After Hurtwood: the anthropologist, Vanessa



So here’s a question: what can you do with an Anthropology degree, and one from Cambridge no less? No idea? Well join me, and quite a few others I suspect, as I unravel the mystery of a ‘traditional’ and well-respected degree, albeit (admit it) a rather obscure one. There is also a rather charming story that I will soon share with you about assumptions, even at the highest level, of the implications of graduate study of Anthropology. Read on and l promise all will be revealed.


Behind the mirror of a focus group about home cooking in Seville

Vanessa left Hurtwood in 2010 sporting top A level results in Economics, French and Spanish and an AS in Media. I meet her via Facetime to catch up on her progress since leaving the Surrey Hills.


It has taken some time to arrange a meeting; her role within an international brand strategy marketing company is demanding, involves considerable travel (at least one week each month sees her in varied and often glamorous parts of the world) and clearly lots of commitment and understanding of people, culture and context. Taking time out of her busy schedule, Vanessa is self-effacing and understated in outlining her role and, indeed, what it is that she actually does as a Senior Research Officer in a small but clearly successful company, a specialist ‘insight agency’. I sense that she finds it frustrating trying to explain how very different this world is from ‘market research’, and I feel vindicated when she begins to light up with enthusiasm about the day-to-day process of her role.


Chatting to Hispanic and African American women with their mothers, grandmothers and daughters about shifting perceptions of beauty in Inglewood, LA & Queens, New York

It does indeed centre around research, which is of course about interviewing people, analyzing and applying the consequent material, and potentially developing this in beneficial ways, one level of which could be commercial. But the range of her projects soon emerge as vast and varied. Take a look at the fascinating images that she forwarded to us of her various projects. Just back from interviewing eye surgeons from around the world, convening in San Fransisco where the client is based, but having covered specialists in the field from Greece to Bangkok, and addressing in detail the issues and concerns of surgeons from Singapore, the Phillipines, India, Australia to name only a few, she is clearly still excited by the privilege of exploring the extraordinary skills and practices of these talented individuals. So here is the anthropology connection, I begin to see, and now could be the time to take things back to Vanessa’s career trajectory.


Eye surgeons in Bangkok for a Medical Technology brand

Following a rather international childhood, what drew her in during her mid-teens was a sense that the world was a rich and diverse place with layers of cultural differences and perspectives. As she researched potential courses, she came across one that really appealed. It was at Cambridge, no less, and herein lies the amusing tale. Busy preparing for her interview at that esteemed and prestigious place, she overheard a couple of teachers commenting on the range of Oxbridge candidates in the cohort that year, and how ‘Anthropology was a great way of getting a foot in the door’. Vanessa decided it was best to keep quiet, since it was the degree course and not the prestigious university that appealed. Nevertheless, as a top candidate, it is clear that she needed the best input.


Once at Cambridge, she particularly enjoyed the ‘field work’, the elements of ethnography and research. She loved immersing herself in the various ‘natural environments’ of different cultures, and specifically returned to family roots in Ecuador to study there the politics of eco-tourism. She survived the academic rigors of Cambridge, of course, and with an appealing modesty seems oblivious to the implied ability reflected in both her selection for, and completion of, her degree at such a prestigious institution.


Cat owners in Nashville for an Animal Health brand

Eschewing the option of grad schemes, she chose then to join a small but lively Australian company based in London, earning her spurs across a range of roles, seconded for a time to Oz, and always shadowed the strongest member of the team. Less structured than the traditional route, it really suited her, and she felt she moved on quickly. Four years on she ‘re-branded’ herself. Realising that it was ‘time not to be the youngest in the team’, she moved to her present company and a more senior level, and here we find her today. ‘Companies come to us with different problems,’ she tells me. ‘We conduct the research,’ and what follows is the kind of recommendations that potentially resolve the challenge, covering issues of advertising, innovating new products, exploring future projections, and all within specific cultural context. The clients are radically and fascinatingly varied: from ‘pharma’ (healthcare) to food, fashion to beauty, medical to mundane (OXO cubes? Frozen peas?).


Increasingly, she adds, they are all working in the critical category of environmental sustainability, a cause that could not be more central now. All these elements of course need to be adapted for the local nuances of different cultures. We have come full-circle back to the challenge of anthropology and careers, and now it does indeed make more sense.


Talking to men and women about skincare and beauty in Sao Paolo, Brazil and Istanbul, Turkey

Time to wind things up: Vanessa has some wildly variable factors to analyse, I am sure, some strange area of human need or behaviour to address. I have really enjoyed learning more about the applied psychology and understanding of humanity within our social constructs. Vanessa’s luminous beauty and energetic enthusiasm for her role, evident even through a screen chat, seems at one now with her sharp insight and analysis of the world, and I for one finally feel I understand not only what anthropology is and what makes for great potential career opportunities. It is definitely a great deal more than fooling admissions tutors and making a move on traditional universities.


Thank you, lovely Vanessa. You clearly really impressed your Housemaster, Ian (who had promised me a great ex-student interview), and now, well, you have super-impressed me!