hire the best accountants, designers, public relations and advertising agencies and treat them as part of the team, inviting them to annual general meetings (AGMs): “As we grew we realised… we would need to leverage in terms of bringing in advice, because there were very few of us… How could we get people to advise us but treat us as more than just a client?… I remember once overhearing a senior member of the advertising industry and a senior designer saying: ‘I’ve never been to a client AGM before in my life.’”

During the intimate discussion in the Keynes Library other areas were touched upon including the role of philanthropy and the support of  Lady Bilimoria throughout the entrepreneurial journey.

In a moving personal tribute, Lord Bilimoria then said a few warm words about his late friend and mentor, Lord Colin Marshall, his kindness, generosity and sense of humour.

Birkbeck students and staff can watch the full video online (ITS username and password required)

Pictured left to right: Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck; Lady Lynne Heather Bilimoria, Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL; Professor Joanna Bourke, FBA; and Professor Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master (Enterprise and Innovation) and Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Pictured left to right: Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck; Lady Lynne Heather Bilimoria, Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL; Professor Joanna Bourke, FBA; and Professor Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master (Enterprise and Innovation) and Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

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Owl origami is a #bbkhoot!

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

#bbkhootThe stretch between being offered a place at university and actually commencing studies can seem like an eon when you’re looking to start the next chapter of your life.

To help while away those foot-tapping hours and days, we’ve found a great solution (well we think so anyway!) The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students who have been offered a place on one of Birkbeck’s many undergraduate programmes which begin in September have been sent a paper-based challenge, featuring a proud emblem of everything Birkbeck represents: the owl.

The Birkbeck owl is not only a symbol of the College’s evening mode of study, but of our students’ collective drive for knowledge and wisdom. And it also happens to be great to construct out of paper!

With this in mind, flat-packed origami owls have been winging their way (pun unabashedly intended) across the city and beyond, along with handy instructions on how to bring them into three-dimensions.

To offer an extra helping hand to our next wave of students, we’ve put together a quick series of photos to show you how your owl should look at the various stages of construction.

And what then? All you need to do is personalise it (if you wish, but why wouldn’t you want to?) and #bbkhoot it! Send us your photos on Twitter (@BirkbeckNews) and Instagram (@birkbeckuni) with a little message to say why you chose Birkbeck. We look forward seeing your designs. Prizes will be awarded to the top three owls at Orientation on 26 September.

Click on the top left pic below to start the slideshow…

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Behind the scenes extras…

As an added bonus, here’s a picture of our owl (created by Naomi Smith) taking part in its very own photo shoot. You’re welcome.


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Curating Feeling: Understanding Sentimentality in Victorian Art

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Curating-FeelingExploring the representation of emotion in nineteenth-century works of art, Curating Feeling, organised as part of a wider conference on the Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, offered fascinating insights into the relationship between human emotion and cultural artefacts of the Victorian era.

Influencing interpretation

Curator Alison Smith of the Tate Gallery was the first to speak and got things started by looking into how the ways that artefacts are displayed in a space can affect the ways they are observed and how they make us feel.

Using images from previous Tate exhibitions, Smith talked us through how the layout and colour of the spaces in which artworks are exhibited, as well as the language that is used to describe their history and meaning, can play a part in influencing how they are perceived and interpreted.

She made the point that, whilst it is no longer the curator’s job to care for cultural artefacts, it is their purpose to create a certain mood and to display items in such a way as to tell a story without or over-influencing the emotional effect that they have on the viewer.

Meaning derived from spectator’s own emotion

Next up was University of Warwick Professor, Michael Hatt, who questioned whether it’s possible to curate feeling, arguing that cultural artefacts do not speak for themselves when it comes to the feelings which they convey. Instead, he suggested, meaning is derived according to the spectator’s own emotions, which are projected onto artworks at the time of observation.

Focusing on sculpture in particular, Hatt concluded by suggesting that Victorian examples may at first seem devoid of sentiment, but that what they are really doing is asking the viewer to explore their own emotions rather than telling them what or how to feel.

Curating traumatic experience

Toward the end we heard from Dr Victoria Mills, who shared some of the challenges that she has faced whilst curating the forthcoming exhibition on fallen women for The Foundling Museum (runs 25 Sept 2015 to 3 Jan 2016).

