Clare Logie interviews Professor Sara Carter OBE, Associate Deputy Principal, Strathclyde University (at time of interview, Sara was still Professor of Entrepreneurship and Head of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde Business School).
“It’s time for me to brave again…”
Though she was brought up in London and Kent, we in Scotland have claimed Professor Sara Carter as our own, as she has been such a significant part of Scotland’s great academic institutions now for many years. She studied for her first degree at Lancaster and her PhD at Stirling and her research focuses extensively on entrepreneurship policy; this includes studies of agriculture and rural economic development; gender, entrepreneurship and finance; and rewards and lifestyles within the entrepreneurial household. Awarded an OBE in 2008 for her services to women entrepreneurs, Sara is passionate about her work for sure, but also about so many other issues and topics and it is a pleasure to listen to her firm and articulate views and to be surprised by some of her answers! She virtually lights up when you ask her to talk about the Hunter Centre and about Strathclyde University itself and talks of it with such pride and enthusiasm, you find yourself wondering how you can find a way to sign up. And I had to write really, really fast…..
Clare Logie What drew you to entrepreneurship as a field of study?
Sara Carter “I grew up in an environment of the ‘family firm’, like so many academics who work in the field. My father ran a family business which closed when I was very young and the closure was dramatic and deeply traumatic and it had long term financial consequences. In spite of, or perhaps because of that trauma, my curiosity was fired about the whole subject; I was especially interested in the impact of entrepreneurship on a family, on a household and on the individual. I understand why people don’t do it, why they don’t start up their own venture, but I am drawn to studying those who do. Coupled with that, I wanted to become an academic. My uncle was a Professor of Linguistics and I just thought he had such an interesting intellectual life, filled with glamorous and fascinating visitors who had such interesting things to talk about. The combination of those two fascinations led me to this career.”
CL How would you describe your fundamental remit as Head of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship?
SC “The Hunter Centre is a really interesting academic department; it is one of the few endowed academic departments which is not a science lab and so it has to fulfill its core academic function, but it also has to develop and maintain a strong engagement with the community in which it operates. My role as Head was to provide academic leadership: research, scholarship, teaching and building an innovative curriculum, but it was also to develop powerful engagement with the local business community. The whole idea of its entrepreneurial infrastructure is a strong concept and I was responsible for every aspect from vision to finance, really like being MD of an SME.”
CL What do you see as the achievement of which you are most proud during your time there?
SC “I am proudest of developing a fantastic undergraduate curriculum in entrepreneurship. It’s brilliant now. For a university, your greatest asset is your students and it’s just wonderful to watch them develop through their four years and see what they go on to do next.”
CL Speaking of next, what is next for you?
SC “I have actually got a new role, a promotion within the university. From 1st August I will become Associate Deputy Principal with responsibility for teaching and learning. That will take up 50% of my time and the remit there is to focus on trying further to internationalise the curriculum and develop the entrepreneurship element. The other 50% of my time will be taken up with a new research project, which I’m very excited about. Strathclyde Business School is a partner in the Enterprise Research Centre, a collaboration between Strathclyde, Warwick, Aston and Imperial College, London. Its focus is to provide an improved, robust evidence base around the contribution of entrepreneurship to the success of the economy and the country and I will be leading on that research. You said something earlier about being brave and it caught my attention; I just absolutely loved running the Hunter Centre but deep down I knew I was beginning to stagnate after five years in the role. I knew it was time for me to be brave again but I am confident that I am leaving the management of it behind in a much healthier place than it was when I took it on, so it’s time to go.”
CL How would you sum up the characteristics of Strathclyde University?
SC (with obvious passion and pride) “It is an international technological university. Its history is very much an institution of useful learning. Everything it does has to have relevance for the community and the wider environment in which it operates.”
CL Is there anywhere in the world you would particularly like to work?
