Inspired by the courage of his grandmother, Jennie Shearan, who campaigned tirelessly for environmental justice in her neighbourhood, Gianfranco Rosolia (Executive MBA, 2016) has penned her story in a recently published book, CLEAN AIR. It explores the many challenges she faced and the strong perseverance she had to continue campaigning for a better quality of life for the people of Hebburn. In our recent chat with Gianfranco, he shares a great insight into the book, his career in global business development and how his studies have equipped him!
Huge congratulations on the release of your new book, CLEAN AIR! Could you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to share your grandmother’s environmental journey?
For decades, Jennie and her community lived on the doorstep of Monkton Coke Works, and their daily reality was a horrendous nightmare of hazardous and acrid sulphur dioxide emissions, all-pervading soot, and clamorous tannoys. The facility grew unflaggingly, converting ever-increasing quantities of coal into coke without concern for the residents’ well-being. CLEAN AIR tells the story of the lengths that Jennie and her neighbours went to secure environmental justice in their community. In forming the Hebburn Residents’ Action Group, Jennie united and empowered the underrepresented residents of Monkton Lane Estate, and gave them a voice, igniting a national dialogue about the health risks from the pollution that her neighbourhood had to endure.
The book is a David and Goliath account of a fearless working class woman who put it all on the line and left no stone unturned in her uncompromising fight for the right to clean air. While the events in the book took place in the North East of England over thirty years ago, there is a timeless and universal resonance to the challenges that Jennie had to overcome during her extraordinary campaign for environmental justice. She battled a negligent big energy firm that prioritised profit over people, governmental bodies that lacked accountability, and institutional sexism. Jennie put it all on the line and took on all levels of the establishment, from British Coal to Thatcher’s government, galvanising her underrepresented town and bringing her case all the way to the European Parliament.
What inspired me most about this story is Jennie’s resilience and her single-minded focus on her achieving her goal. We all just have one life on this planet. A country’s economy and politics are managed with divergent agendas that can create complex situations that do not have a simple resolution. However, sometimes there is simply a right thing to do, especially when it relates to many lives. And sometimes, it takes an incredible amount of humility and persistence to get things put right, especially if it is not the easiest or most popular way forward. Jennie altruistically strived for her goal of clean air day in, day out, for years. It was a marathon that required stamina and perseverance. Regardless of the hardships she had to endure, she kept on fighting, because she considered it a moral imperative to make a change. Nothing would deter her in her quest to end the turmoil for the people of south Hebburn. It was Jennie’s grit and drive that made her dream a reality. She achieved so much, with so little, doing what so few were willing to do, with extremely limited funds and none of the modern technologies that make communicating and accessing information so easy today. Her consistent commitment to equity for her community was unwavering at every stage, from the urgent and decisive lobbying of governing bodies that she and the action group undertook, to her tireless work to ensure the clean-up was handled correctly, long after the final demolition took place.
It sounds like Jennie and her neighbours were living in a nightmare! What do you hope will be her legacy, as well as CLEAN AIR’s?
I am astounded at just how far-reaching the remarkable legacy is that Jennie left behind. She was a prodigious force for good, whose every action revealed a magnetic environmentalist who cared deeply for her community. By seeing the threat that Monkton Coke Works posed to human lives in her community and striving to create the type of world that she felt the residents should live in, Jennie elevated consciousness of a major environmental problem. In so doing, Jennie became a poster child for the green movement in the region, at a time when green issues were barely gaining prominence on the political agenda. She helped make environmentalism a newsworthy topic at a national level. During the time that Jennie was leading the long battle for the clean-up of Monkton Coke Works, environmental activism was not as widespread and mainstream as it currently is in 2022. Today there is a sense of urgency around protecting the environment and raising awareness of the human costs of heavy industry, but back in the 1980s in the North East of England, a general understanding of these matters, and acceptance that this issue was a priority, was far lower. Jennie got the topic of environmentalism onto the front page of newspapers and onto national television programmes. Jennie’s gallant efforts in championing the human right to access clean air led to the creation of a woodland and business park in place of Monkton Coke Works. Not only that, but her campaigning catalysed the creation of a national charity called the Environmental Law Foundation that today helps some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country that are seeking environmental justice.
