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Inspirational Woman: Victoria Stakelum | Deputy CEO, Arden University

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I’m Deputy CEO at Arden University (the first specialist online learning university to launch in the UK in the last 50 years).

I’m a Chartered Marketer and previously worked in strategy and marketing leadership for various UK brands as well as running a successful consultancy business prior to joining Arden.

In my current role, my focus is to help Arden across every department, aligning every function to make learning more accessible and flexible; to deliver excellence across people, our organisational values, systems, processes and our IT infrastructure. The students are at the centre, and are always in mind from start to finish, in everything that I do in my role and Arden do as a university.

My career achievements don’t reflect my life growing up. I dropped out of college and worked in a call centre before deciding that I wanted to go to university. I moved out of home at 16 and decided to go to college in Swindon – where I grew up – because I wanted to be treated like an adult. However, I was unsure what I wanted to do for a career and I needed cash for rent, food and socialising.

I soon dropped out of college and took work in a local call centre but found call centre life unfulfilling and frustrating.

I returned to college full time in September 1996, three months before my 18th birthday and after false starts with maths and psychology A-Levels, I eventually got four As – in philosophy, theatre studies, media studies and general studies, then got offered a place at Oxford University, which was unusual since offers are rarely based on such non-academic subjects.

I think my two years of working life and experience living away from home, alongside my A-Levels, must have set me apart. I was only the second person in my entire extended family to get a degree, a 2:1 in archaeology and anthropology at St Peter’s College, Oxford. My big sister was the first.

My degree opened the door to a fulfilling and successful career, while my unusual route through education taught me resilience, communication skills and adaptability – and the need to do more to support disadvantaged students.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t at all. I’ve been very lucky to have fantastic opportunities come my way. Over time and with reflection I’ve realised this is not all by chance and I’ve had a good knack for creating and instinctively pursuing the path that I’ve taken. I’ve never really had a masterplan of where I want to be – rather I’ve jumped at the opportunities as they presented themselves and given my best to everything I’ve taken on. I made some errors along the way but these have provided some of the best career lessons I’ve had.

Have you faced any challenges along the way? How did you deal with them?

There have been ups and downs. Over time I’ve seen first-hand the profound impact that good and bad leadership can have on the entire fabric of an organisation and the wellbeing and performance of its people. I’ve learnt the importance of being true to your core values, leading with authenticity and always facing up to the hard conversations. To grow and develop, we have to feel uncomfortable at times and leaving people to coast in mediocre performance will rarely play out well.

People that are constructively challenged and supported to achieve will usually thrive.

One of the most important skills you can develop is that of managing upward. Honest dialogue with your manager is crucial to a successful and productive career. On occasion, it has been the right thing to walk away because the direction of the business was too far from my personal values.

Do you have a typical workday? How do you start your day and how does it end?

There is no such a thing as a typical workday. I could be in the office working on projects or documents, leading creative sessions or workshops, chairing project team meetings, attending conferences or board meetings or visiting one of our campuses. My day starts with meditation and yoga, I get into the office and plan the day ahead – I try and blitz emails at the start of each day and then have two to three pre-scheduled tasks to knock off the to-do list in between meetings and calls. I end each day by reviewing the following day’s activities and requirements and making lists to help me keep on top of things.

Tell us a little bit about your roles and how they came about?

During my first role working in a brand and research consultancy, I developed an ambition to see recommendations through rather than leave the presentation with the client and walk away. I managed to land my first client-side role after a couple of years working agency side and had two happy years at Britvic, managing research for brands like Tango, J2O and Pennine Spring. I learnt a huge amount about brands, advertising, product development and retail. The culture was lovely, but I was based on in Chelmsford and wanted to be back in central London, so I moved on to the Royal Mail Group, based near Liverpool Street.

During my time there, I benefited from exposure to a range of disciplines and received some brilliant training and development. In parallel, I completed my postgraduate diploma in marketing and became a Chartered Marketer. This is where I really developed a passion for delivering service excellence through a brand framework underpinned by insight – this is a set of skills and approaches that I have carried with me throughout my career since then.

I had my first child and moved away from London, accepting a global role for a home interiors company – my first executive position. By the time I had my third child, I decided to take some time out to work for myself and focus on family, so I launched my own consultancy company and worked from home. However, I started to miss working for an organisation, so when the opportunity at Arden University came up, I couldn’t miss it.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?

Mentoring is fantastic, important, and extremely rewarding – I have benefitted enormously from being both mentor and mentee. Having someone to offer a different perspective, hold you accountable for your own goals and ambitions and provide support and encouragement when things are difficult is a powerfully valuable resource for anyone to have access to.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

I would like to see women be less apologetic to others and more forgiving of themselves. My observation is that women sometimes feel they have overstepped a mark if they are assertive or opinionated. Qualities seen as strengths in men are sometimes seen as unfeminine or less welcome from women. We should be proud of our achievements, demonstrate strength and not be afraid to have that ambitious, authoritative persona. I’d also like to see women work together more to support and raise the profile of other women – for more senior women to help and support those on their way up the career ladder. We are strongest shoulder to shoulder and I’d like to see more senior women support and mentor those finding their path to success.

How do you juggle your career and your personal life?

With difficulty! I’m so lucky to have a solid partner in crime – my husband doesn’t work and looks after the kids, which is a source of great strength and stability for me. I aim to not have to compromise too much and try and create a good balance. I’m actively involved with theatre and arts and I volunteer for the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Sometimes I can feel overwhelmed with the number of plates I keep spinning – meditation helps. I also eat well, I run, do yoga and generally look after myself and my emotional well-being. I know when to take a step back and review how much I am doing.

I’m very strict about work pressures, so I don’t look at work emails in the evening unless necessary. We prioritise breakfast and dinner together as a family. I don’t watch TV and limit my time on social media.

Every now and then, I give myself a break and forgive myself for missing a run or taking a lie in. It’s important to listen to your body and ask yourself, what do I need right now? Doing this helps keep me in balance and coping with the intense pressures of being a busy working mum.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

My three biggest achievements are my three wonderful children. My next biggest is this university. We have achieved an enormous amount and we are working towards something that is so important. We have a great team of people here, we are multiple award nominees already, and I’m proud that it’s all about giving people the chance to reach their potential and transform their lives. It’s been a fantastic year.

What are you hoping to achieve in the future?

So many things! Professionally, I’d like to see Arden become famous as the university that made university more accessible to people everywhere, I want to make a difference in the world and this job enables me to do that. I’d love to study for a masters in psychology and be amongst the first to graduate from the Arden MSc in Psychology that we will launch later this year!

A personal dream of mine would be to one day launch a counselling or rehabilitating service, so I can use the knowledge gained through my career to help people that are struggling and provide somewhere they can go to create personal focus, develop new habits and develop a greater sense of wellbeing.

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