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How She Got There: Sarah Brown, CEO of the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown and Philanthropist

After attending the first ever Women: Inspiration & Enterprise (WIE) symposium on behalf of Her Campus and She’s the First last September, I was so inspired by all of the women in attendance. From activists to designers to magazine mavens, each female had a unique story to share and thoughts on how we can change the world for the better. One miraculous host in particular, the stunning Sarah Brown, taught me that if we harness our individual power, we can bring about change across the globe. Using the power of Twitter, I was able to reach Mrs. Brown for a very special How She Got There feature. Read on for Sarah’s thoughts on philanthropy, technology, and more…
Name: Sarah Brown
Age:  47
Job Title and Description:

  • CEO of the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown established to pursue global projects in public service
  • President of UK children’s charity, PiggyBankKids
  • Global Patron of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood
  • Also Patron of a number of charities including Women’s Aid (domestic violence), Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, and SHINE Education Trust  
  • Married to Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, former UK Prime Minister and mother of two small boys

College/Major: BSc(Hons) in Psychology from Bristol University, England
Website: gordonandsarahbrown.com
Twitter Handle: @SarahBrownUK

Her Campus: What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
Sarah Brown: Absolutely no such thing as a typical day, but some things are a constant presence; my two lovely boys, my Blackberry for tweeting and answering all my emails on the move, my laptop for keeping track of documents, drafts, contacts databases and all the other tools I need to work on a number of different projects and across a number of charities. I travel frequently which involves the same but in a portable way, often with my husband, but usually without my lovely boys.
HC: What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?
SB: Before I went to university I had done all kinds of jobs starting with a newspaper delivery round, and moving on to working in a popular furniture and gift store in North London during my gap year, where I learned masses about hard work, earning my own money, and the range of skills involved in running a small business. After I graduated I got my first job in a market research company coding questionnaires and other fairly lowly tasks. This gave me my first office experience, and a much-improved CV which led to my next job in a fantastic corporate identity and design company, Wolff Olins, that just looked like the future to me.

HC: What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?
SB: At Wolff Olins, we worked in an open plan space and I was close by the impressive but (for me) intimidating presence of company founder Wally Olins. I clearly remember his advice to me when we finally had a conversation. He told me that impressive and important people actually like being asked for advice. I can’t think of a time when somebody has treated me like a nuisance for asking a question – people love to mentor people lower down the ladder.
The other big lesson that I wish I had understood earlier is how much things change. Whatever you are learning now, you have to keep your mind open to constant change and innovation. If you stay the same, you get left behind.

HC: Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?
SB: Internet entrepreneur, Martha Lane-Fox (co-founder of lastminute.com) is a friend and is the person who first introduced me to Twitter and opened the way for my 1million+ followers. That has totally transformed the level of support I am able to give to the causes and campaigns I care about.

HC: What words of wisdom (well-known quotes, an anecdote from your boss) do you find most valuable?
SB: I have always loved the quote from Dr Martin Luther King who said “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” I used it as the opening line to my book “Behind the Black Door” where I have written about my time as the wife of the UK Prime Minister living at 10 Downing Street in London.

HC: What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?
SB: I think during my time in 10 Downing Street, I was rather too reticent about sticking up for Gordon when the media reported things I knew to be untrue. I always felt we needed to just take the media blows as they came as part of being in public office, but looking back I wish I had used my own voice more.

HC: What is the best part of your job?
SB: Knowing that you can make a difference. For example one of the campaigns I care about most, the maternal mortality campaign, is making an impact on the number of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth. Do you know that astonishingly this has been the leading cause of death for teenage girls in the developing world, and tragically a great risk for all women of childbearing age? The latest statistics tell us that the number of deaths which had remained unchanged for 20 years have now started, in the wake of a campaign to unlock the political will to change things, fallen from 500,000 annual deaths to around 350,000 women – an improvement, but a fair way to go to reach our goals.
HC: How important is it that college students engage in philanthropic work?
SB: I think it’s important for everybody to do what they can to make others’ paths through life a little easier. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems – feel thrilled by your power to do a lot of little things that add up to a big difference.
HC: What do you look for when hiring someone? What qualities stand out?
SB: Technical qualifications and experience (of all sorts) do matter, and there is NO getting away from finishing college and getting all kind of jobs and internships along the way. What also matters hugely is finding someone with a true affinity with what you’re trying to do; you can’t teach the passion in the heart and soul that keeps somebody working hard even when the challenges are formidable and when the odds are stacked against you.

HC: What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?
SB: Word hard, have fun, stay true.
Copyright Sarah Brown June 2011.

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Gennifer is the Branded Content Specialist for Her Campus Media. In her role, she manages all sponsored content across platforms including editorial, social, and newsletters. As one of HC's first-ever writers, she previously wrote about career, college life, and more as a national writer during her time at Hofstra University. She also helped launch the How She Got There section, where she interviewed inspiring women in various industries. She lives in New York City.
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