In Conversation: London Alumni

Q&A session

Shoreditch was the venue for a special panel discussion involving six graduates from the University – all with very different experiences and at different points in their careers.

Aneta Nastaj, psychology graduate from 2017, and a member of the London Alumni Committee, posed the questions.

LR: Aneta Nastaj, Olivia Allan, Antony Micallef, Mark Ussher, Maria Thaller, Rachel Lambert-Forsyth, Moon Ali-Choudhrey

Antony Micallef (BA (Hons) Fine Art, 1998). Widely recognised as one of the finest painters in contemporary art today, Antony has work in collections all over the world and has exhibited in group shows in institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy, Tate Britain and the ICA London

Mark Ussher (BSc Combined Business (Information Management), 2005). An entrepreneur and strategist, Mark works with brands – both personal and professional – to grow their influence. He has also raised millions of pounds for charity through his start-up The Sports Media Agency.

Maria Thaller (BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy, 2014). A qualified physiotherapist, Maria has worked for Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, and Guy's and St. Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust in London. As a student, she spent three months volunteering in a remote leprosy colony in Vietnam.

Moon Ali-Choudhrey (BSc (Hons) Computer Systems and Networks, 2011. With experience in IT, business and sales at organisations including Canon and TP-Link UK, Moon is currently managing the Microsoft Alliance, driving success through digital cloud transformation and change management in the software division of Capita Plc.

Rachel Lambert-Forsyth (BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology, 2007; MSc Sustainable Environmental Management, 2008). As Director of Membership and Professional Affairs at the Royal Society of Biology, Rachel works with the Chief Executive and Trustees to ensure good governance of the Society. She has a remit for membership recruitment and retention, professional development and training, development and training, accreditation, and national and regional events.

Olivia Allan (BA (Hons) Art History, 2017). After completing her degree, Olivia moved to London to pursue a career in the art world, becoming an Art Technician for Sotheby’s. She has now progressed into the Sotheby’s Book Department where her role is more focused upon antiquarian books.

What has been the most significant moment in your career to date?

Rachel Lambert-Forsyth (RLF): For me, it was actually the first day of my job at the Royal Society of Biology in London. I arrived at the office, in what I thought was going to be an administrative role. And about two hours into the day I got a call from the CEO who asked me to come into his office. I thought ‘oh no, this is my first day’. And essentially he told me that my boss was leaving, the organisation was merging, and that they had plans but they weren’t sure what they would be – and was I OK with that?! And the big turning point was that two months later, my boss left, the organisation merged and in that interim period they did not recruit anyone to manage me, so I just had to get on with things. Within less than a year of graduation, I was head of the department, and from that I was able to build leadership skills. It would have been easy to run away from that opportunity because it was scary and I didn’t know what I was doing – I was winging it – but I went with it, and it gave me a really exciting start to my career.

Moon Ali-Choudhrey (MAC): For me it was when I resigned from Microsoft and took a career break. I took one year out to rediscover myself and that enabled me to see the world from a different point of view. So this brings me into my current roll at Capita, which had not existed before in the organisation. I went into it with no job description – they invited me in and created the roll for me. Going from job-to-job-to-job is not necessarily an indicator of success. Sometimes it is good to take a step back and rediscover yourself.

Maria Thaller (MT): Along those same lines, when I was graduating, I was lucky to get the Roland Levinsky Fund, which allowed me to go to Vietnam and do some physiotherapy there. I lived in a leprosy village, which was an eye-opening experience. The quality of life was very different. A lot of people were amputees, quite a few of them having lost both legs and arms, and were blind and deaf. I also worked with veterans from the Vietnam War and children still being born with disabilities due to Agent Orange. Overall, I got so much out of those three months in Vietnam, and that fed into when I came to London a few years later – it was that that made the difference. You can stay in your career, but if there is something you really want to do, even if it is a bit random, then just go and do it. You’ll be able to get a job when you get back because it all goes to build experience.

Mark Ussher (MU): For me, I was working on a project for a business and I put a lot of time and effort into creating it. I took the concept to my then boss expecting it to be a revelation and everyone to be excited. Unfortunately that was not what happened – everyone looked at me and said ‘that’s never going to work, that’s never going to happen – you may as well forget it’. I didn’t agree, and it was a pivotal moment when I realised I wasn’t always going to be a good employee, I was much better off being the person making the decisions and directing my career. I quit my job, started to build a website in my bedroom, and developed my business, Run For Charity. It helped me realise even if someone puts you down, there are so many opportunities out there and better ways of doing things. It opened up my creativity, and I decided, yes, I am going to tackle problems. Yes, I need other people to help me and I won’t always be right, but the reality is that it is those moments where you feel you have the courage and conviction of what you’re doing that are key.