How did you go about writing this book? Were there many challenges?
Writing the book has been a labour of love and a huge undertaking. I’ve enjoyed the journey, from the research and writing to the creative decisions around editing, design, and marketing. The process was like doing the MBA in many respects: there were personal sacrifices that had to be made, there were many big learning moments that went on to completely change how I viewed things, and there was an end goal that kept pushing me along.
Has this experience inspired you to write any further books and/or look more into environmental issues?
The project has inspired me in so many ways, and I have learned so much from how Jennie took on the challenge. Throughout her arduous journey, she was brave, steadfast and sincere, demonstrating a level of resourcefulness and tenacity that would inspire any business owner, the capacity to corral a group around a single-minded vision that any leader could learn from, and a degree of resilience that can energise us all. Jennie deeply loved her community. She put her heart and spirit into improving the lives of ordinary people. Her redoubtable efforts left a deeply positive and long-lasting legacy, giving thousands of people hope for a stronger and healthier future and transforming their quality of life. To continue their good work, all proceeds from CLEAN AIR will go directly to three charities that represent what Jennie was fighting for Friends of the Earth, The Environmental Law Foundation, and Hebburn Helps. The story has alerted me to the reality that meaningful change around environmental problems is in our hands, if we pull together, and I will absolutely be getting more involved in sustainability causes.
From books to business, why did you choose Bayes to study your MBA?
I had spent four years studying Literature at the University of Cambridge, and then entered the fast-paced world of FMCG without ever having used Excel or developed a commercial model. The first few years of my career were a very steep learning curve, and I could see that colleagues who had a background in economics, finance or analysis found the job a lot easier. I continued my career in business development and was advised that I should do an MBA. I knew I would have to make big sacrifices but that it would be worth it, and it was!
Please could you tell us more about your career journey since completing the MBA and how the MBA has helped to elevate your career?
After completing the MBA, I was given the responsibility to launch a global programme in our Services division, and then relocated from London to the United States. The MBA was a highly valuable part of my learning and development. The case studies that we learned from, the diverse knowledge that we acquired (especially, for me, in finance, strategy and marketing), and the international travel that we experienced as a cohort, all made me a more rounded businessperson. This has in turn helped me progress in my journey throughout my career. To have witnessed so many services and product introductions, and to have played a small part in the company’s growth has been an honour.
We would be delighted to hear more about your time at the Business School. Do you have any standout memories that you would like to share?
I remember that it was very challenging to get ready for the exams, and, as an Executive MBA, I remember it was certainly difficult at times, balancing work, and MBA responsibilities. I wouldn’t change it at all though because I equally remember the feeling of genuinely learning new skills and broadening my horizons. I left the MBA feeling so much more confident and aware of the business world, and able to see issues and challenges through so many different lenses.
Did you complete any international electives? If so, how did you find them and what did you gain from them?
I thought the international electives were the best part of the MBA. We went to Chile and China. Both trips were eye-opening, giving us a flavour of different markets and business practices. I believe that the broader your business experiences, the more you can bring to the table, and I certainly benefited from the deep dives we made into the companies that we visited in these countries.
What advice would you give to others looking to follow in your footsteps?
I would recommend picking an industry that you would genuinely enjoy being involved in. If you enjoy going to gigs, go into the business of music. If you enjoy playing football and cricket, find a job in the sports industry. I sometimes feel that there are a lot of talented people who opt for a safe pay cheque in an industry they aren’t passionate about, when it would be better, in the long run, to start at a lower-paying job working for a company you truly believe in, then climbing the ladder much faster. The other alternative, of course, is to start your own thing and build your own business. The MBA equipped me with a lot of skills that have helped me as I embarked on this book project. From pricing to distribution strategy and positioning and leadership, I have utilized a lot of the skills that Bayes taught me in the various modules that we had on these topics.
Thank you to Gianfranco for sharing his book and the inspirational journey of his grandmother. You can buy the book directly from the author, or at Amazon or Apple Books. For further details, visit: https://linktr.ee/clean_air_book