Coffee Q&A: Hanna Chalmers

When I started sharing my personal journey, during talks, on social media and in writing on this site, I quickly realised the part I enjoyed the most was talking to and learning from others who attended talks or read my work. As I started sharing my experience, others started to reach out and share theirs, we had community, I built stronger networks and, oftentimes, we helped one another solve problems or create great new ideas. 

With this in mind, I’m super excited to launch Coffee Q&A ☕️. A Q&A interview series where I sit down for coffee with some of my favourite people each month to ask them a few questions on how they got to where they are, the people they admire, their tips and tricks to success and most importantly, the soundtrack to the movie of their life.  

For my first interview, I’m thrilled to share my conversation with friend and former colleague: Hanna Chalmers. Hanna is someone I came to admire very quickly upon meeting, a cultural expert, strategic researcher, and “exuberant” founder of the CultureStudio. Before starting her collective, Hanna worked in roles at BBC and Universal Music, and later on in her career (after a brief stint in the woods surrounding Portland, Oregon, USA) worked as a senior director at agencies Initiative and Ipsos MORI working with brands like Facebook, Netflix and Google. 

I absolutely adored sitting down for a (virtual) brew with Hanna and took a lot from our chat – I hope you do too! 

Rebekah: Jumping straight in – in 2020, like me, you had quite a big career change. And, and so I wanted to start by asking you a bit about your journey to starting the CultureStudio, your company, in the middle of a global pandemic, and working from home with your team? 

Hanna: So what brought me to starting my new business in 2020? …It was a combination of professional and personal reasons. And I think perhaps it’s increasingly the case that people combine those two worlds in terms of the decisions that they go on to make.  In 2019 I’d kind of lost sight of where I wanted to be. I think it’s very easy to focus on where you think you should be, without listening to actually where you really want to be. 

As somebody that’s always been quite, well, really driven, and always been, I guess, ambitious, 2019 left me feeling quite unfulfilled.

Because actually, there are other things that are equally as important to me. And part of that other side of me is wanting to have a good quality of life, to be able to see my kids and friends, it’s an important part of me feeling fulfilled and happy and being able to do interesting things that aren’t just about work and I say that as someone that absolutely loves working life!  And you can’t pull apart working hours Hanna from non-working hours Hanna – we’re exactly the same person and my interests fuse from one to the other.  So I decided at the start of 2020 that I’d reached an age where I could do both, and create my own way of working.

So with that in mind, I decided to set up on my own, but I didn’t want to work on my own. I really enjoy working with lots of different people and feeling stimulated and inspired and learning new things. I think you need to be bouncing around ideas, and the more people you have viewing a problem, the more likely you are to get to an interesting answer and valuable answer. Great research requires different perspectives and expertise.

And, you know, increasingly, we all have the language of diversity, but it’s still far too easy to, you know, and I include companies as well as individuals in this, to say “Oh, yeah, I do all of that”.  But when it comes to writing analyses, or viewing groups, or, still not actually questioning your own assumptions. And so the more people you have engaged in a research process that can challenge you that you can challenge them the better – and of course that is the same in coding too. 

Yeah, definitely. 

So, I decided to set up a collective. And actually, I don’t think I realised what a great idea it was. It completely makes sense. It’s a brilliant way of working, because increasingly, loads of people don’t want to work for big companies and feel inhibited by that. They can’t do the stuff that they want to do. So there are loads of, as I found out last year, incredibly talented, brilliant people out there that are working as freelancers. And so what I spent 2020 doing was finding interesting, smart people that I want to work with.

And it’s been amazing. Lots of different people that come from lots of different walks of life. And, from a business point of view, from a business model point of view, it’s a no brainer, because we can scale up. And, we all get to where we all know each other and work with each other really well, but have far fewer overheads. 

So that was kind of the background to it. And I’ve worked incredibly hard. I worked seven days a week from September to December but that was primarily because of lockdown. When I was home-schooling, it was virtually impossible to be able to do what I wanted to do. So, the minute schools were back, I was able to really push forward. And it was fantastic. It’s a way of working that really suits me because I’m somebody that likes working on my terms.  

It feels incredibly liberating. 

I think that’s a nice way to summarise a lot of what you’ve said –  it’s liberating –  working on your own terms is quite a nice learning, I think, for a lot of people in 2020.

So, obviously your company’s called CultureStudio, and I just wondered how the political or cultural shifts of 2020 and the years preceding influenced the choice of the name and direction of your business and work?

