Heloise Balme – a member of our Catalyse Change Advisory Board – tells us all about career journey and transition to sustainability through a Masters in Sustainable Development at UWE.

Tell us a bit about your background and reasons for your interest in sustainability.
My career in sustainability is relatively new, but I’ve long held an interest in the field due to my love of the natural world and strong belief in social justice. Four years ago, these personal values combined with other factors led to me switch careers into sustainability.

What did you do before?
Way back in 1999, when I graduated from my degree in Hotel and Tourism Management, I was interested in sustainable tourism, but no obvious opportunities came up and so I took a commercial role at TUI, one of the UK’s largest tour operators. I absolutely loved the role and was promoted to a managerial position in just over a year. I was exposed to many difference facets of the business and fulfilled my passion for travelling and working overseas. I moved onto other commercial roles in large travel companies and progressed into senior management positions. Nevertheless, I became increasingly aware of environmental issues and by 2014, I felt very strongly that I wanted to help address these problems.

How did you make the transition to a Green Career?
I knew I wanted to make the change, but wasn’t sure how. Fortunately, a friend gave me the book ‘What Colour is Your Parachute?’, which helps to identify your key values, strengths and interests, in order to choose the right career. Using this book reminded me that despite falling a little out of love with my job, I did still enjoy the business side of things and I was keen to continue applying my commercial acumen in a future role. This led me to consider a masters, as a means to compliment my existing degree and work experience with new skills that could help me transition into sustainability.

In 2015, I left my career and life in London to start an MSc in Sustainable Development in Practice at UWE Bristol. During the course, I started learning about sustainable food production and got really fired up about its importance, having been a lifelong foodie as well as a travel enthusiast. Whilst reading academic papers on ‘alternative food networks’ e.g. farmers markets and veg box schemes, I found that the rhetoric often overlooked the commercial challenges that such enterprises might face. This presented a clear research gap which I could address in my thesis, and my business background would prove really useful in tackling this subject matter.

It took me two and a half years to complete my masters, as I started a family at the same time. When I finally handed in my thesis in April 2018, I was very fortunate to immediately gain some freelance work, project managing a crowdfunder for The Community Farm – a social enterprise and organic farm near Bristol. I loved working for the farm and gained so much from it: being able to translate my academic knowledge of sustainable agriculture into real life experience was invaluable, particularly as the farm operates within the area my thesis covered. Working for an organisation that has a major environmental and community impact was very inspiring and I grew my exposure to the third sector, which is so very different from a private sector enterprise. In return, I was able to help them deliver a crucial project by employing my project management and networking skills and utilising my commercial acumen. It reconfirmed that my career change had been absolutely the right move for me.

What challenges have you overcome and how did you address these?

I gave birth to my first child in June 2016 and undertaking the rest of my masters with a baby was pretty challenging. I was learning new skills – both at university and at home – and of course I was also pretty tired a lot of the time! To deal with this, I had to take the decision to get less involved in extra-curricular activities which might have helped my future career e.g. volunteering, than my peers. I found this frustrating at times, but knew from my previous career of the risks of burnout from taking on too much.

Writing a masters thesis was also incredibly hard. You spend a lot of time alone with a very finite amount of support from your supervisor (imagine doing a job for 18 months and only getting 6 hours of your boss’ time!). It required a huge amount of academic rigour; I had to develop new skills and new ways of thinking and ultimately many, many hours spent at the coalface! I made the most of the university’s study skills workshops to help with this and developed a strong support network with my peers to deal with the challenges of working alone. It was all worth it and I came away with a paper I’m very proud to have written, with a Distinction and my highest ever academic mark.

Why you are on Catalyse Change Advisory Board?
I came to be involved with Catalyse Change at its inception three years ago. Traci was searching for support to get the first bootcamp off the ground and I was looking to fulfil my masters’ work placement module, so offered up my time and skills. I felt a strong connection to the idea of supporting young women into sustainability careers because of my own decision to make a major career change into this direction. The most rewarding part of our work is seeing such brilliant young women grow and achieve during our bootcamps. They always impress me with their drive, intelligence and creativity.

How do you keep motivated and healthy?
I’m naturally a very driven and goal orientated person, but my children also motivate me these days. We are at such a critical time in defining what their future lives look like; it’s easy to feel scared but taking positive action is the best possible antidote to that. I also try to do yoga and meditate every day, even 10 minutes makes a difference to my wellbeing.

What inspires you and why?
The young women we support are hugely inspiring. I wish I’d had the guts to do what they are doing when I was younger! I’ve also felt very inspired by the school strikes for climate movement. They have really demonstrated the impact of individual empowerment and it’s going to be very interesting to see where things go next.

What advice would you give a young woman who wants to work in sustainability?

Read as much as you can. This can help you to both develop a broad base knowledge and find a focus area. There are brilliant online resources out there and books by esteemed writers such as Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Tim Jackson. Volunteer with an organisation you admire – invaluable for gaining experience and finding your niche, developing a network and raising your profile.

To meet lots more inspiring women working in sustainability then do join our Catalyst Bootcamp and Mentoring programme this year. www.catalysechange.com