Returning to education

Helen Barnes tells her story of how she moved from banking to her own business by going back to university

In 2008 I was 28 years old and at the top of my game. From 2002 I worked as a PA and by 2008 I was the Executive Assistant to one of the Global Heads of a major international bank.

My office was on the top floor of a towering skyscraper with views over London and Canary Wharf.  My boss was fantastic and there were many perks to the job such as travel, free private healthcare, a full gym, pool and spa in the office complex and even a Starbucks on the 9th Floor. But I was not happy. I was 28 but had nowhere to go with my career, my salary was unlikely to increase to any significant extent as the years passed and the scope of my job unlikely to grow very much.

Although I constantly overachieved in my reviews and often worked harder than some of my banker colleagues, they all received pay and bonuses many times more than I could ever hope to earn. Any efforts to move into a different career path were thwarted due to lack of direct experience and I was constantly directed back to being a PA at every attempt I made to move away from it.

Fortunately, I was able to discuss my concerns with my boss, who was the sort of person who wanted her employees to excel and thrive, and she advised that in order to redirect my career to something I found more fulfilling the best step I could take would be to return to university.

I was anxious that I did not have the A-level results to get on to any of the best courses but resolved to rely on my extensive experience in large corporate organisations and the references I was able to submit from some of the country’s top business people.

Morrell Library, University of York

Having visited several universities I settled on York which not only was one of the top universities in the country, with excellent courses, teaching, and research, but it was also in my home county of North Yorkshire. I had always dreamed of moving back to the countryside and I felt that being closer to my family would be a help during the challenging years ahead, so York was the perfect choice on multiple levels.

I applied for York’s Economics degree and also their Management degree and hoped that my experience would stand me in good stead.  I was unsuccessful with my application to Economics but was thrilled to be accepted on the popular and highly regarded Management programme.

This was my first step to making the change for which I had been hoping, so my husband and I packed up our rented house in London and moved up north.

My three years at York were a wonderful experience. Although the idea of making such a big change was daunting and the idea of my new “colleagues” mostly being 18 years old a little scary, I was amazed at how mature, dedicated and generally lovely the other students were, even to someone as “elderly” as me.

Students of different ages and background worked together incredibly well, all bringing something different to the course group projects. I felt I was really able to use my brain again and loved the challenging work and study that the course required.

I was hugely inspired by many of the lecturers who taught at York and felt the resources available and effort put in to help every student achieve their best was outstanding. As there was a focus on entrepreneurial skills as well as general management and business skills, course content was easily transferrable to practical working life and there was close involvement with local businesses, large and small, site visits and case studies.

Although I worked hard I did think the discipline that comes from being used to working in a fast-paced commercial environment was a distinct advantage. I was able to treat my study day like a day at the office and my organisational skills were a huge help. As such, I graduated in 2012 with a 1st Class Honours and also won an academic prize for ‘Management Student with the highest grades’.

I was offered several exciting opportunities in both business and academia upon graduating but the entrepreneurial focus in the course had influenced me and also my husband so I decided we team up and start running our own business.

I decided it was a fantastic opportunity to break the constraints of a traditional office job, working for myself instead of someone else, with the potential to grow the business and take my career where I chose. This meant there were no longer restrictions on the scope of my career and my earnings would now be potentially uncapped.

The varied skill set earned in my time at York has been invaluable as with any small business we all wear many hats and my role encompasses strategy, finance, credit control, branding, marketing, sales, business development, customer service, and technology to name just a few areas.

The confidence and skills that the degree course gave me to take the plunge and run my own business have been pivotal to success and our business has gone from strength to strength.

Whilst running the business we decided it was also a good time to start a family and the flexibility that being my own boss has provided alongside being a parent has been vital. We are incredibly lucky that we can be flexible around school holidays, childhood illnesses etc.

The scope of my job, remuneration, and quality of life have all improved immeasurably as a direct result of returning to university as a mature student but most importantly, I now feel I have the skills and experience to be in charge of my own destiny and take my life down the paths that I choose.

Helen Barnes is a Management and Business graduate from University of York