Preparation, curiosity to learn, resilience and self-belief - Tarquin Bennett-Coles

Tarquin, Changemaker mentor, on Homerton, life, challenges and opportunities

By Jenny Ridge 11min read

Tarquin’s story starts as a student at Homerton College, learning about the history and issues facing black American women. His fascinating and moving journey speaks of compassion, commitment and kindness.

When I was at Homerton I studied English Literature and Education as I was part of the 4-year BEd hons course from 1989 to 1993. I chose some unusual English modules including feminist criticism, black American women’s writing and Afro-Caribbean and Asian literature. 

I was the only man in each of those classes. 

My mother was living in the US during my college years and having worked in the entertainment industry then became a DJ in the clubs in Hollywood for a time. My uncle was also in LA and married into a lovely close-knit black family living in Watts. I visited regularly and looking back, I always felt comfortable spending time with my wider family. 

Homerton had unlocked my understanding of the history and issues facing black American women and led me to read more about the civil rights movement. 

I was not suited to parts of school life growing up so when I graduated, I was highly motivated to join the teaching profession to help others find a way into lifelong learning. I also wanted to make a difference by sharing the theoretical and practical knowledge I had gained from my time at Homerton and help children consider social justice from a young age by recognising similarities in cultures and beliefs and accepting differences.  

Homerton was a wonderfully warm, inclusive and vibrant place to study. 

The course meant that there were more female students than male students so that was a lovely opportunity for me to see things from another point of view and be challenged on some of my own biases and existing misconceptions. I was living with someone when I started at Homerton so I was able to form a lot of female friendships that have continued over the last few decades. The staff were always supportive and gave us the chance to express our own views and help us find the data and supporting material to justify our position on a subject. I still remember the first lesson on ‘Classroom Management’ and the tips we were given so we could take subtle control of a classroom and gain the respect of the class. Tips I have used in rugby coaching many times and when I have been instructing martial arts classes. 

The education aspect of the course gave us a chance to learn about the special educational needs that some pupils have and the satisfaction of helping existing staff in delivering tailored lessons for those children in the schools where we had teaching practice. 

The combination of public speaking practice and learning to deliver a complex message in a simple way has been invaluable in my career post-teaching. I was actively involved in staff and student councils, giving talks on personal safety, the students union, coaching the women’s rugby team, building relationships with other colleges and all aspects of college life. It was a fully immersive and wonderful time of my life. It was while I was at Homerton that I applied my martial arts training (I started with Judo aged 8) to design a few personal safety courses for children who had been bullied and also ran a few short seminars for students who were nervous about travel and our location. I set up a buddying system so people would come back from an event or party with a friend who they felt safe with (this was pre-mobile phones 😊). I was very fortunate to be given the Westall Prize by Principal Kate Pretty when I graduated, for services to the staff and students at Homerton. I was so fortunate to have the likes of Tony Crowe, David Whitley and Julia Swindells as my English tutors at Homerton. 

They all encouraged me to read and learn from a wide variety of sources and I am sure that it’s thanks to their encouragement that this breadth of perspectives has positively informed my views on equity, diversity and inclusion. It makes me very proud to know we have Lord Simon Woolley at the helm now.  

After graduating I worked for three primary schools - one in Herts and two in Cambridge and I also did a long-term supply role for a middle school in Royston. I taught for over 6 years and loved my time in the classroom and working with mixed ability children from different backgrounds. My mother had been unwell and by then her illness had progressed, and she moved from an HIV to full blown AIDS diagnosis. I had to travel to the US to get her into full time hospice care and this meant I was unable to hold down a full time teaching job so I moved to the supply register and considered options for the future by joining the Cambridge British Junior Chamber of Commerce (BJC) and volunteering for local charities to get additional work experience (Wildlife Trust, British Heart Foundation and Cambridge AIDS Action, now Dhiverse). I was doing a lot of reading around therapeutic treatments for my mother and cardiac valves (my father had a replacement) and I wanted to do more. This decision-making crossroad coincided with meeting a member of BJC and a life science recruitment business owner. He suggested I join his company.

It is now almost 25 years since I started in the recruitment life science space. 

I now work with a great team at SCi Partners and my focus is on senior leadership roles across the sector, from biotech, pharma and diagnostics companies to life science service businesses, healthcare consultancies, charities and university spinouts. I have handled hundreds of complex assignments and been involved in many high-profile hires including the CEO for the global vaccine non-governmental organisation CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations).

I also worked in-house for AstraZeneca as a Global Talent Scout and for its Innovative Medicines and Early Development (IMED) Biotech Unit and biologics business units. This covered senior hires, talent pipelines and onboarding in the UK, Sweden and US.  

