Women Talk Tech: Continued…

This post was contributed by Birkbeck MSc computer Science student Liudmila Veshneva. She attended the Women talk Tech event organised between Birkbeck’s Careers & Employability service and Girls in Tech. This blog follows from fellow student, Aida Zibaite’s recent blog article.

Women in TechI have recently attended “Women Talk Tech – How I transformed my career”, an event organised by Birkbeck and Girls in Tech. Because I found the speakers so incredibly inspiring and because I believe so much of what was said will resonate not only with many women on their journey into tech world, but also with anyone going through career change I decided to share my own thoughts on the subject.

Sinead Mac Manus, Founder & CEO of Fluency, Nathalie Richards, Founder & CEO of Edukit and Harveen Chugh, Entrepreneurship Consultant to universities, start-ups and government shared their experiences of leaving successful corporate careers and well-paid jobs to start their own businesses in the social enterprise sector.

A number of interesting issues came up during the talk. One that had me nodding in agreement was on the topic of confidence. It seems that women are particularly prone to suffer from lack of confidence and I am not an exception. On numerous occasions it has been mentioned to me that I need to be more vocal. Knowing about this shortcoming and making conscious effort to overcome it has definitely helped. I have never done anything as drastic as Nathalie Richards who became a stand-up comedian to overcome her fear of public speaking, but even small steps can make a big difference and open new opportunities which women are systematically missing because they underestimate what they are capable of. Rita Usanga, Digital Media Specialist and Cofounder of InvestWell, who was moderating the event, encouraged everyone to “feel the fear” and do something outside of their comfort zone as a way to improve on the front of confidence.

Finding a mentor was another good piece of advice shared during the talk. It is especially relevant at the start of one’s career. Having had a supportive and encouraging manager myself, I appreciate the impact he had on my professional journey. Unfortunately, finding the right mentor can be a challenge, at least in my recent experience, even with numerous schemes set up to encourage women into tech. Of course it is not the reason to stop looking; the benefits of support and guidance are irrefutable.

Women in Tech (l-r) Rita Usanga, Nathalie Richards, Harveen Chugh and Sinead Mac Manus

Women in Tech (l-r) Rita Usanga, Nathalie Richards, Harveen Chugh and Sinead Mac Manus

One question from the audience that I would like to highlight was whether sharing your ideas with other entrepreneurs is good practice. And Sinead was very adamant in answering: “yes”. She explained that majority of success in starting your own business comes from right and swift implementation. Share your ideas without revealing your “secret sauce” was Nathalie’s advice. I would like to expand on this topic and encourage sharing good advice, experiences and opportunities.

Listening to these strong-willed, hardworking and purpose-driven women, their stories, learning about challenges they overcome on daily basis and seeing how determined they are to persevere made me feel less alone and, to put it mildly, “insane” about starting my own journey into tech. It certainly was not an easy choice in my case, especially after some reactions I got from my friends, family and colleagues when I told them about my decision to quit my hard-earned job in banking and start all over again in a completely unrelated industry. When I am feeling particularly doubtful about my choice to take a plunge, I only need to imagine what my life would have been like if I didn’t and it all falls back into place. It also helps to remember a quote by Beverly Sills: “You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try”. For me personally, regret is one of the worst feelings I had to deal with, and regret of not trying your best has very long shelf life.

Read more about the Women in Tech event here

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How to be both: An audience with author Ali Smith

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard attended the 2015 Man Booker at Birkbeck event, featuring Man Booker 2014 shortlisted author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

On 16 November, in a lively, humorous exchange, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Ali Smith discussed her Booker Prize nominated novel, How To Be Both (2014). This dazzling, rambunctious novel features two self-contained but intertwined stories: one follows the travails of Italian Renaissance fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life artist who painted a series of elaborate allegorical frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, northern Italy; the other story tells of George, a bereaved twenty-first-century teenager who is remembering a family trip to Italy to view del Cossa’s frescos in the ‘Palace of Not Being Bored’.

