POWERING OUR FUTURE #2: UNI Application like a Pro

On June 27, 2016 we went back to where it all began (for me at least) and hosted our second Powering Our Future Event at BSix Sixth Form College. Shout out to my old sixth form and to the wonderful panelists who shared their stories with our audience: Shenaid Tapper, Umamah Tarvala, Priscilla Masasu, Olaide Olumide, Tennessee Watt, Mara Livermore.

The topic of choice:

Applying to university

Application season is coming! It seems just like yesterday when I was walking in those  shoes, trying to answer dreaded questions like: “ So what do you want to study at uni? Where? How? When?”

With the memories of those days behind us but still fresh in our mind, and with an arsenal of amazing panelists with a wide range of uni experiences, here are a few lessons we took away.

#1 Do You


When we put out the question “what do you think are the key things to keep in mind when applying to university?” someone in the audience gifted us with this maxim. Do you. Don’t go to university to study x subject because everyone says that you should. Maybe your parents have always imagined you as a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. And maybe that’s also your dream. But if it isn’t, remember that university is amazing but it is not a walk in the park. It is hard work. What will keep you going when you’re dealing with a last minute deadline because you love to procrastinate and are pulling an all-nighter? It won’t be the promise of a well-paying job if you absolutely hate or can’t deal with what you’re learning. But passion and a genuine interest in what you’re studying will.

We couldn’t stress this point more during the event and we will keep stressing it until we’re blue in the face.


#2 Research Research Research 


All of our amazing panelists couldn’t say this enough.   

Choosing what or where to to study? Remember that you’ll spend the next 3 years or more studying x subject in x part of the country. You should be asking yourself:

  • What does the course entail? Maybe you love a certain period of history and the university you’d like to go to doesn’t cover that period. What then?
  • What does the city have to offer? Is it too hot, too cold, is it big or small?
  • What are professors like? What kind of support the university gives to students?…

And many other questions. The only way to answer them is to do your research. Go to open days (here is a tool to find out the open days of your would be uni). Talk to your teachers and ask them if alumni from your school have gone to study a specific subject or at a specific university and ask them if they can put you in touch. Google stuff: google is your best friend and so is The Student Room.


#3 – Bring the Personal into Your Personal Statement


How many of us wrote the first draft of our personal statements and wanted to cry? That was definitely me. I got the amazing lady in charge of UCAS admissions at my school to read it and she said it felt like an essay.

It is easy to feel slightly annoyed and scared at the prospect of writing about you after having been taught for years to kill the personality out of your essays (balanced argument essays anyone?). And let us not get started on science based subjects where you deal with hard facts. Instead of dreading it, think about it as an opportunity to get to know you and what motivates you. You say you want to do medicine? Great, why? Is it because you love the idea of helping people? Or is it because you love biology but love the idea of putting your scientific knowledge to practice?

The personal statement is your golden opportunity – for once –  to write about you; to tell the admission tutors how your (learning) experiences have led you to your decision to study x subject and how they will also help you cope with university life successfully. Don’t waste that opportunity by just showing them that you know stuff. Show them that you’re curious, that you would be an absolute pleasure to teach because you’re not just regurgitating stuff others have fed you about the subject and why you should study it. BE YOU, Do YOU and bring who you are into your personal statement.


#4 – Proactivity is your new best friend


The universe won’t give you things if you won’t go for them yourself. Applying to university takes time and commitment. If you want to deal with this period of your life and come out of it like a pro you need to go for it. This means really really going for it. You’ve come across this person at an event/open day/whatever and they’re awesome and could be of help? Get in touch. Ask for a way to get in touch with her or ask the people who’ve organised the event if they can put you in touch. You’re curious about something – maybe it’s about that specific university’s sports facilities because you’re a keen basketball player, go for it and be proactive. You want to get into a top university but so far you’ve not put enough efforts in your studies and you know it? Go for it and work hard. You’ll do well, I promise.