With non-marital relationships being severely frowned upon in Victorian Britain, many of the women in question petitioned to leave their illegitimate babies in the care of the Foundling Hospital, where they would be looked after until they were old enough to work.

The petitions give intimate details as to how the women became pregnant in the first place, some referring to instances of rape, violence and stalking, which, Mills told us, has made choosing which of them to share and how to share them in a respectful way very difficult.

Understanding through that which is not present

Adding to this was Birkbeck School of ArtsProfessor Lynda Nead, who argued that whilst it’s easy to view the women’s petitions as hard evidence of tragedy and trauma, it could be due to their fear of exclusion from society rather than truth that they were inclined to give details of sexual assault to explain their situation.

In a society which disregarded female sexuality and desire, the women may not have felt comfortable sharing information about adulterous or non-marital relationships with men who they were in fact in love with. Nead finished by stating the importance of considering collective emotions when considering the sentiments attached to artefacts from the era, as it may be those feelings which are not present that enable us to better understand.

Raising important questions about the nature of nineteenth-century sentimentality and the factors which affect our interpretation of emotion in artworks from the era, this conference offered fascinating insights into a subject which is becoming a growing area of interest for scholars, and which I am also now keen to learn more about.

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MA Literature Review Show 2015: Identity

This post was contributed by Megan McGill who is currently undertaking an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck

MA-Modern-LiteratureThe MA Review Show for students of Modern and Contemporary Literature, and Contemporary Literature and Culture, opened up discussion for various pieces of media from recent months, inviting comparison between them in the hopes to spark some interesting ideas.

The items in question were:

These items were presented under with the theme of ‘identity’ and discussions were opened after a short introduction for each. The panel included students Karina Cicero, Francis Gene-Rowe, Jenna Johnston, Polly Kemp, and Megan McGill, and was chaired by Dr Joe Brooker, and Dr Caroline Edwards.

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Polly introduced to the audience the first item, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, with a 2013 quotation from Frieze Magazine on the idea of frescoes, something that features heavily in the novel, and directly references the artwork from within its pages:

When gods go into exile what do they do? They put on their multi-layered travelling coats and embark on a journey through time. As migrants, they don the costumes of the countries they traverse, until an art work opens up a space in which they can shed their disguise and be free. This is an image Aby Warburg evoked in a lecture he gave in Rome in 1922, to illustrate how key visual motifs pass from one culture to another over the centuries before their dormant potential is awakened by an artist.

The case Warburg makes for Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy (c. 1469). They are part of a cycle depicting the months of the year. Seven of the original works have been recovered, including the three that Del Cossa was commissioned to pain: March, April and May. Their pictorial language is as captivating as it is hermetic. Strange characters abound. Warburg defines them as astrological powers governing the months, allegorically embodied by celestial figures from antiquity.

The discussion moves quickly to the fluidity of identity, potentially the most prominent theme in the novel, comparing the text to Jackie Kay’s Trumpet and the work of Jeanette Winterson.

Discussions, however, lead further on to whether our identity is defined by the value of what we do and what we make, linking to an extract from the book where George’s mother asks her if she thinks people should be paid more if they think their work is better than those doing the same work.

The identity of Franchesco as the ‘dead narrator’, something seen before in the work of Beckett, was also brought up in regards to whether her section was a true mystical event, or just George’s imagination spurred by her discussion with H on how Italians from the Renaissance would speak.

Christopher Williams, ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ at Whitechapel Gallery

The next item discussed was the Christopher Williams exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery titled ‘The Production Line of Happiness’. A few members of the panel were able to visit the exhibition. The exhibition is described on the gallery’s website as follows:

Williams’ exquisite prints reveal the unexpected beauty and cultural resonance of commercial, industrial and instructional photography. Often working with set designers, models and technicians, Williams’ technically precise pictures recall Cold War era imagery and 1960s advertising, as well as invoking histories of art, photography and cinema.

His photographs are elements at play in a larger system including architecture, exhibition design, books, posters, videos, vitrines and signage that investigates the state sets of the art world and the publicity structures on which they rely. From his renowned 1989 studies of botanical specimens, Angola to Vietnam, to the hyper-real colour saturated studies of kitchenware made in 2014, this first survey of Williams’ work in the UK immerses us in visually enthralling and politically resonant lines of enquiry.