With its focus on Renaissance art, and painting in particular, the novel is itself a diptych – or ‘dipstick’, as Smith drolly punned to the audience – presenting two separate but intersecting stories in dialogue with one another. The diptych – which literally means ‘two fold’ in ancient Greek – is, Smith explained, book-like in its construction, with hinges that enable it to be closed and transported, making it an appealingly ‘swivel-able form’. In the UK, the book was published in dual form, with half of the copies opening with the del Cossa narrative and the other half opening with the story of George. Smith recounted with delight how the printers hired ‘muddlers’ to randomise the packing of the books and ensure that shops carried both versions of the novel. For Smith, it is important that readers can ‘upend’ the novel and ‘it still works’.

Confounding binary oppositions

Ali Smith-How to be bothThe novel delights in interrogating, unpicking and confounding the binarised oppositions that organise and delimit human life and relationships: male and female; straight and gay; past and present; and even alive and dead. The complex twisting and interleaving of the two stories typifies the ways in which history, memory, feeling, gender and sexuality elude and shrug off human categorisation. George is a boyish young woman with a man’s name who falls in love with another woman, whereas del Cossa is a woman who uses concealment and disguise to reinvent herself as a male artist. The del Cossa narrative opens poetically and strangely with the forcible resurrection of the long-dead del Cossa, who finds herself standing in the National Gallery in London, observing George – whom she mistakes for a boy – scrutinising del Cossa’s stern portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican friar and missionary. The painting is real and is indeed hanging in the National Gallery.

Interestingly, Smith confessed that George’s gender identity was indeterminate when she started working on the novel; it was only later that George became female. Indeed, Smith described the fictional creation of character as a mode of channelling, in which characters arrive fully formed and the task of the novelist is to give them the necessary attention and time to allow their voices to come through. The voice of del Cossa was the first that Smith heard, forcing her to discard 90 pages of the novel she had written and leaving her only seven months in which to complete and submit the manuscript. George’s voice and syntax came, fully formed, about half-way through this rewrite. Smith offered several helpful tips for budding authors, stressing the importance of ‘editing as writing’ and focusing on repetitions, as ‘they’re the things you’re most interested in’. The novel, like its characters, must be patiently listened to and Smith repeatedly emphasised the importance of voice in writing.

del Cossa, a man in and out of history

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

How To Be Both is concerned with history and memory, with what is remembered and how – and what is lost. As Smith observed, humans need to live in three dimensions, to feel connected to the past and the future simultaneously. Del Cossa was a real artist, although we know very little about him: he was born in Ferrara in 1435 or 1436, the son of a stonemason, and he died aged forty, in Ferrara, possibly of the plague. In later times, Del Cossa’s frescos were plastered over and the room used as a tobacco store until, Smith explained, the plaster flaked off in the 1840s and the frescos were rediscovered. Archival letters, in which del Cossa angrily demands more money from his patron (a request his patron loftily refused), are another scanty source of evidence.

The unknown history of the artist, however, gave Smith licence to re-gender and reimagine the life of del Cossa; as Smith drolly admitted, ‘I got away with it!’ In the 1960s, floods in Italy hastened the temporary removal of the frescos from their walls, which further revealed what Smith called the ‘under-versions’ or original sketches and images that had been painted over. The frescos thus stand as a metaphor for thinking about human life and history as a palimpsest, with layers of accretion and loss shaping what becomes ‘History’ or collective memory. Smith gleefully confessed to her excitement in bringing to light the ‘undertows’ that are wilfully concealed or later forgotten.

Thus, in the novel, George is anxious that all that is forgotten is lost, making history little more than a horrifying charnel house. Her mother, though, has a more mystical understanding, insisting that that which has existed does not simply cease because we can no longer see, experience or remember it. For Smith, it is Art that takes us to a timeless place of fragile ‘lastingness’ within ourselves. She spoke of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’), the moment of epiphany instigated by Art, in which we know we are truly alive and time disappears. Smith also spoke of the novelists’ frustration with the form, as it cannot escape the temporal sequence of action and consequence and is incapable of simultaneously representing the simultaneous occurrences of everyday life.