# 5 – Ask for help


You don’t know where to start with your personal statement or maybe you’ve written plenty of drafts and you want a second opinion? Ask for help. But beware, take their advice with a pinch of salt, especially if you’re asking someone who doesn’t know you really well. If they’re your friend or someone who knows you like the back of their hands, do ask them if your personal statement reflects who you are, or if there’s anything they would suggest you do different.

Remember first and foremost one thing. Don’t allow your personal statement to feel impersonal.



Where should I go to uni?

Mara: Consider this holistically. Does my prospective university offer sports? Does the location have job prospects (especially if you plan to work whilst studying). Maybe that specific university is amazing but doesn’t live up to what you want.

(Mara speaks from experience. She decided to turn down Oxford to study German and Philosophy at Manchester, where the course was exactly what she wanted)

Priscilla: Go to open days to help you decide.

Umamah: Don’t be fooled by courses having the same name, as the content might be drastically different.

Olaide: I chose KCL because I felt that I could fit in; because it was in London, a major plus if you want to combine your studies with internships.


What should I do during my gap year?

Umamah: First thing first, tailor it to your interests! Do stuff that you love, there won’t ever be a better time for that. But also prioritise what you might need to do if you’re going to apply to university again. If you’re applying to do medicine, for example, take this time to do some work experience, volunteer, etc.

Mara: Be proactive. Ask yourself what you’d like to do later, and where you’d like to do it. Try even emailing a specific company/institution – who knows? Maybe you’ll get some work experience out of it. This is the perfect time for you to explore your options.


What if you don’t meet the minimum entry requirements for the university or course of your choice?

Olaide: Explore different routes of entry. Maybe the university of your choice offers foundation years as a way in. Here two things can definitely help: doing your research and being proactive. Email the university or a lecturer to ask information about, for instance, what kind of students they tend to offer a place to etc.

Asta: Another approach is to apply anyway and get the support of your teachers. I didn’t meet the number of GCSEs requirements needed to apply to uni ( I only had Maths, English and a BTEC Level 2 in Applied Science) but with the support of my family and teachers I had the confidence to apply to the universities I liked even without meeting all entry requirements.

Applying to different universities for different courses. Yay or Nay?

Shenaid: It really depends and you need to be mindful of the fact that you might be limiting yourself, especially because you’re supposed to write in your statement about the subject you plan to study. Imagine that the course you want to do is only offered in 5 universities across the country. Would you just apply to those 5 for that specific course or would you apply to different unis for different courses to diversify a bit your choice?


Now that you’ve been there and done that, would you do anything differently when it comes to applying to university?

Asta: Personally I wouldn’t because that experience has contributed to get me where I am. I applied to study Ancient and Modern History, got in and by the end of the first year I had been guaranteed to switch my degree to History and Politics in my second year. I’m not sure things would have turned out the same had I made different choices and I’m pretty happy with how my life has unfolded since application season has been over.

Mara: I would be more proactive. I didn’t leave my personal statement at the last minute but I could have definitely done it earlier. That would have definitely helped!

Shenaid: I would not waste a choice by applying to a university you don’t care about. You only have 5 choices: use them wisely.

Priscilla: The personal statement! Preparation is so important to write a great personal statement. It takes time to make sure it represent who you are.


We really hope this was useful. We were so happy with our first #PoweringOurFuture event, and please stay tuned for more to come. Get in touch on spectrawomen@gmail.com if you have any requests for events you want to see.


Spectra Meets: Louise McGuane

Irish Whiskey, Entrepreneurship and Empowerment: Spectra Meets Louise McGuane, Founder of Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Co.

Louise MGuane and I talk about her successful corporate career, why she decided to become an entrepreneur, and why exposure is so important when figuring out what you want to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

*This interview was originally published in September 2016*

ASTA: Let’s start with your career journey. How did it start? What’s your story?