I found it difficult to name it.  And, in the end, I went with, you know, very simply, what we do, which makes it a lot easier from a start-up point of view. I had all sorts of esoteric names, and I still have some of the names. You would love one, it started as it the Ordinary Girls Club but some people found it confusing – thought it was female only research – or a female only collective. So I decided just to go with something much simpler, but I really still really like the name. And I’ve kept it. I think I might at some point launch this other idea – a female collective that does something quite different non-research related – which I’d love for you to be a part of!  A kind of mentoring, mutual support collective – there are a few out there now – it’s clearly a part of the zeitgeist – but I think there can never be too many! 

You know, It’s a thing that when women that are ambitious, they tend to push themselves too hard. There is a pressure to be better than, you know, you’d have to be if you’re a bloke. You have to be brilliant at everything. I’ve definitely always been like that. I want to be the best possible mum, I want to look great, I want to have the most fun, I want to do the most interesting job. I was always like that, and it’s a fucking lot of pressure to put on yourself!  And what do you do about that?

It is yeah – haha

But I’ve always been like that, I’ve just always put the pressure on. And, I think, 2019, and 2020 with the lockdown[s], was kind of a moment where I was like, right, but what do I actually want out of all of those things? What is the most important to me? I’m no less driven than I ever was. I’ll always be. I’ve always put myself under a lot of pressure. I think a lot of women do. And, I don’t think I don’t think it’s very good for you in the end. 

You’ve just read Michelle Obama’s book, haven’t you? 


I really loved it. But I found her to be that level of, you know, the thing that we all feel like we should be in her. Perfect in every way! And, obviously, she’s married to someone that’s been the President of the United States! I think you have to be realistic about what you want to achieve in all realms of your life. In terms of being happy.

Yeah, I agree. I think that’s something that I identify with a lot. In my recent perfectionism post I made a joke, which isn’t really a joke, to be honest, that I used to set the kind of Bill-Gates-Beyonce type goals for myself. And it’s not that I won’t be Bill Gates, but also I probably won’t be Bill Gates, and that’s fine. I think one of the biggest problems is sometimes you read these books and – I found [Obama’s book] incredibly inspiring, I thought it was a really well written kind of autobiography, I loved her. But, at the same time, I thought, wow, this is not me.

Oh yeah, I totally love her. But, I felt exhausted reading it. I think we can learn a lot from blokes – there’s also a lot we shouldn’t learn from blokes – haha.  But just kind of being more relaxed about the course that life takes, you know, to a degree it’s a kind of privilege of being male. 

We all know that girls outperform boys, in school now, and then in your 20s you’re like, fuck, I better get as high as I can, because then I’m going to have a baby. And that’s just going to throw me off. [The pressure] around the way you look, all of that pressure, that hasn’t really gone anywhere. If anything, it’s got worse thanks to social media.

Yeah, definitely. I kind of agree with that, for the most part.

I’ve managed women and men in my teams now for a long time (years!) and the amount of self-doubt and anxiety that I’ve witnessed amongst young women, it’s terrible. But, I haven’t seen those levels of anxiety or self-doubt, you know, really picking yourself apart amongst the guys that I’ve managed. I just haven’t seen it to the same degree. I mean, perhaps they haven’t shared with me in the same way?  But it’s really awful. And I just think this is an absolute crisis of self-doubt, self-belief and self-confidence amongst young women. 

To be honest, I think women have never, really, had that confidence. But, in today’s culture, if you want to progress, you need it. It’s prized. And, I’m encouraging young women to cast off the shackles of self-doubt. I mentor quite a lot of women, all very informal. But when they change jobs, they’d be like, Hanna, can you still mentor me? And, you know, I’m really up for doing that.

Where do you get your confidence from? That’s one thing I’m really interested in because I would say 2020, for me, was about regaining my confidence, gaining it really. 

Good for you! 

I think I’d have often been one of those thinkers, like, “You have to be the exception, you have to be the best of the best of the best, or else”. And this year, when I was switching careers, not only was it, as you kind of mentioned earlier, quite similar about finding out what I like, what life do I want? But having the confidence to get it. 

I wanted to ask you, as I know you’ve lived in Portland, I’ve always had this idea of living in the US for a few years (especially now Trump’s gone – almost), or another place outside of the UK, but for some reason I always I think about it in my head, like, I have to do it before 35. Because at 35, that’s my last chance to make a decision – 

– That is the crux of the issue for women! We have these dates in our mind that I think are genetically embedded, you know, because of the biological clock. We’re always thinking, “Oh, shit, I’ve missed that deadline. Oh, it’s too late”.

In a way, it’s so profound, it shapes the decisions that we make and how we view ourselves. I think it’s so important to reflect and acknowledge how big these things are in our minds. And, that’s why I think your perception of me of being very confident is my ability to reflect on and view the things, these big structural things, that shape how I view the world, and how I’m perceived in the world. And, I think that’s a big part of it. 