To know George’s future, the reader must journey back into the life of del Cossa, although, if you encounter the del Cossa section first, you will know (but not necessarily fully understand) George’s future before you know her past. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Hilary Mantel, Smith has written a historical novel of sorts, although Smith’s is formally inventive and playfully cuts across genres. Smith admitted that her knowledge of the Renaissance was limited and she undertook broad-brush research to immerse herself in the period without being overwhelmed by details. Smith thus urged the creative writing students in the audience to research lightly in order to give themselves ‘imaginative space’.

Under surveillance

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

The novel is also concerned with surveillance, observation, witnessing and spectatorship, in all their benevolent and more menacing forms. Indeed, Smith insisted to the audience that ‘surveillance is the story of our times’. George’s mother, whose voice we only hear via George’s recollections, is worried that her past, radical political activities mean she is under state surveillance, while George herself obsessively watches Lisa Goliard, a friend of her mother’s. George angsts about the ethics of watching and is particularly concerned that the pained performer in a pornographic scene she has watched online is stuck in what Smith called a ‘kind of continual present’. George thus obsessively and continually witnesses and memorialises the performer’s suffering. Our contemporary culture of forcible remembrance is, for Smith, ‘lovely and kind of appalling’, as we have lost the old ability to let go of, and simply forget, the past. Similarly, by scrutinising the painting of St. Vincent, George miraculously and unintentionally resurrects the spirit of del Cossa, who silently watches her. To foreground the ethics of watching, the illustrated frontispiece to the del Cossa story, drawn by Smith’s partner Sarah Wood, features del Cossa’s image of the gouged out eyes of Saint Lucy, which he painted not on a platter, as is usual in Renaissance iconography of the saint, but growing from a small sprout.

Although Smith attentively and gamely engaged with the various readings of her novel proffered by the audience, she ultimately reasserted the work’s capaciousness and playfulness of spirit, insisting ‘I’m not going to tell you what to think about the book.’ For Smith, ‘the reading experience is really volatile’ and she expounded how rereading shifts a novel’s meanings and resonances for us.

This was the fifth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Hilary Mantel – and this lively exchange further confirmed and extended the success of this rewarding partnership. As David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, observed in his opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge, bringing the best of contemporary fiction to the widest possible audience, and belying cramped, utilitarian approaches to education.

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Women Talk Tech

This post was contributed by Aida Zibaite, current student of Birkbeck’s Foundation Degree in Information Technology.  Aida attended the Women talk Tech event organised between Birkbeck’s Careers & Employability service and Girls in Tech.

Women in Tech (l-r) Rita Usanga, Nathalie Richards, Harveen Chugh and Sinead Mac Manus

Women in Tech (l-r) Rita Usanga, Nathalie Richards, Harveen Chugh and Sinead Mac Manus

Last week I attended ‘Women Talk Tech –How I transformed my Career’ held at WeWork Spitafields. It was a talk with three truly inspiring Birkbeck alumnae: Sinead Mac Manus, Founder & CEO of Fluency; Nathalie Richards, Founder & CEO of Edukit; and Harveen Chugh, Specialist in Entrepreneurship & former Growth manager for the UK government`s Sirius Programme.

Firstly, Rita Usanga, the moderator and a very passionate woman in tech herself, set the mood by asking the panel to reflect on their careers over the past decade – a question I would personally dread the most in a job interview! Their responses captured my attention and compelled me to share my own thoughts.

These very successful ladies studied Bioinformatics, Arts Management and Migration Studies at Birkbeck whilst pursuing their respective careers, at some point realising they didn’t quite enjoy it and they needed to make a change. Through trial and error, high challenges and risks they became who they are now – digital technology entrepreneurs.