LOUISE: I’ve had a good almost 20 years career in the global drink industry.  After university I managed to get an internship in the US, working for a dot-com where I did  communication work for about a year. That kind of translated into hard-core PR and I was snapped up by a PR agency that specialised in the digital space.  

I made the transition over to the drinks industry around the time when the dot-com bubble burst back in the 90s.  I worked for LVMH, the big luxury group conglomerate, in their drinks sector, doing international marketing communications for a champagne brand that they had. They then transferred me from New York to Paris to join the global marketing team of another champagne brand. After a few years I moved back to the US for a while, then worked on the relaunch of a global vodka brand for Pernod Ricard. I relaunched that brand globally to 50+ countries.

My corporate career ended  at the multinational company DIAGEO across their luxury drinks portfolio. I managed one of their biggest marketing drive programs globally for 5 to 6 years. I was in Singapore most of the time but I was in London some of the time.

I left that job about 2 years ago because I got married. My husband was living in London and couldn’t follow me around.

I had also become quite jaded with the corporate life – you know it really takes it out of you. It’s very politically minded and it becomes less about what you do and more about who know within the organisation. I needed to make a decision – whether I was going to stay on that track or use the skillset that I have in the global drinks industry, and do something for myself.I decided on the latter, came back to Ireland and started an Irish Whiskey Company. Irish Whiskey is really booming at the moment so I figured it was a good time to start and I had the resources – some property in Ireland and good access to capital. So that’s where I am at the moment. We started about a year ago and we’re looking to launch our first product January/February of 2017.

ASTA: If you had to describe your brand in 3 words, which would they be and why?

LOUISE: The brand is called JJ Corry. The three words are Provenance, Heritage and Modernity.

Provenance because we are squarely rooted in a real place. It’s not a made up place. The provenance is my family farm on the West coast of Ireland, which is right along the wild atlantic way. It’s a beautiful place and got the microclimate and it’s perfect for aging whiskey.

Heritage. Our heritage is real. I went out and I found an old whiskey brand from the 1890s that was run by a guy called JJ Corry who was my father’s  great second cousin 5 or 6 times removed. He was a real guy, he made his whiskey exactly how we’re going to make our whiskey. He blended it and aged it on his family farm and sold it in his little pub. I’m bringing that brand back to life. We’re going to take the original packaging that he used and give it a bit of a modern twist.

The Modernity element. Yes, I’m making an Irish Whiskey but the Whiskey market has really evolved. People who are drinking Whiskey are younger, they are really into authenticity and they’re adventurous in what they drink.

So the modern element to our brand story is that we’re taking inspiration from JJ Carry and we’re using really new and innovative aging techniques with the whiskey. For example, instead of charring the inside of a barrel with fire, we’re going to use infrared light.

I’ve built a really advanced whiskey aging facility on the family farm that is unlike anything on the whole Island of Ireland. It has a number of unique features that will keep humidity high and encourage extraction of flavour from the barrels, and we’re also working on a line of much much younger non-traditional whiskeys underneath the JJ Corry label that haven’t been tried before. That’s our modern element.

We’re appealing to the up and coming whiskey consumer who is demanding these kinds of things.

©Planet Whiskies

ASTA: Where do you see your business going?

LOUISE: I left a global brand to create a global brand. Irish Whisky is huge, particularly in the United States. It’s Growing in South Africa, it’s big in France and it’s growing in Russia. My goal is to launch a small portion of Irish whiskies initially into the US and then build that brand until I have a 250K brand – and  I want to do this within a year. It’s a hard and fast commercial goal.

ASTA: How many people are you working with at the moment?

LOUISE: At the moment I’m the only full time person on the job. I have a number of exterior consultants that I work with.

I have just completed an Angel round. We had a Crowd funding round in November to test the concept. Then I raised a round of Angel investment to get us going in terms of procuring products, beginning branding and etc. And now I’m closing out on a seed round of funding and as soon as that is closed, I’m looking to hire some people in sales and marketing.