I think the personal is still very much political – but too often women aren’t able still to see how their lives, how their situation in life, is shaped by structural forces. And so they can talk about those structural forces in the abstract, but aren’t able to see how it affects their everyday life. And it’s stark to me, you know, and I’m like, but why do I end up having these conversations? Why can’t you do that? And I end up taking on this role of being like – “come on!” – being the person that’s encouraging all these women to do stuff.

Yeah, I think I identify that a lot in my personal life. I noticed this crisis first in dating. I’ve never really given a fuck about how many texts I send someone. If I want to text you you’re getting the text. If I don’t want to date you, I’m not dating you. But so many of my friends, predominantly women, have so many rules for how to date someone, how to text someone, we see it in so many women-focussed TV shows. So, I found that quite interesting hearing you talk now. It seems like that kind of way of thinking and behaving translates into so many aspects of women’s lives. There’s so many rules for how you behave in meetings, how you behave in jobs, in dating, or whatever else.

I guess, you know, I’m naturally a bit of a rule breaker and that comes from a place of confidence – seeing injustice – standing up to it – or seeing when things are just not right – a bit shit. 

For me what’s important is living different kinds of lives and doing lots of different things. I’ve never been interested in staying in one place for ten years, I’ve always moved around both where we’ve lived and where I’ve worked and always really enjoyed forging friendships with people from really different walks of life. I want lots of variety in my life. I think it’s so valuable from the perspective of what I do for a living, because you’ve seen beyond the end of your own nose.

I completely get what you mean. I think it ties into what we define as success and being unapologetic for that. When I decided to make my career change, obviously, I was kind of on the corporate path (if you want to put it that way), but I was burnt out. And, I sat there this time last year and I thought “this feeling is crap”.

I do think that is generational, though, because you’re how old? 26? You’re really young. I think people in their late 20s, early 30s increasingly want diversity of experience and want to do different things and have other interests. And I think I am a bit older, but I’ve always been the same. So I’d say I was an early kind of early adopter in that way of wanting to live my life.

I also grew up – my mom was a single mum and sole provider – and, I think, if you grew up where your mum does everything, I think that gives you a template of survival and resilience. I do think that. And I think maybe if you grow up in a more traditional family where perhaps your mum’s career takes a back seat, which happens all the time, that has an impact on how you view the role of women in the world. And either you can fight against it, or you kind of replicate it, and I just had a mum that always made all the money and brought me up, and that I think that definitely had an impact on who I am.

I think that’s probably why when I first met you, even though at completely polar ends in seniority levels, we naturally gelled so much and have stayed in contact since. We’re both, as you kind of put it at the beginning of the interview, we were both very, “who I am at work is who I am at home” people. That’s why when I set up my website as well, I chose to name it after myself, because it’s just me putting out my ideas.

We’ve talked a bit about your role as a mentor to people over your career. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how managing your own mental health and wellbeing in this way has impacted how you give your mentees or the people you manage advice? And, do you have any tips for mentors and managers of people?

It’s funny that the conversation we’ve had all melds together. I think this notion of not putting too much pressure on yourself is really key, and particularly in relation to the younger women that I’ve mentored. Really listening to yourself, listening to what your needs are, and to do that is a skill in itself. Knowing what makes you feel good, identifying what it is that makes you feel relaxed and content and happy. And being able to carve out the time for you – that may be quite a glib answer – but, I think, knowing when you need to book a week off work, book some sunshine or whatever, is just really vital. And some people can’t do that. It’s a skill that you have to learn, isn’t it? It comes down to confidence of being able to listen to yourself, to know what you need, and then act on it. So that’s my short answer to that question.

Do you have any tips for managers of teams and how to foster that? For example, in my workplace, we have an unlimited holiday policy, which I think, perhaps, helps people enact those feelings that you’ve mentioned. 

Really? I wouldn’t like it at all. I can totally see what you’re saying. But I would find it really hard to know what was acceptable. I do think having a healthy holiday allowance is important though – six weeks holiday should be standard. I think looking after your employees is such a no brainer. I was at Universal Music when I got pregnant with my first son, I had no concept of what the maternity policy was. You don’t know until you’re pregnant. And when I found out what it was I took a day off work to kind of digest the economics of it, because I was the high earner at home. And, I was like, “so I can take three months off, but then [financially] I’ve just got to go back to work. That’s it”. 

So, I organised a meeting with the new CEO – in the UK – to discuss it – which I was dead nervous about – and I’d done some of my own research on what other companies were doing; I presented this dossier. And I was nervous, but he was amazing. They updated the maternity policy which, from memory, exceeded even the most progressive companies at the time. I’m sure they’d have done it anyway. But when I went back to work and got flowers and gifts from other pregnant women in the business – it felt really good to have played a role in that shift. It’s one of the things that I feel most proud of, actually.