At that point I had a few questions buzzing in my head:

  • What message are they trying to convey by sharing their success stories?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What is the driving force behind their success?
  • What are their core values?
  • Or simply, from my bewildered girl in tech point of view: What problem are they trying to solve tonight?

The conversation made me think about my own experiences as a woman studying computer science. Recently, I attended a tech workshop at Birkbeck held by a software development firm. I was one of three women in the room with another 20 men, the majority of them tech students. I couldn’t help thinking that, although the men had many questions and were taking full advantage of the opportunity to seek advice on their own career development, the women remained silent.

I raised my hand and asked: How many women are there among the 30 employees in your company? Suddenly, the room went silent. There was a very long pause and then I got my answer: five female employees. Only two of them have some software development skills and not a single one of them are in an IT role.

So the key message I took from the event is that there is an evident lack of women in this field yet, believe me, there are so many of us who can code, solve problems, create innovative ideas and overall add so much value to bring success to any business. However, at the same time, it made me more determined. A passion for tech has life-changing potential. Moreover, reflecting back on that evening’s truly inspirational stories I have to agree with Rita’s opinion that books cannot prepare you for the reality of working in Tech. You have to get out there, network, make valuable connections, find your passion and possibly find mentors to guide you along the way into finding your own magical path to this ever-evolving world and make your own impact. The question is what is holding you back and why don’t you start today?

I would like to sum up with a final thought: One’s time is very valuable and irreplaceable in terms of how one chooses to spend it. I certainly made an investment that night and only time will show its return. Hopefully it will turn out to be something I can measure and share in value to be able to humbly give back a similar yet very unique gift to my own to college community and other women in Tech.

Read more about the Women in Tech event here

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Sport Business Centre public seminar considers value of strategic thinking

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, Business Engagement Reporter, Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Image courtesy of Andy Watson-Smith under CC via Flickr.com

Sport can play an important role in the UK’s health and prosperity. To fulfil that role the many different elements of UK sport must find a strategy around which to unite – and through which to engage individuals and organisations at all levels, local, national and international.

This message emerged in a public seminar organised by the Sport Business Centre in Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

Entitled public Affairs in Sport and Business: How to Influence the Influencers, the seminar took place on Monday 26 October at the British Medical Association (BMA) in Tavistock Square.

The evening was a forum for panellists and audience, including prominent representatives from various sports, to debate a subject given added urgency by the impending government spending review on 25 November, when cuts in many areas are likely, emphasising the challenge the sports community faces in communicating and gaining support to enable the contributions sports can make to society.

The event also demonstrated the Sport Business Centre’s role as a hub and meeting point for academics, students, industry professionals, members of the public and others, where they can discuss and develop ideas, initiatives and ongoing working relationships.

On the panel were:

What is public affairs?

The session began with a definition of terms (from Ben Andersen-Tuffnell). Public affairs were seen as the management of an organisation’s interaction with stakeholders, particularly regarding reputation or policy goals, which can set a tone for debates that may decide legislation the organisation must navigate if it is to prosper.

An effective public affairs strategy requires careful planning: identifying stakeholders, many of which may have conflicting interests, from local and regional to national and international levels; considering the influences upon and of each stakeholder (the loudest voices are not always the most influential); and tailoring bottom-up and top-down approaches to suit different circumstances and communicate the message.

That message has to be well prepared for different audiences, succinct, with clear aims and vision, and based on evidence. In turn, the process of communication has to be similarly well-planned and responsive to circumstances.

Tactics versus strategy

When the seminar considered this outline in terms of sport, the sector was seen to have prioritised tactics over strategy, short-term survival over long-term goals, one possible reason being the comparative difficulty in measuring the return on investment of a public affairs strategy with a 20 or 30-year view, the benefits of which might be easier to acknowledge than to quantify.