Antony Micallef (AM): I agree with Mark. In the creative industries, the hardest thing is getting your foot through the door. I trained as a fine artist and taught myself every single graphic design package just so that I could get a job. And I did get a job as a graphic designer – I actually applied for the wrong job but they gave it to me because I was so keen!! I did that in Brighton for eight years, a 9-5 job, and I would then paint in the studio. I would then find editors, get every email address and annoy people. I would send them my work, and out of 20 emails, I’d get one reply back. And then I’d appear in one magazine, and off the back of that, a bigger magazine would come calling. So it builds like that and you have to have this conviction. Then I came second in the BP Portrait Award and it was everything I ever wanted at the time. I had a pile of rejection letters from galleries, which, as a creative, you have to go through at the time. You get a lot of disappointment, but it makes you more bullet-proof. It’s what started me off. 

Olivia Allen (OA): Wow – you have had such amazing careers! I actually don’t think I have had my big turning point yet. I am definitely experiencing new opportunities to learn every day, and how to adapt to new situations. But I haven’t yet had that big turning point.

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How did Plymouth prepare you for the experiences you’ve talked about?

AM: When you’re studying, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across people who inspire you. Through my studies, I met three different people like that, and they were the ones who give me the courage to make those big stepping stones to jump ahead. If you have that, it prepares you.

OA: I completely agree. ‘First year Olivia’ was very shy, no self-worth at all, and didn’t think she was worth being at university. But I was so lucky in that I had an amazing tutor and she made me really believe that I deserved to be doing a degree and that I have a passion that I should pursue. If she hadn’t been so supportive of me, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. 

MU: Understanding how to learn new things was probably the most valuable thing. You can learn anything having passed modules – it doesn’t apply to just the subject you studied; you ‘learn to learn’. That is the thing I probably picked up slightly later than I wish I had done, but once I remembered it again, it really helped, because I went after all of those things that I needed to improve within my business or myself and I learned how to improve them. I don’t need to specialise in one subject and be an expert – I can learn lots of different things, and having a broader understanding gives you a much better point of view. You only get that from university.

I have a question for Rachel at this point. You mentioned that you jumped into a senior role, and I know that you struggled sometimes with people thinking you were quite young for that role. How did you manage this?

RLF: It was something I struggled with. I know that I am not alone in this, but I definitely felt some imposter syndrome for the first few years. I would go into rooms and feel that people were not listening to what I was saying, but looking at how I looked, and thinking that I had not had many years out of university. I was sitting in rooms with the likes of the Secretary of State for Education and telling them what should be in the biology curriculum for 5-19 education. So that is the sort of level I was. I wasn’t a teacher, I had a policy background and a bioscience background. I was a scientist and I needed to have my evidence in front of me. So I went round and spoke to everyone that I knew who could inform me, who could give the information I needed to go back into that room and know my stuff, and have that research background, that thoroughness that meant I could respond to the pushback. And what it also did was enable me to find my voice. I began to realise that just because I was articulating my view in a slightly different way, it didn’t matter. I knew what I was talking about. So my advice to anyone else is make sure you do know what you’re talking about. Don’t wing it too much – it will get you so far but then it will fall apart, particularly in a science environment. And find your champions.

What was your biggest challenge in establishing your career?

AM: I think it is just discipline – well for me personally. If you’re a creative, you are generally on your own most of the time and working weird hours. If you’re self-employed, it is getting up and getting on with stuff all the time. And also, you’re not in contact with a lot of people and there are days when you think this is not going anywhere. 

OA: The biggest challenge for me when trying to find a job was keeping that motivation and self-confidence. I was getting so many rejections, it was difficult to keep going. Being able to overcome that, to know what you want to do and that you will get there eventually, is key. You only need one ‘yes’.

MU: One of the hardest things is finding your purpose. Within your career you will have lots of opportunities, which you might think that you are supposed to take. But it is not until you find your purpose that you can begin to appreciate the difference you can make. Some people get to the end of their career and think they never found it, and maybe that is because they didn’t think about it or look for it. I put in checkpoints where I ask ‘am I achieving what I want to achieve?’ One of the biggest challenges is keeping yourself in check and realising when you’re doing a good job. Keep your motivation up by giving yourself that understanding. It’s hard. One of the biggest challenges in my career was learning to accept where I am and be happy with where I have got to.