When we launch in January/February in the US, I’m looking to deploy at least 2 brand ambassadors. Right now it’s just me, but we’re looking to scale up quite quickly.

ASTA: I’ve been hearing this a lot lately: if you can do it yourself, you should – you don’t need to add people to the team unless you have to.

LOUISE: I’ll be honest with you: I’m feeling it now. When I started I did everything. I learnt how to make a website.I did all of the social media – I opened up an Instagram, planned tweets and Facebook posts. I did the Kickstarter campaign, I took care of fundraising.

That’s the thing about entrepreneurship – you find out that you can do a lot of things, whereas in the corporate world you’re boxed in.  

But the next round of investment will be hard because of the team. You need to know when to take someone on board.

ASTA: Do you need a cofounder?

LOUISE: Not a cofounder per se, but someone at my level with specific commercial skills. I already have some dilution in the business because some investment are seed investments. I will either pay for someone else or bring them in with some equity incentive.

ASTA: I hope to have a career that’s just as international as yours. Did you have a plan or did it just happen?

LOUISE: I grew up in a tiny village in rural Ireland. I went to university in the UK and as soon as I had the opportunity for international travel I had to go. The ironic thing is that after all these years I’ve gone back.

I think at the beginning [of my career] it just sort of happened because I had no exposure to anything really –  from the tiny rural place that I was from there weren’t a lot of role models for me actually coming up. All I had was ambition and drive and I enjoyed working.

The more I got exposed to things, the more I saw the opportunities that were out there – I sort of planned pretty quickly and kept track of what my end goal was. I always had a 5 years plan but I was also aware that a 5 year plan can change and I would review it every couple of years to see how I was doing. But I had a direction and the direction was thought.

As long as you have a concept of where you want to be, then the details will work themselves out because you know where you’re headed. You can’t plan the details.

ASTA: How would you compare  the challenges in your corporate career to the ones you face as an entrepreneur?

LOUISE: The corporate world is like Game of Thrones. 40% is about how good you are. And the other 60% is about your connections. Very often, that didn’t translate well for me. I was very head down. I was very produce, produce, produce. I should have realised that it’s not what you do, but rather it’s how you do things.

I’ve realised that the skills I have are much more suited to being an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur I have had to unlearn a lot. Corporates have time. I now have to go on my guts – act 40 times faster than a multinational.

ASTA: The conventional advice given to women is to make sure you learn how to play the rules of the corporate game. Do you think that advice holds? Or is the main challenge for women not to learn how to play the game but to be in a leading position to change the game?

LOUISE: You can’t change the game. You have to be good and you have to produce. Women are very results driven in the corporate world. But there is a balance. In order to get into boardroom positions, you need to find yourself a mentor. You will survive on merit, you will get a really good country management job. But to get to the upper echelons – the board level, you’re going to need a crew, a squad to get you there.

But it’s not solely political. It means that you can consult people for advice. People will be able to help you along the way.

ASTA: Do you think that’s going to change (the whole who you know game) with startups as they become organisations?

LOUISE: When a company reaches a certain scale, they keep their spirit and their ethos. But they’re going to have to have an HR department. Companies have to become like big machines. The difference between start-ups and the old companies I worked for is the company culture and ethos e.g. Google, Uber.

Those older companies – the way that they function is so slow. One of the companies I used to work for –  they can’t really adapt their internal culture. But they’ve set up an internal business unit that goes around and invests in small start ups in San Fran. So they can learn from those brands and in the future they could acquire them.

ASTA: Are entrepreneurs made or are they born?

LOUISE: I had this conversation with somebody yesterday. I think entrepreneurs are definitely made. I know people who spring out of the womb and have all of these businesses.

Where I come from, no one knew what an entrepreneur was but I was still one myself.

So some are made, some are born.

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

ASTA: See It, Be It. What inspired it? Where do you see it going?

LOUISE: The thinking behind it was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. You can’t aspire to be anything unless you have exposure to it.

