Karen Blackett: MediaCom chairwoman, mum and human rights activist
On Monday the 13th of November Karen Blackett (OBE) will be inaugurated as Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.
What is a Chancellor and what impact does a Chancellor have on students?
The chancellor of a university is a distinguished individual, from academia or public life, who is not usually resident and does not hold any other University office. They preside at graduation ceremonies and it is here that most students are likely to meet them. Most importantly, the Chancellor is a figurehead of the institution and must therefore represent the ethos of the University. We think Karen Blackett (OBE) will be exceptional in the role of Chancellor, read our interview with her below to see why.
All students and staff are invited to Karen's inauguration ceremony on Monday the 13th of November from 4pm in Portsmouth Guildhall. The ceremony is free to attend, register your attendance below.
Tell us a bit about you...
"I grew up in a very normal working class family in Reading, mum and dad first generation immigrants from Barbados to the UK with myself and my sister. From a very early age I had a love for TV advertising but I had no idea how the industry worked or how to get into it. So I went to Portsmouth and studied Geography because I loved Geography. I graduated from Portsmouth at the time of the recession and it took me nine or ten months before I managed to get my foot in the door of full-time employment. I finally managed to get a foot in the door with the first agency that I joined. My mum and dad wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, in medicine or an accountant so for them advertising was a totally unchartered territory. They didn’t quite know what advertising was when I first started but they were happy that I had a job, a full time job that I was enjoying as well."
"I think Portsmouth is such a wonderful, well kept secret and I wish more people knew how amazing it is. Beautiful. It’s changed so much. Before I was awarded my doctorate I hadn’t been back since by University days and I was amazed at the development… I mean Gunwharf didn’t exist when I was there! I’m really looking forward to spending more time coming back to Portsmouth, I really am. Rediscovering it has been brilliant and I don’t understand why Portsmouth isn’t considered the same as Brighton. Maybe I need to have a word with the council about the marketing of it! I can’t wait to bring my son there, I really can’t."
If you could give our female students a piece of advice, what would it be?
"Realise your ambition and do not be ashamed of having ambition. What I see often with the women in my industry is that they don’t realise their ambition and they lack self belief, myself included. Find your cheerleaders so when you have those moments of self doubt, those people that you can talk to objectively, they can talk to you and help you to keep going. There will be moments that you have lack of clarity, moments of self doubt, that you need somebody who knows you to give you a verbal slap and to tell you to keep going. You can attain what you want, just focus on what you want and work out what it is that you want. Don’t wait for anyone else to tell you that, work it out and answer it."
How do you overcome self doubt?
"I’ve worked with a life coach for the last 15 years and he’s been the one that has made me realise my ambition and helped me conquer any forms of self doubt. He’s been a massive influence on me. It came about thanks to a fantastic scheme we run at the company called “if I ran the company”. Everyone in the agency is split into teams of about six to eight people, they have two minutes to pitch an idea to the management board about what you would do if you ran the company. We promised to implement the best idea and there’s one winning idea. Fifteen years ago the winning idea was to introduce life coaching to people in the agency that wanted it. That was about making sure we had happier people at work. That was a cost to the business. It wasn’t about saving money, we actually spent money. The idea was that we get more loyal employees because they understand themselves, they understand their role, they’re happier in their life now, they’re happier in work. I remember in the first year of introducing the scheme our churn had gone up, we were thinking ‘that wasn’t meant to happen!’. But it had gone up because there were a load of people in the agency that actually didn’t have a passion for advertising and realised that this wasn’t what they wanted to do, so they left and that’s a good thing because you then have the people who are more committed, who really want to be here, remaining at the agency. I was one of the people fifteen years ago that trialled the life coaching company and he’s been stuck with me ever since."
The attainment gap at Portsmouth is currently around 22%, what words of advice would you give students who feel they can't attain?
"Part of what is needed is self belief because believing that you are as good as anyone else is key. I think part of what is needed is role models as well so I do a lot with organisations like the power list which showcases the hundred most intellectual black people in the UK. There’s loads of courses for the hundreds that are named to work with the younger BAME population. A lot of it is about role modelling, giving that belief that you can attain. Not having the perception that seems to exist that it’s either sports or performance arts is the area that we tend to excel in but there’s all of these areas in careers and industry where you do find people of colour. Role modelling and visibility is really important and I totally believe in reverse mentoring as well as a way of making sure that the self belief and realisation of ambition actually comes into fruition. Finding somebody that can cheerlead you along the way. It really is difficult because I think about myself, I had first-generation parents that wanted me to have a profession that was high-standing and you had a lot of letters either before your name or after your name. So they wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant because that was seen back home as a really high-standing profession so part of it was about working with first generation parents to make sure that the students are getting the right encouragement as well. Some people aren’t lucky to have that encouragement so it’s finding that and finding the cheerleading in other places, just not at home."
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