SC “No, I’ve been everywhere. Sorry if that sounds arrogant, but I have. My job is truly international so I have been lucky enough to travel extensively throughout my career. There’s lots of places I’ve particularly enjoyed going to (she references a ‘boot camp’ in an amazing research centre on Queensland’s Gold Coast, beaches, lagoons and all). I am a Visiting Professor at a university in Norway and have been for 10 years and I love going there. I feel very at home there.” (We chat a little about a trip to New Zealand, where Sara was caught up in the first of the big earthquakes that occurred a couple of years’ back. Luckily, the main quake occurred during the night, avoiding too much death and destruction, but the experience was terrifying).
CL So, would you say academia is female-friendly, in career terms?
SC “Yes, yes, I would because it is very meritocratic. Success depends on the quality of your scholarship and your ability to bring in research grants and write for quality publications. It’s about the impact your work has, you get out what you put in. And it’s flexible, it’s more about the output than it is about presenteeism and it doesn’t matter what hours of the day you choose you work. That said, the statistics do show that not many women are making it to the top. There are more than there used to be, of course, but it’s nowhere near parity. There is a high dropout of women from the labour market, there is a leaky pipeline, especially of women in their 30s. I was 39 when I got my first personal Chair. Women really need to keep on putting the hours in during those crucial years. There really are no shortcuts, it’s about grinding away, putting in the hours. You can do this flexibly and you can do it around children, so that is positive but you still have to do it.”
CL What advice would you give to women in academia?
SC “Two things: one, get a PhD. Get to call yourself Dr. Then you don’t have to worry about the whole Miss, Ms, Mrs thing either. And two, get a cleaner. Get someone to deal with the domestic stuff to help you. And not necessarily in that order!”
CL What do you love about your job?
SC “It’s extremely international. I am surrounded by so many really lovely people who are so interested in ideas. That’s seductive.”
CL And what frustrates you about it?
CL (incredulous) Nothing?
SC “No, nothing.”
CL (looking at Sara dubiously…)
SC “If anything at all, I suppose not getting change implemented quickly enough but then we’re in a place of permanent revolution, so even that…..
CL Are you optimistic about the future of Scotland?
SC (smiling wryly) “It depends what happens next year (with the referendum).”
CL And do you feel positive about Scotland’s economic outlook?
SC (Still smiling, ostensibly sweetly) “It depends what happens next year.”
CL Who has provided significant inspiration to you in your life?
SC “My tutor at Lancaster University, Sally Tomlinson. She was Professor of Educational Research and she was such a brilliant lecturer and researcher. She was truly inspirational to me and I was a really dopey student.”
CL (rudely interrupting by snorting tea) I doubt it, you, dopey?
SC (ruefully) No, I really was. And I never told her she was inspirational. I should have. And also, Baroness Mary Warnock, the academic philosopher. She’s still working and still relevant and influential and she is in her 80s. She has an intellectual life that just goes on.”
CL Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
SC “Absolutely. Of course. I believe in equality of opportunity.”
CL What character trait do you most admire?
SC “Elegance. Elegance in a person generally. Not in the way you look, but in everything that you do. In the way you live your life, the way you write, the way you react and respond to things and to people.”
CL And the trait you most deplore?
CL Is there anything about yourself you wish you could change?
SC “Oh, God, where do I start? So many things. I asked my husband what he thought and he said “Stop talking to yourself”. I do it all the time, I can’t help it.”
CL What are you currently reading?
SC “NW by Zadie Smith, it’s wonderful. To be honest, I’m doing everything I can to avoid reading ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel. It took me three months to get through the last one (Wolf Hall) and I just can’t face it. But I feel so guilty because she’s a brilliant writer and also because my son bought it for me for Christmas. But I’m still avoiding it.
CL And what’s your favourite song?
SC “‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’ by Robbie Robertson. It’s just so evocative and mood enhancing.” (We went on to agree and extol its virtues for five minutes and I had to put it straight on when I got home!).
CL What never fails to make you smile?
SC “Happy children. Who doesn’ t like to see that?”
Clare Logie is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.