Dr Jo Berry admits she struggles to say no to interesting opportunities. It's an approach that's taken her from apartheid South Africa to Davos, the pit lane and the music industry. John Hill catches up with Newcastle University Business School's director of engagement.
NOT every great career involves climbing up a single well-worn, shoe-scuffed ladder. There’s still a deserved mystique to that fable of the hard-working and tenacious CEO that started at the bottom.
But, more than ever, today’s business world is stuffed with inspiring entrepreneurs, mavericks, and people who stopped dead between A and B and decided to chase another horizon entirely.
And, let’s face it, they’re often the ones with the better after-dinner stories.
Dr Jo Berry’s current role is director of engagement at Newcastle University Business School, in one of the loftier offices in the school’s freshly-unwrapped building on Barrack Road. However, in years past she’s hoovered up a whole range of skills, and a variety of interesting tales.
“I’m useless at saying no to things”, she says. “I can’t bear the thought of regretting anything.”
Since Berry’s story began in Hartlepool, she’s spent a short time as a lawyer in apartheid South Africa, and embraced a life of marketing and media in London. She’s interviewed politicians at Davos, and run her own fitness business. She’s helped set up an early internet site for a racing team and run an award-winning interactive content company.
She’s written a PhD on the revolution in the music industry, and been part of a record label that set out to re-invent how artists and listeners interacted. Sure, there have been dead ends, and her savings have been kicked in the gut a few times.
But she’s cheery when she says: “I think if you never fail at anything you don’t ever stretch yourself, and you don’t learn. It’s not that I’m keen on it, but I’m a huge believer in the importance of failure. In the US, nobody will invest in you if you haven’t failed at least once.
“However, it is exhausting, and you have to be resilient and tough and absolutely believe in yourself and what you’re doing or you can crumble.”
Berry rose into her current role last August. It essentially involves keeping the business school linked up and listening to the outside world, in both its teaching and its research. For example, Berry and her team engage with organisations to help students emerge ready for the workplace. This could involve bringing in interesting speakers, helping students to get placements at companies, or talking to firms about how courses could be better tailored to their needs.
Universities now also face the challenge of justifying how their research benefits the outside world, and it’s part of the team’s job to help researchers to do that, and to gather examples of where it really has impact.
She also has a teaching role, schooling both postgraduates and undergraduates in skills such as social media marketing and management. And she’s also involved in raising the university’s profile, both at home and abroad.
“The two core functions of any business school are research and teaching. It’s vital to make sure that everything I do is supporting those two things.
“It’s a fantastic challenge. But I have the world’s most fantastic support staff. They’re phenomenally organised and calm and they have initiative and confidence, and I couldn’t do it without them.”
Every student faces a challenge when they set foot in a university, and it’s not getting any easier. After striving to get the grades for the right university, they then have to go the extra mile to secure one of the shrinking number of jobs on the other side. And then, of course, there’s the question of fees.
As a result, Berry feels it’s important they get the most out of the experience in and out of the lecture hall, and the business school is set up to allow this.
“AAB grades don’t just fall off trees, no matter what people say about A-levels getting easier. It’s a big ask of anybody, and we don’t see any shortage of those students applying.
“That’s great, but they will only walk out of here at the end of their degree as a fully-rounded employable person if they really take advantage of the extra-curricular stuff we offer them.
“Students come in, they pay their fees, they do the work, they get their degree. But that’s where it starts. That’s the basics.
“That’s hard enough for a student who’s used to living at home and being looked after, but what we encourage them to do is take advantage of things like the university’s Job Club, or voluntary service, or working for free as an intern for a few weeks. We encourage them to go to the activities, workshops and events we run and get a real sense of what the world of work is like.”
Berry herself studied law at Oxford University’s St Anne’s College until 1985. From there, she worked as an articled clerk at a law firm in Krugersdorp in South Africa for nearly two years.
“It was because the guy I was married to during that time played rugby”, she says. “He was captain of the blues team at Oxford, and he’d played rugby and worked in Rhodesia between school and university.
“Zimbabwe wasn’t the same as Rhodesia had been, and the closest we could get was South Africa. We thought we’d give it a shot.
“At the time, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, apartheid still ruled and sanctions were firmly in place. I am really pleased I did it, but it was quite scary being a tall, blonde, British female in South Africa.
“I lived in the Transvaal and worked in Krugersdorp. It got to the stage where the locals found out I was defending two black guys and the tyres got slashed and the windows got smashed.”
Berry returned to the UK, settling in London. She soon found a job as a sales executive at Haymarket Publishing.
“Haymarket had exceptionally good training around interpersonal skills, which are so valuable in life”, she says.