I came back to Ireland – the rural part after many years – , but there isn’t much change. There is a booming tech scene in Ireland but it’s focused in Dublin. I did a talk in my school. They had just as much potential as any kid in any school but they wouldn’t have had exposure.

We get a few young women. I am very interested in giving young women the potential for change. I am currently working with two young women. We’re giving them a 5 day immersion in working life in London. They spent yesterday speaking to entrepreneurs.They spent today at a PR Agency. Tomorrow we’re going to look at the fashion world. Then we’ll go to an ad agency. Thursday it’s time for a luxury goods company. And finally a retail trend project. It’s pretty intense. The goal is to get [these young women] in front of as many experts and as many inspiring women as possible and to expose them to career paths they wouldn’t have even been aware of.

ASTA: I wish there were more programmes like this! They would really make a difference for people who live in places where there is little exposure.

LOUISE: As I said earlier, I lucked into what I did. I hadn’t planned. That’s something that I’d like to pass on. I can only do my little part. I want it [See it,  Be it] to be a very long-standing programme. So the girls from this year will be able to give a heads up to the people ten years down the line. The idea is to create a network of young women.

We can’t do everything for everybody but if we can make a difference for a few girls then I will be happy.

ASTA: [Do you see it going national?] Nationally?

LOUISE: Second day of the first programme haha. But if this was emulated across the country it would be fantastic. We might make a charitable organisation out of it. I’ve seen the girls blossom while they’re here. Every time they talk to someone new, they want to work there.

ASTA: I can really see it being emulated elsewhere. The same problem exists everywhere.

Do you have any advice for anyone starting out?

LOUISE: Grades are important but they are not the be all end all. Try to find something that you enjoy doing. Find two hobbies that you love: the first creative and makes you happy, the second that also makes you money. If you can combine those two, even better.

Pursue something that you want to do and that makes you happy, rather than doing what you believe society, your friends or family want you to do.

People’s careers develop and change and evolve over time. What you’re choosing to do today in ten years time could be very different. As long as you have drive and ambition to do anything you will succeed.

ASTA: OK so finally, what are three words that you live by?

LOUISE: Aspiration is one. Aspiring for something is really important. You need to aspire to be something. To get yourself going in that direction.As an entrepreneur I struggle every day with thinking whether or not I’m capable of being an entrepreneur. But you have to realise that yesterday may suck and today sucks but tomorrow will be a good day. Aspiration is important.

Determination. As an entrepreneur I need to get things done.

Empowerment. Being an entrepreneur – being a female entrepreneur in a man’s world can be hard. You need to be able to walk into a room, even if the room is full of 10 male investors, you need to have confidence that you know more about your industry and your company than anyone in the room.


Spectra Meets: Fraz Azizi

I met Fraz at an insight event for women at a consulting firm. When the event had concluded, keen to mingle, a group of us decided to congregate at a café nearby, to reflect on the event and learn about our respective journeys. Fraz was among them.

Fraz stood out and had a brilliantly warm smile. At the time she was a finalist studying Natural Sciences at UCL. She told us that she was more interested in banking than consulting and that she had several interviews with investment banks for graduate roles in Sales & Trading. She went on to secure a role at Lloyd’s Bank. Continue reading “Spectra Meets: Fraz Azizi”

The Power of the Purse

Money. Power. Women.

It’s late at night here in Seoul. It has been a long day at work, which so far has been exciting. As I get established on the first rung of the job ladder, I’m learning new things everyday with hopes and dreams for where my future will take me.

Last week, I got my first paycheck. The feeling of euphoria when checking my bank account and seeing compensation for my hard work has been worthwhile. The money I have earned gives me power not to rely on my parents. It gives me the power to go on a shopping spree at Uniqlo or think about signing up for a Korean language course. It gives me the power to indulge in nice gelatos. And all subsequent paychecks that I earn will give me the chance to use the power of the purse to get what I want.