I have now been a mentor with Homerton's Changemakers programme for over 4 years and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 

Alison and Soraya are inspirational leaders and they have empowered me to want to be part of the programme. I always feel the relationship with the mentee is two ways. You learn from each of them as they relay their story and what they want to achieve in the future. I feel very proud to be part of the process for them and to be able to lend a helping hand. I have a wide network locally and internationally and I have been able to open that up to the mentees and introduce them to senior thought leaders and influencers so the mentees can get a foot up on the career ladder. I have been involved with CV writing, interview and networking preparation, arranging warm introductions, helping with job applications, investment for their businesses and introducing them to other experts in the field for careers advice. This year's 'Changemakers Catalyst Fund’ is now open to applicants and awards up to 5 grants of up to £2000 each for initiatives led by Homerton students.

Changemakers is a fantastic programme and allows the mentors to focus on the soft life skills that can add to the academic achievements that the students have already. 

I spend a lot of time helping my mentees think about the workplace and working with other people who might be colleagues and competitors, the impact cross-generational working can have, how to deal with a challenging colleague or a difficult boss - the list goes on. We also stop to consider what they want from their career and the myriad of paths they might choose to get there. We explore the culture of the companies they want to be a part of and the functional areas that will give them the most satisfaction and rewards. 

I am also realistic about some of the challenges they might face and how resilience and adaptability are key competencies to take with them. 

I am not sure students get enough opportunity to explore their career as part of their degree so I see this as an invaluable opportunity.  My work has really come full circle and I have been able to support entrepreneurs from the College and the Changemakers programme over the last few years. I have been able to offer advice, pro-bono services and professional support to Dr Millicent Stone with iOWNA and Seán Walsh with AiSentia.   

I have a library of over 200 books on personal protection, self defence, dealing with predators, stalkers and the psychology of fear and outside of work I continue to support local charities with fundraising and volunteering activities. 

Form the Future, British Heart Foundation, Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre, Cambridge Women’s Resource Network, Dhiverse (Cambridge AIDS Action) and Beacon for Rare Diseases. I am fortunate to be invited to chair industry panels, and have been a regular guest on industry podcasts and written articles and blogs on talent issues, the Cambridge bubble and the life science sector. For 14 years, Iectured postgraduates for Cambridge University Master’s programmes, firstly in Bioscience Enterprise and latterly on the Therapeutics Science Programme and I am now a pro-bono careers coach to the healthcare MBA and EMBA Programme at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

I have to say at this point, the skills I learnt at Homerton, helped me enormously in my career.

Preparation Homerton taught me the importance of being well prepared. I have carried this with me in all aspects of life. One of my tutors said “If you do not know a subject well enough to talk about it or teach it then you are not going to be able to deliver a meaningful lesson”. The life science sector is constantly changing so this message has been incredibly valuable. I spend lots of time studying and learning about innovative life science technologies. 

Curiosity to learn There is something magical about seeing a child finally “get” a concept or idea and then wanting to share that knowledge. This curiosity to learn is something Homerton helped foster in me. I am fortunate enough to work with people at all levels of seniority, from across the globe and across many different functional areas. It is a pleasure to be able to spend time with them and explore their career paths and the areas that they are passionate about. I am sure it was Homerton that opened me up to this level of curiosity and gave me the confidence to ask the questions that unlock new insights.   

Resilience My career path was not a straight line and I had to adapt to other factors/influences. At Homerton I learnt some valuable lessons about adapting to change and finding the resilience to look for the good in a situation, as you would with a child struggling. I have to confess that not being able to train for the Blues rugby meant I could not get a Varsity match rugby Blue and that was a big disappointment, but it made me reevaluate what was important and choose different courses in English that have helped me in life. Before Homerton I could have predicted that my father’s unscheduled heart surgery would mean I would need to take a year out after my A-levels which led to me taking a part time teaching assistant job at the school I had just left. This made me want to become a teacher and so I applied to Homerton. My paradigm shifted again when my mother got too sick to live alone in LA and I had to get her into hospice care in the US and that led to my move away from teaching and into the life science recruitment sector.

Self-belief Homerton allowed me access to one of the best universities in the world and exposed me to people and ideas that I would never have found on my own in London. The way the tutors built us up and prepared us to matriculate meant I felt ready to mix with the wider university and confident that I could hold my own on the subjects I was passionate about.  

I’d like to thank Matthew Moss, Soraya Jones, Lord Simon Woolley, Sally Nott, and Alison Wood for their inspirational encouragement and support.

The 'Changemakers Catalyst Fund’ awards up to 5 grants of up to £2000 each for initiatives led by Homerton students.

Are you building -  or planning to build - an enterprise, product, campaign, or creative project that will help us move to a more just, sustainable and regenerative future?

Do you want to do this collaboratively? And with the support of able, committed mentors? Apply by 1 May 5pmFind out more and apply today 'Changemakers Catalyst Fund’