The exhibition looks into the dependence of commercialisation in photography, also playing on the idea of commodity fetishisation. Williams removes all negative context (e.g. slave labour) from his images of domesticity, leaving them shiny and yet discomforting in their perfection, challenging the idea of apolitical photography.

Other discomforts are included in the exhibition to forcibly engage the audience, including a lack of captions and hanging the photos below eye level. His catalogue available in the exhibition provides the audience with the captions the walls lack, adding the context that gives his photographs meaning and reinserting the politics into the material.

Williams’ photos are not entirely his own, as he takes photographs of other photographs and recontextualises them through his amendments and captions. This reinsertion of is a method of revealing/concealing, creating a palimpsest similar to the frescoes featured in Ali Smith’s work and editing their ‘identity’.

Carol Morley’s The Falling

Following on from discussion of the exhibition came a trailer for Carol Morley’s The Falling, telling the story of an outbreak of fainting at an all-girls school in the 1960s. Initial comparisons were drawn with Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, focusing on the topics of schoolgirl madness and intense relationships. Many clichés of the genre and time in which the film was set were then brought to light, as well as the elements of a British Gothic tradition e.g. mystery, mysticism, the countryside, spooky music.

Many watchers found the film incredibly farcical and often amusing at times as a reaction of the girls’ hysteria that, in the end, had no real explanation. But did the film need an explanation to serve its purpose?

The most popular element for the audience was the performance of Maisie Williams, whose character becomes a force of nature as the film progresses in a story of self-discovery versus self-destruction. Other positive comments came from the fact of its female director and her portrayal of sexuality in an arthouse film as non-voyeuristic, humorous, and warm at times. This fluidity of sexuality portrayed in the film links incredibly closely to what can be seen in the Ali Smith text, once again focusing strongly on the idea of identity and at what age we become who we truly are. The girls in the film are attempting to become an autonomous female body that feels, through liberated sexual awakening.

Channel 4’s The Vote

After many positive comments on the items covered so far, discussion moved to the less popular The Vote, a live theatre performance broadcasted on Channel 4 on Election Day. Initial disappointed comments highlighted how it focused mainly on the political process rather than political ideas, positively showing the different political motivations of the diverse electorate.

Someone questioned whether in its lack of substance and focus on process rather than politics it served as a perfect metaphor for the election itself, showing what’s wrong with the current political situation. It was also questioned whether its value was undermined by the actual election result the following morning, with the whole programme setting up for a hung parliament when, in reality, the election wasn’t close at all.

Aaron Diaz’s ‘Dark Science’ arc, Dresden Codak

Finally, the discussion moved on to the ‘Dark Science’ arc of Aaron Diaz’s webcomic Dresden Codak. The world of ‘Dark Science’ is one post-singularity, highly technologized and visually stratified, its underbelly in plain view to the reader, dangling across the panels.

As a visual piece it certainly fits the Samuel Delany quotation that the landscape in a piece can be the primary character. Discussion, from this point, expanded to the cinematic technique of the webcomic and how it flashes between narratives, leaving the reader unsure on what to expect next. The look of the comic also reminded an audience member of contact sheets for films, showing everything that has been shot but still clearly conveying movement in a montage-like fashion.

It was noted from the medium of the webcomic is free from the publication format and can be seen in this example as used as a way to educate an audience on science, rather than satirising the subject. The highly technical language used forces the audience to engage, like with the techniques Christopher Williams used in his exhibition, by seeking understanding in the finer details.

On the overarching theme of identity, it was concluded that the main idea of identity in this arc of Dresden Codak was that on ‘when do we stop becoming human?’ in regards to transhumanism and the self-repair using robotics that the protagonist, Kim, undergoes. Is there a particular percentage of body mass that needs to be human flesh, or is there a certain group of criteria you must be able to fulfil? This is the question the audience left with as the review show drew to a close.

Thank you to everybody who came to participate in the MA Review Show, whether in the audience or a panellist, and thank you to both Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards for chairing such a successful event. The discussions were enlightening and the enthusiasm inspiring.

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