Interview with Jim Weight
Is it possible to be an American Brit? If so, alumnus Jim Weight would describe himself as one. Raised in Sussex, with an undergraduate degree from Cambridge, his Fulbright experience at Harvard Business School left him with a different view of the country across the Atlantic. Apart from the world-class education he received, it was the cultural education – the ability to understand and relate to Americans – that he says has had the greatest effect on his life, both personally and professionally.
I sat down with him to learn more about this, and to discover the motivation behind his recent generous donation – the first major gift to the Commission in its recent history.
What about studying in the US appealed to you?
I was working at Boston Consulting Group here in London at the time and a colleague mentioned that he was thinking about applying for a Fulbright scholarship. I already had in my head that for what I wanted to do - business -America was the place to go. US business schools were light years ahead of any others in the world. So when I learnt about the Fulbright Programme, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up and luckily I was given an award.
Did the experience have a lasting impact when you returned to the UK?
Absolutely. I’m much more culturally aware than I was before, and I’m convinced that the Fulbright experience has been the difference-maker in my career. In all my roles after returning from Boston – I was at BCG for four more years, then with a British retail group for six before making the move to private-equity owned businesses and then starting Weight Capital Partners in 2009 – my ability to bridge the cultural differences between Americans and Brits has been a real asset. I would find myself being the liaison between any Americans we were working with and my British colleagues. I was naturally drawn to working with Americans and they sought me out because they knew I could “speak their language”. Apart from connecting with people, it was also just little differences. Colleagues would complain about business trips to the US – the travel, the jet lag – but I still relish any opportunity to go back. If I don’t retire in Spain, where my wife is from, somewhere in the US is next on the list!
And you mentioned your son is now in the US too?
He is, attending university in California. Again, it comes down to culture. I don’t know whether the traits I picked up from so much exposure to Americans rubbed off on him or if it’s the Latin side of him, or both, but we quickly realised when he started secondary school here that the British system just wasn’t a good fit for him. In fact he found it repressive, and I hoped the US system would allow him to thrive – thankfully that has proved true. If I had never studied in the US, I don’t know if I would have even thought about that as an option. It’s these knock-on effects of the Fulbright that I wouldn’t have predicted but I think I can certainly say that the programme’s goal of fostering mutual understanding has been achieved, at least in my case.
We are so grateful for your recent donation. What motivated you to give to Fulbright?
In conversations with Penny Egan, I learned that, contrary to my assumption, funding is actually a real issue for the Commission. When she told me that the money received from the US government hasn’t increased in real terms in over twenty years, I was shocked and honestly a bit worried about the sustainability of the programme in the long term. I think every Fulbrighter should be giving something back, on whatever level they can, because as higher education gets more expensive and government funding becomes less available, support from other channels will be critical to its survival. Why Fulbright and not my alma maters, Cambridge or Harvard? They have more money than they know what to do with so I sit here and think what’s the point? Whereas I know from personal experience that supporting Fulbright can make a real difference.
Fulbright Civil Service Group
If you have received a Fulbright award and currently work in the UK civil service, you are invited to join the new Civil Service Fulbright Alumni group. Ben Rattenbury, Fulbright alumnus (Columbia 2011-12) and Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, had the idea to connect the two affiliations after meeting fellow civil servant and Fulbright Commissioner Jeremy Clayton at an event last year. After their conversation, Ben realised that ‘there are relatively few links between Fulbright and the civil service, and saw the potential to develop something that could be useful to people in both institutions’.
He hopes the group will serve in the first instance as a connector, expanding alumni’s contacts within the civil service, one of the country’s biggest employers. There are already over a dozen alumni signed up to participate and he hopes word of mouth, along with promotional help from the US-UK Fulbright Commission, will help it grow from there. He also sees it as a way to cross-promote the opportunities provided by both institutions: the employment opportunities at the civil service for Fulbright alumni and the opportunity to promote the benefits of the Fulbright programme to those at the civil service.
The Fulbright Commission welcomes this initiative and Ben’s proactive approach to tapping the Fulbright network. Penny Egan, the Commission’s Executive Director, has been ‘keen for many years to see an effort of this sort setup as a platform for continued conversation amongst alumni and for broader promotion of the opportunities offered by the Fulbright programme.’
The group will have its first relaxed meet and greet in either late May or early June to discuss how it might plan its work. Input from the group will be key to deciding its future activities. Although the meeting will be held in London, where the majority of current members are, there will be a way to join the meeting remotely; the aim is for the network to be as inclusive as possible to all alumni, regardless of where they are based. So any civil servants in the UK that are interested in learning more or getting involved are encouraged to get in touch with Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.