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Meet Karen Langdon, Acting Principal of Josephine Butler College

Where did it all start?

My original degree was in Economics – a surprise to anyone who knows how creative I can be with numbers – but I got captivated by the wider issues of how subjects get on the agenda, determining what decisions can be made and in whose interest. Indeed, what is actively hidden from consideration and how the narratives of need or justice are drowned out by justifications of efficiency, economic growth or greater good. So, I got involved in health and arts policy, avoided graduate schemes, and ended up doing research for a project assessing a range of management interventions in the health service and selling advertising space in a local ‘What’s On’ magazine. That really set the basis for my portfolio career. Finding things that were fascinating and working with people who were making a difference in their own way.

I began to work for more small businesses, turning my hand to whatever was needed and gaining a reputation for being a ‘thinker and a fixer’ as one referee described me. I was the first employee of a start-up company called HabitBreakers that had recently accessed venture capital to provide behaviour modification approaches to stopping smoking.

From there, I became involved in designing Government sponsored training for business start-ups and encouraging entrepreneurship among young people and particularly graduates. This brought me into contact with the Small Business Centre at the Business School – the internationally recognised authority on supporting individuals and teams to start businesses, inculcating creativity and innovation in schools, higher and further education, training business start-up and development coaches, and designing policy for government intervention in the UK and around the world.

Tell us about your career to date

The 1980s and 90s was a very exciting time to be in this area of work. It was new, fresh, innovative and a community of practice that was global. I did VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) with a youth organisation in Kenya for two years that massively impacted my perception of myself and how I could fit into the world. It was humbling and exhilarating and I wanted to gain more experience globally. The Business School was recruiting for business support specialists who could work in developing economies directly with individuals, with government and non-governmental organisations. At last it seemed I had some coherence in all the various paths I had taken since graduation. I came to Durham on a two-year contract and have never left.

I spent ten years working in many countries across Africa, in the Indian subcontinent and West Asia. I was Director of International Programmes for Enterprise in Durham, making friends and professional contacts around the world. Starting a family curtailed my ability to wander, but introduced a whole new understanding of the region and a chance to work in regional development organisations to strengthen and diversify the support structures in the north east of England. I continued to teach and consult for colleagues at Durham and have been associated with a brilliant third-year module on enterprise in the Department of Biology for several decades.

Tell us about your current role

I have been Vice-Principal of Josephine Butler College (and sometime Acting Principal) since 2014. I really wanted this role. I had been a mentor for several years and knew it would be exciting and broad in its scope and give me an opportunity to work directly with young, energetic, resourceful, ambitious young people as I had in several of my previous roles. Every day is different. Every day is a learning day. Every day is a new chance to challenge myself and others to find depth and breadth in our thinking and doing.

What advice would you give women looking to succeed in your area of work?

I was given a piece of advice when I found it difficult to see a pathway ahead from a career perspective that I continue to find valuable: remain curious. You don’t have to agree with what you hear and see – but listen and observe.

Do you have any tips for maintaining a healthy work/life balance?

I am not sure I am very good at it! It is easy to turn everything into a to-do list and a set of goals and outcomes. I do like a project. So I am often to be found researching something new to do. I have improved my ability to be still. To stop and stare. I love to be in a garden – alone or with friends. It is my happy place. So working next door to the Botanic Gardens and looking out onto the greenery of the Howlands site is very soothing.

What are your interests or passions outside of work?

Lockdown reinvigorated my passion for crochet. The more complicated the pattern the better. I sing in a community choir and have been a Trustee of many local organisations. It’s that curiosity thing again. How do they do things? What are the challenges? Could there be another way?