In pursuit of that longer-term view, an observation from the floor found support for the idea that sport could look to the House of Lords, recognised as a valuable source of expertise and experience (such as that of Paralympic Champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson or of Olympic Champion and Ambassador, Olympic Legacy, Lord Sebastian Coe), where the status of members has allowed debates to take longer-term perspectives and to offer more space for alternative views, less wedded to party politics and the short-term funding cycles of governments and the House of Commons.

Baroness Grey-Thompson and Lord Coe are just two of UK sport’s powerful supporters; and the seminar noted the sector’s considerable assets, in the form of celebrated, popular events and individuals, to help promote an overall strategy – even more important now, with fundamental change to sports funding expected after November’s government review and with the Rio Olympics in 2016.

To implement such a strategic goal the need was to emphasise the value of sport in promoting physical, emotional, intellectual, social, environmental and economic wellbeing via widespread participation in activities that could help provide positive alternatives to antisocial behaviour and nurture happier, healthier individuals. The positive profile of elite sport could be used to help increase such participation. The emphasis was therefore on top-level sporting excellence as a means to an end rather than end in itself.

Looking beyond the DCMS

Given that vision of sport as contributing to various aspects of health, the sector could focus on its relevance to many different areas apart from the obvious ones, and on establishing relationships with government departments other than the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), important though that is. The Department of Education is one of those other departments, with 80% of Sports Leaders UK’s remit focusing on working with schools and colleges, including helping young people use sport to develop leadership skills that can then be applied in work and other areas.

Another cited example was the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as the sports-related concept of active travel such as walking or cycling could be jointly promoted as reducing pollution from cars or buses and benefiting the environment as well as individuals’ health; and that link between appropriate sporting activity and health immediately suggests joint initiatives with the Department of Health and the NHS.

In terms of specific schemes, the role of Manchester City and its Etihad Campus project in regenerating a large area of Manchester was cited (by Dominic Goggins) as another example of sport’s wider social role. The regeneration is in turn set to reward the football club, with new links to local organisations and even China, following the inclusion of the campus on the Chinese itinerary for the country’s recent state visit.

State of play

While Etihad showed what could be achieved, it was also seen to exemplify the prominence of individual projects compared with an absence of an overall sports strategy, with projects existing in “silos” rather as part of a coordinated whole. Individual groups might have strategies, but not sport as one sector.

The seminar debated that, in this respect, sport differed from the arts, to which it looks by way of comparison, because sports bodies have not had to combine their efforts before, (funding changes are likely to alter this), and because it has only become professional recently, relative to sectors such as the arts.

So if there was a national sports strategy, what might it look like? The seminar debated that the strategic goal could be to help make Britain the most physically active nation in the world by 2020-2025. In this, members of the panel noted that the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the umbrella body for the national governing bodies of sport, might be able to play a more strategic role.

However, the feeling was that to embark on this would require a shift towards strategic thinking that may have started but still has a long way to go, that this start has come too late to be effective in the coming spending review, and that political support for such a strategy is currently low.

The UK’s gap between sporting vision and implementation was seen as significant and there was an observed need to learn from missed opportunities. In this context, while London 2012 was seen to show what coordination across many groups over a clear strategy could achieve, that success was partial.

For example, could the 500,000 people who had signed up in 2005 as volunteers for London 2012 have been given more training and involvement in sport in those seven years pre-2012, especially given UK sport’s reliance on volunteers?

Also related to 2012, an audience member remarked that the Olympic pool in Stratford was expensive to use and largely empty, with a school having to fundraise to pay for slots, rather than gaining central support and encouragement to use the pool.

Opportunities and challenges

The panellists’ presentations and subsequent question-and-answer session moved at a rapid pace, covering a great deal of ground in the allotted time and providing an initial platform for thought-provoking ideas.

The fact that the distinguished headquarters of the BMA was the venue for this Sport Business Centre event reflected the role of sport in promoting health and the grounds for cooperation between different bodies in promoting sport.

Overall, there was a sense that Britain’s sporting achievements offer inspiring opportunities to promote public health, and that the country faces considerable challenges in creating an environment to grasp those opportunities.

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