Balancing a new baby with a full-time MBA
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On September 21 Halla Koppel enrolled on her one-year MBA programme at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School. She gave birth to her daughter, Louisa, on September 23.
This unusual start to a very demanding course, which was the subject of a Financial Times business education feature last autumn, barely disrupted her study schedule, Ms Koppel recalls in an interview four months later.
“The first term I tried to turn up to everything and I nearly managed,” she says. “I did show up [to class] a week after she was born. I felt better than I had thought.”
Even missing a few days has taken a toll, she says, as in that first week she missed courses in analytics and business finance. “I have taken the finals in both of those now and I am well aware of what I missed,” she says.
She acknowledges that the combination of the two events has meant a compromise on the academic side of the arrangement.
“I knew that by having a baby I was giving up the potential of getting the highest grade I could get. I was aware of that from the beginning,” she says. “I am quite comfortable with everything.”
The biggest difficulty in juggling a one-year MBA and a nursing infant has been managing time — not her own, but that of her fellow students. “The only thing that has been difficult is other people’s time. I do not have a spare 15 minutes to wait.”
People who turn up late or meetings that overrun can cause real problems for her as a breastfeeding mother, she says. But the former actress, singer-songwriter and television presenter has found some solutions.
“If I was expecting a meeting to run over, I’d bring her with me or hold the meeting in my own home,” she says. She lives just a few minutes away from the school.
This proximity to the hub of academic life “was something I was certain was absolutely necessary”, says Ms Koppel. “If you’re doing this with such a young child, it’s very important.” The business school has also provided a nursing room with a fridge — another essential, she says. “It’s very do-able, but I have been very supported.”
Ms Koppel is on a personal mission to make motherhood an accepted part of business life, starting with class colleagues.
“It is important for people on the MBA to learn to work with mothers,” she says. “It’s so important for it to be visible. In a lot of workplaces women are hiding the fact that they are mothers.
“I just wanted to take part in changing this. Having babies is just part of life. This shouldn’t be different; it should be part of the norm.”
She believes that mothers and babies in the workplace could rapidly become a mainstream sight, drawing a comparison with the way that a 2007 ban on smoking in public places rapidly became taken for granted in her native Iceland.
Once the smoking ban was introduced, she says, “it took no time to be accepted”.
Academically, she describes herself as a nerd who has particularly loved the finance courses. “I’m looking forward to macroeconomics this term. That’s my favourite.”
She now wants to complete an internship over the summer with a view to a full-time position at Microsoft or Goldman Sachs.
Combining motherhood and studies has worked out, she reflects. “It is hard work, it is very, very hard work, but you shouldn’t let it stand in the way of getting an MBA.”