However, there are constant news items that make me suspect that there are limits to its influence. I might have earnt it, but I have come to understand that my power, at least economically speaking, is severely curtailed on the basis that I am a woman.

As I write this, I cannot help but think about two things that have dropped recently with regards to women’s relationship with ‘the power of the purse’: first, the McKinsey and Lean In “Women in the workplace”  2016 report, and second, how much the advice of Venture Capitalist John Greathouse to women has backfired.

‘Leaning In’ is not enough

The “Women in the Workplace” report revealed what many women (especially women of color) have known for a long time: women in the workplace ask for feedback or for raises just as men do, but are consistently ignored, their concerns and interests brushed aside like annoying flies. We ask women to ‘Lean In’ but the reality is that the glass ceiling is fierce, and cracking it requires more than simply “asking for more.” It requires others to genuinely change their mindset and give women the chance to do well.

Time and time again it has been established that diversity is good for business. Why would anyone stop the advancement of half of the population in the workplace on the basis of implicit and explicit bias when it’s been proven to be bad for business?

Does this mean that ten years down the line I will have to contend with a potential employer who is not interested in paying me the same as  my male colleagues for the same job? Does it mean that if I were to have children, I would be considered as no longer fully dedicated to work and thus dispensable?

We’ve all heard the horror stories of women being forced to accept a lower level position when they return to work after maternity leave, or of women in Italy signing resignation letters in advance when getting a new job to make the exit from their existent job immediately effective if they decide to start a family.

Will these issues still persist ten, fifteen or thirty years from now?

VC John Greathouse Shows that Success is Male

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mr Greathouse decided to give some grand advice to women about how to best make it in the tech world: use your initials online. His advice made me pause for a moment. It made me think. Women are oftentimes – if not always – given the same advice about self-advancement: be more like a man.

I will admit that I am not entirely sure what is meant by this. Is this a request for women to be more like the stereotypical male?  

Nevertheless, what I find really confusing is the narrow definition of success that is propounded here. The yardstick of this success is male, middle class and white.

Mr Greathouse suggested that women in tech should refer to themselves only by their initials in order to hide their gender online. He basically asked women to ignore and suppress who they are to fit in, to assimilate to what is considered the norm, instead of breaking the barrier to make the “norm” more inclusive.

The guy has since apologised (and I am sincerely hoping that it was sincere). But he is not the only one to give such advice. Saddeningly, that advice has been repeated time and time again. It is reinforced every time we ask women to stop being themselves if they want to be successful. It is reinforced every time we coach women to act like guys in order to get that investment, or that job. It is reinforced every time we ask women to let some things slide at work, to stay silent when they are given office housework or are not included in meetings. It is reinforced through the micro-aggressions and through the comments and advice given to women everyday.

It is reinforced when we tell women that the only way to make it is to play by the rules and affect change when you’re at the top. It is evident in the way women know that they get paid less for doing the same job men  do and there is nothing that can be done.

That “it” is a sign of resignation. That “it” is the “I’m sorry love that things are so bad but there is nothing we can do to change them. Deal with it.”

And when I think about all this, I am always reminded about something someone said to me at my first ever internship. It had been organized by my school and lasted only a week. I was told I came across as “matter of fact”. I was advised that I needed to be careful because people thought I expressed a “this is not up for discussion” tone, and it could  ‘rub them the wrong way’.

I’m sure this advice was trying to be helpful and had my best interest at heart. But it didn’t stop me from sitting in my bed thinking about that conversation over and over and asking myself what it meant, and what was wrong, with being too “matter of fact”.

Now I’m older, and possibly wiser, and l I wonder whether the same thing would have been said to a man. Whether his tone would have been perceived too unaccommodating, or just accepted as confidence.

We ask women continuously to change who they are. That is a product of power used upon women. It is power that should redirected towards changing the way business is run to make women part of the norm, instead of actively encouraging and forcing them to be something they will never be – in their eyes, or those of others: men.