Maria, who has been the CEO of sustainable clothing charity TRAID since 2003, is an OU MBA alumna. She graduated in 2019 and has since begun working with the OU Business School, where she has become a Visiting Fellow, to develop innovative module content on transition to a green economy.
“I went to a comprehensive school in the 1980s. I was written off academically and sent to a secretarial school, where I lasted just half a day.
“Eventually, my work and career led me to my higher education studies. I climbed many ladders to become a CEO of TRAID at the age of 34. Luckily, my position formed the basis of me being accepted on to the OU MBA course.
“The OU’s open entry policy was incredibly important to me, due to my lack of prior education. Without it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to study. I believe there should be fewer barriers to higher education.
“I chose to study business due to its relevance to my job, and I was lucky that my employer funded my studies. I wanted to improve my communication skills in relation to the language used in business, and I wanted to be better at the job I was doing.
“The flexibility of the OU was important, as you really can fit your studies around your life. I used to take my eldest child into my office at the weekend and study. But it was still a challenge; I forfeited holidays and my social life, and used my annual leave as study time.
“During my studies, I had a lot of personal challenges and obstacles thrown my way. At the start of my studies my father died, and at the end I lost my mother. We also had some family health issues to deal with, and I got divorced. I also had three young children and a full-time job to factor in.
“Having the option to take a six-month break if important issues came up meant that I could restart my studies during less stressful periods, when needed. The fact that you can take up to seven years to finish the masters was vital for me.
“Thankfully, my staff at work were incredibly supportive. For example, my Chair went above and beyond to encourage and support me when I thought I just couldn’t pass the next paper or exam. And when I really felt like giving up, my eldest son gave me the motivation to finish. He is now studying business and economics at secondary school.
“I really went out of my comfort zone with my studies and pushed myself in areas that I’d previously have avoided. This meant that I gained a much broader skill set. For example, the compulsory Corporate Finance module was the hardest challenge of my studies and I was dreading it. I’d failed maths at school and I had no idea how to use a scientific calculator. I gave the course everything I had and, once I got to grips with the material, I discovered that my brain actually really enjoyed the exercise of trying to solve the very long mathematical conundrums.
“There were lots of eureka moments for me in relation to the teaching materials, and I gained great tools that I could take back into my practice and organisation. I did feel that some of the business theories based on competition and growth should come with a social and environmental health warning! And I have since been working with the OU on this. But I was very lucky with some of the tutors that I had. For example, the finance tutor spent time with me on the phone encouraging me not to give up.
“My encounter with the OU has been life changing. Although I had a successful career, before, I never really believed in myself. Now I have a new voice, new perspectives, and a new invigorated passion to make positive changes, both academically and within the business world.
“To anyone just starting their OU journey, I’d say that finding your own support network is useful, from a friend who can help with IT or who has knowledge in the field you’re studying, to a family member who gives you the good words you need to hear to keep you going. I’d also say to enjoy it, you can do it!
“My OU journey and where it leads me is yet to be concluded. I have accepted a Fellowship at the OU’s Faculty of Business and Law (FBL). And, before the pandemic, I was working on material for OpenLearn with the OU’s School of Engineering and Innovation. It was the initiative of a tutor from the ‘Making A Difference’ residential school that led me to becoming a Fellow. This really highlights the importance of good people believing in your abilities.
“I am incredibly happy in my role as CEO of the charity, TRAID. However, I don’t want to lose the momentum and stimulation that the MBA gave me. Therefore, I am really looking forward to integrating new business and academic challenges into my life and seeing where they take me.”