MT: In healthcare we are lucky that there is a lot of diversity. And when you gain experience in an area, you get confident there and it is easy to go along with that, rather than thinking ‘What could be better? Where can I go further? Where can I develop this?’ And it might be that you don’t have that opportunity in work time and that you need to study or put hours into a project outside of work time. It would be easy to go in, finish on time and go home. It’s having the drive and motivation to do more.

MAC: For me, when I was at Microsoft I was getting paid well. I had taken the business from £3m to £35m turnover, but very quickly I realised it wasn’t right for me. I got myself a mentor at the time who helped me to understand not so much business life, but actual life. One of things he pointed out was the Eisenhower Matrix which was to do with how you plan your life around urgency and importance. I did this for my life, which led to me leaving Microsoft and taking a career break. Through that year, I applied the matrix to learn more about myself and move out of the world of sales and into the world of business. I turned 31 this year, and many of the people I work with are in their 50s. And I sometimes have to go into a room and tell them they are wrong. So the advice I would give to you is ‘know who you are and stand your ground’. When you go home, apply that matrix to your life. It will really work.

Did you have any mentors in your life?

RL: Mine is my current boss. He has been my champion, the one who supported me through my career. While I have been there I have had two children and he has been able to provide a greater career-life balance and flexibility. I have been able to have that conversation because he’s been so supportive.

MAC: I don’t think I need a mentor at this stage. But yes, having mentors and role models is a good thing. But make sure your mentor does not drive your life. The purpose of a mentor is to enable you to get what you want to get and not the other way around. Be very clear of what you want from the mentor.

MU: I don’t have a work mentor, but fortunately for me, I do have somebody at home that keeps me in check on the work-life balance. I think it is always good to ask for help in a business environment, but keeping your home-life right is probably the best advice you can get.

AM: I have always been inspired by different people. At university, I was lucky to meet two people who really made me believed that I could do this thing. Sometimes you would be working late in the studio and they would see you, and it was the little things they would say that would mean a great deal to you. They were the first people to take me to Venice to see the Old Masters. When you’re young, you can get cocky, and it puts you in your place. One of them was John Virtue, who was taught by our last truly great painter, Frank Auerbeck. And I really felt he made me understand what I am doing now; I owe a lot to that guy.

OA: I’m still in touch with my lecturers now, and they give me advice and they’re always there to listen, which is amazing as I’m no longer in Plymouth. I’m lucky that my current boss is also an incredible mentor.

In the creative arts, I can imagine networking can be difficult. Is there any advice you could give to someone getting into that field?

AM: I think the most important thing is your craft and practice. You have to nail that down first, and get studio space. After that comes the networking. It does help to be in London and to go to these things, but ultimately it is what you make that really sells you.

What was your biggest reality check and how did you deal with that?

AM: When you leave university, and you’ve studied this course you love, you have to be realistic. The chances of you getting the dream job are rare. I didn’t think I could be a painter – no one paints church ceilings anymore. But I had an eye so I got a job in graphic design. Everyone I know that did fine art got a job that was art-related, whether in TV or graphic design. You have to allow yourself time to manoeuvre, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Give yourself some time.

RL: Definitely give yourself some time, and allow yourself to reset your expectations. From my perspective, I thought I was going to be doing marine policy, out saving whales and dolphins, on an azure sea, scuba diving every day. The reality is that I was commuting an hour and a quarter from Cambridge to London every day to do a 9-to-5 job in an office off Fleet Street and it was quite grey. And the reality sunk in. And so the important thing is going back to what motivates you, using that to showcase what you bring additionally to your workplace or as a stepping stone to something else. I did things like becoming a governor in a primary school – additional work that I wasn’t being paid for, but which gave me a good understanding of the sector I was in. And I was able to use that to evidence why the next career progression was possible. It gave me a better flavour of whether it was the right sector for me. I still dream of that whale and dolphin seascape. Maybe it is possible in another period, but ultimately, as long as you get satisfaction and feel challenged, then it is worth doing it. 

MAC: Just to add to that, for me it was when I got my first graduate job in Reading, and they told me I would be doing XY and Z and I ended up doing AB and C. It was like, here’s your desk, now go and build it. The only way you can overcome that is by living it through. Oh, and avoid having a fixed three year plan. They’re rubbish. At Capita, I work on a one plus one plan. One year is what you’re doing, and one year of what you could be doing on top.