An ESU alumna with an international upbringing, new trustee Sarah Harding tells us a little bit about herself
Tell us a bit about yourself and your current work/interests.
Firstly, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to introduce myself.
I live is SW London with Jim and our children. The two defining features of my life over the last two decades are being a mother and pursuing my career – in that order. My daughter is 17, and my son is 13. I’ve always had an international outlook, having been born in Zambia, and living my childhood in the Middle East, before returning home to Cornwall. I love visiting other countries. In fact, I even met Jim in a bar in Bangkok, when we were both back-packing in Asia in 2002!
Work-wise, I started my career qualifying as a chartered accountant, then moved into industry. Since then, I’ve worked in telco, media, and travel technology sectors, in roles including leading commercial strategy and as a Chief of Staff. I am particularly interested in technology, data, and empowering people.
In my time off, I love swimming, hiking, and being out in nature. I’m also someone who enjoys a wide range of cultural events: art, music, theatre, cinema, which is a huge benefit of living in London.
Why were you happy to become a trustee of the ESU?
The ESU played an important role in my youth. It gave me a special window to the world, one which represented new horizons and opportunity. I believe the principles underpinning the ESU: international relationships, quality discussion, the value of engaging with different cultures, ideas and people are as relevant today as they ever have been. I’m humbled to be able to contribute to an organisation that has done so much for me and many thousands of other young people.
I’m looking forward to using my skills to help the ESU go forward, building an ever-stronger future, with a focus on keeping the organisation lively, vibrant, and relevant for all its members.
What do you remember about taking part in the ESU’s public speaking competitions?
The things I remember most are the intensity of those few minutes of giving a speech, how exhilarating and terrifying it was. Then afterwards, that sense of relief and some pride, because whatever the outcome, doing it at all was an achievement. It was an emotional experience.
I recall too that passionate and supportive teachers were central. I am enormously grateful for the hours of coaching and the logistical support that key teachers dedicated to us.
What did you get out of them?
I learnt a lot from participating, and not just the ‘big stuff’ of argument and influencing. Little touches like how important active listening is, and how visible and impactful you are even when sat still while someone else performs, are lessons that have stayed with me. I took on both main speaker and chair roles, and in doing so explored my own strengths (good structure and focus) and weaknesses (requires a lighter touch and some humour!), as well as how a team melds through having complementary attributes. Of course, working through the development of the key arguments and considering how to effectively influence were key skills. I suppose the 15-year-old me would be surprised at just how much I’ve relied on all these skills throughout my life.
Tell us about some of the highlights of your SSE experience.
My SSE year was one long highlight, and reflecting here reminds me of what an amazing year I had.
I was at Moses Brown School, in Providence, Rhode Island. The Brown family also founded the Ivy League Brown University which was across the road, giving the whole area a cool, college atmosphere. The school pursued academic, sports, and cultural excellence, and also impressed me with its nurture of individual pupils; it was a strong and supportive community. I was very fortunate.
Having already done my A levels, I had the pleasure of enjoying the academic side of school with no pressure, and I took courses as varied as evolution, comparative Russian/American literature, development on scientific thought, human rights, art history, and (of course!) US history. After school I was on the swim team (3km training daily!), directed Romeo and Juliet, and sang in the chorus. Trips were frequent, down to New York for art galleries, up to Boston for jazz, locally to watch repertory theatre, and all over New England for swim meets. Along the way, I saw Desmond Tutu speak at Brown University and met Noam Chomsky!
Above all, the friendships I made were very strong. It’s 32 years later, and I remain in touch with a good handful of people.
All told, I don’t think I could have had a more enriching experience.
How did your year in the US change you?
The year was significant for me in three key ways. The first was that it exposed me to a huge range of new culture and thought. The second is that some of the American ‘can do’ energy and attitude rubbed off on me. The third was to do with how I felt about my role: I was conscious of the ‘ambassadorial’ aspect of the SSE: representing my own culture was in the mix, and I knew that my perspective and contributions were valuable because of where I came from.
Whom do you admire and why?
This is the hardest question because I have always taken, and continue to take, inspiration from many, many people.
Right now, I find myself in awe of the Malalas, the Gretas, the Amanda Gormans of the world: young people with passion, courage, and eloquence. There are many that I come across. They make me feel optimistic about the future.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Currently, the fact that I’m watching the entirety of six series of Schitt’s Creek for a second time when there are so many other great things out there that I should probably be spending my time on!
Tell us something surprising about you.
I’m a good shot!*
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I think it is that I am very content with my life. I have a life that is ‘good enough’ in all the spheres that matter to me. I subscribe to the ‘big rocks’ theory of making sure that the things that really matter are what you invest your time on. I’m happy to have achieved a good balance across them. My children. My loved ones. My health. My work. My friends. Things that matter.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
The first is to be kind.
The second is that where there’s life, there’s hope. I am an optimist.
Sarah on the front steps of the main school building at Moses Brown in 1990