Ri Chakraborty

Board member of Norwich University of the Arts

Joining a board needn’t be daunting

Many prospective NEDs may fear that being a board member is extremely challenging and stressful, not least while navigating the operational and financial issues that stem from the Covid-19 crisis. Whilst undoubtedly many boards have and are going through periods of extreme difficulty, that couldn’t be further from Ri Chakraborty’s experience in her first trustee role.

Ri heard about the role at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) through her professional network, as part of the media and creative scene in Norwich. She seemed ideally suited as two key criteria for the board were broadening their diversity and bringing in professionals from a related industry.

Ri had been considering a board role but “I wanted something where my skill set would be truly useful. The university seemed an ideal fit as Ri could not only bring her experience working as a freelance Executive Producer but she has worked with the Maltese Arts Council at strategic level, including their 2021-25 strategy.

“Although I’d been thinking about board roles with a broadcasting or production company, the NUA was even better in many ways. It’s all about supporting students and the staff, to enhance the next generation coming into the industry,”

Her induction into the role was thorough and highly positive. Ri admits that there was a steep learning curve with the legal frameworks and compliance, and complexity in how the organisation works. “It really helped the Chair was clear ‘there are no stupid questions’,” Ri reflects.

During her induction she also had individual meetings with other Council Members and Heads of Department. “As well as explaining what they did, they all gave insights into how the board has and could help them in their roles. It was really useful to understand what role I could play,” she continues.

One of the aspects of the role Ri was quick to embrace was the importance of being visible as a board member. “I went to the student shows and found opportunities for informal conversations with staff, which was really appreciated”, she says, “It’s important for me as a BAME woman to be visible, especially as there is minimal ethnic diversity in Norfolk. I can reassure students and potential staff from elsewhere in the country that they can be accepted here. I can also be a role model as having built a successful career in the industry. It brings a sense of hope.”

Covid-19 impact and the board’s response

Having been appointed in October 2019, Ri had little chance to settle into the role before the Covid-19 crisis hit. As you may imagine, the lock-down brought huge operational challenges – and a pressing need to adopt virtual communication for their governance arrangements.

“The first emergency meeting in March we were all on a conference phone call, audio only,” Ri remembers, “but there was a such a strong sense of all wanting to support each other. Everyone was committed to do the best for the organisation and offer any personal support we could.” The board swiftly adopted Microsoft Teams for future meetings to ensure meetings continued efficiently but also ensured all members could participate.

Ri considers that a clear demarcation between strategic and operational has been key during this period. “The board’s role was to make it easier for the staff to manage this crisis effectively, not get in the way.” she says, “We were there to support the SMT and lecturers to deliver their teaching as they wished to, but could help make sure issues like data and cyber security were dealt with – as well as considering staff and students’ mental health.”

The experience of NUA during Covid-19 has also been helped by a strong track record of financial management. “Sustainability is our watch word,” Ri explains, “and I’m confident we will come through this crisis positively.”

Ri’s advice to other women looking for a board role?

“You need to focus on what you can bring and which of your skills are relevant,” she advises, “if there’s an organisation or role you’re interested in, see who else is on the board and consider what gaps you would fill. All boards can benefit from more diversity, and I mean ‘diversity’ in all senses to bring the diversity of thought that is so important.”

And this focus on what you can do continues into your role as a board member. Ri considers, “When you’re on the board, you should be conscious to play to your strengths and use your expertise to best effect so both the Board and you individually benefit. For example, due to my interest in EDI, I have been invited to represent NUA, in place of the Chair, at a formal Advance HE meeting to share expertise on issues arising in underrepresented groups. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward and remind the Chair of your skills if necessary, though happily it wasn’t in my case.”

Most of all, Ri is keen to encourage other women to join boards. “Don’t be afraid of joining a board,” she says, “The recruitment process wasn’t scary at all. I found the interviews were fairly informal and very two-way.

There’s lots of training and support out there, not least from Women on Boards, so don’t be afraid to invest in your development as a NED to upskill yourself or close any gaps.

We need more women and it’s absolutely necessary for women from all walks of life to put themselves forward.”

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