As you should be! 

It made me so loyal to Universal [Music]. I just, I couldn’t wait to go back. So, you know, I didn’t even want a year off. I think times have changed – that was 10 years ago – but I didn’t want a year off. I just wanted to know that I could take six months off and not be really broke. So, I think I had six months off. And that was enough for me. And then it was a staggered return to work, I So yeah, it was very cool. And the work they did around neurodiversity last year was also kind of ground-breaking, certainly in the entertainment sector, I just think it’s an attitude that a lot of other companies can still learn from.

That is an amazing story, especially in the context of so many companies still doing fuck all 10 years later? A lot of places still need to learn to put their employees first.

Employees want to stay with you and want to work really hard. Good ones do. 

OK, the next set of questions is more of a quick fire round. What items are in your personal wellbeing toolkit?

It sounds quite boring, to be honest. I try to do Headspace every morning. I feel best if I exercise every day in some way. And I try not to overdo it in any respect. You know, I have a tendency to overdo it. So just knowing when I’ve slightly overdone it and pulling back a bit. It is obviously harder being a working mother. But I’ve got the balance right now. I feel like I have.

And what’s one piece of advice you’ve been given personally or professionally, that you’d like to pass on to other people?

So… it is to pick your partner well. I think I think it was Sheryl Sandberg that said it. But like, also my Nana. And I didn’t really listen to my Nana, because she had all sorts of other terrible advice. Like, don’t be too clever. But, I just think the older I get, the more I realised how important it is, particularly as a woman, and of course, if you’re a man as well, but, you know, if you want to have autonomy over the life you want to lead, a partner that supports you in that is so important. So, you know, pick wisely, friends.

I think that’s really great advice. And, hopefully, I’ve picked wisely!

You know, I think it’s so easy for women to think, that sort of default mindset, is “what does  he think of me? Does he fancy me? Am I good enough?” All those things that go through a woman’s mind. And actually, the really hard mindset shift is: Are they good enough for me? Are they gonna give me what I want? It’s really hard mental gymnastics for many women.

Yeah, it was really difficult for me until I went into therapy. I was hating on myself.

That’s why it’s so important to think. Is this bloke or this woman, are they right for me? Are they gonna give me the things that make me happy? It’s not selfish, it’s really simple. But, the minute you force your brain to flip into “Are they actually right for me?” It also means then you come across as less needy and isn’t acting needy is the biggest turn-off in the world? But if you’re thinking, well, who is this fella anyway? If he can’t be bothered to call me then he’s not good enough. You know, it’s not about having unrealistically high standards, it’s just about are they right for me? Are they a good fit for me? If you’re somebody that gets quite stressed, or whatever, are they somebody that’s going to calm you down?

And not take it personally. I really think that’s excellent advice. A really good one for lots of people. OK, next question: which book do you think everyone should read?

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez. I just think it’s brilliant. I only just finished reading it. I think it comes back to that point that I was making earlier, that it’s too easy to think that your view is that sort of worldview. Also, there’s lessons for women. As a white woman you might think that you’re – I think you put it on your blog – about, you know, you grew up in a very multicultural London. So did I. And I feel so lucky that I did, like, but it’s really important to acknowledge that you have your own privileges. 

Completely. I think that was the point of my earlier post was I have done a lot of learning – consciously and in my upbringing –  to not be racist. But, I have not always been anti- racist. I think that was the big learning for me in 2020. Just because you’ve done a lot of research or talk around racism doesn’t mean that you don’t have some – conscious or unconscious – stuff to deal with. 

So, we’re in third national lockdown, which I didn’t envisage when I wrote these questions for us a couple months ago. But, I would still like to ask, what are you most looking forward to this month?

In January? Gosh. Well, I’m doing a fitness challenge. So, I’m looking forward to the end of January and seeing if it’s worked.

That’s a good one! And this is a little bit of a difficult one. But if you could go back in time and tell yourself one statement at the beginning of January 2020. What would you say to yourself?

Have faith in yourself.

That’s a nice one, I’ll take that. To finish off, my favourite question. What would be the title song or soundtrack to the movie of your life?

I might have to come back to you on song, but I’ll give you the album which is Since I Left You by The Avalanches. And it was its 20th anniversary a couple of months ago, which I can’t get over. But, it is such a beautiful album, and it’s so full of all the human emotions, but also, well, really it’s a dance record isn’t it? It’s just so exquisite, but it’s fun at the same time. And it reminds me of a particularly fun/exciting period in my life. So yeah if I get to have a good time, work hard, and do good stuff, I’m happy!   

You can find Hanna at: 

If you’d like to get involved with the Coffee Q&A ☕️ series 📧 

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