Olga Kravchenko graduated with a degree in Drama from Queen Mary in 2016. She is now CEO of Musemio, a virtual reality app that connects children with content from museums around the world and seeks to turn them into museumgoers of the future.
30 June 2020
What attracted you to Queen Mary? When I was studying for my A-levels (in the UK), my teachers really encouraged me to apply to Queen Mary, mainly because, when I was applying in 2013, it was the number one research-led Drama degree in the country, so it was definitely the best university I could apply for. I applied to a few universities but, among all of them, Queen Mary was the number one in terms of ranking and student experience. I remember when I got to Queen Mary I was so happy that it had a campus - it just made it so different to any other university. I remember I had my interview and I was so scared because I thought it went really badly and I would not get accepted but then the next day, Queen Mary emailed me saying I was in – it was a really quick turnaround and I was very, very excited.
How did you first become interested in Drama and how did you decide that was what you wanted to study at university? Since I was in Ukraine, I had been working in theatre and I was interested in everything to do with acting. I continued doing some acting when I came to the UK but I actually dropped my Drama A-level and did an examination with the London Academy of Music and Drama instead. After that, Queen Mary seemed to be the right choice. It was very different to what I expected and I’m really grateful for that. Before I got to Queen Mary, I was one hundred per cent sure I wanted to be an actress, but I quickly learnt that a Drama degree is not acting school, a Drama degree is a taught, research degree where you go in depth into the analysis and you’re able to understand both visual and performing arts. So yes, Queen Mary changed everything but in a good way – I look back and I am grateful that Queen Mary gave me the choice to explore my options because what you think you want to do when you are fifteen is very different compared to what you end up doing.
What was it like studying Drama at Queen Mary and what were some of your favourite moments? It was very fun, very interesting and very untraditional. The idea of contemporary performance wasn’t something I was initially very familiar with, but, thanks to my lecturers such as Julia Bardsley, I was introduced to the idea of Drama as contemporary performance arts. She was one of the most intelligent women I have ever met and the performances she put on were really striking and provocative. My biggest take-away from my Drama degree and what I didn’t realise, probably until my final year, was the ability to think outside of the box. I can think of an endless amount of possibilities and how different problems, different obstacles can be approached and turned upside down and that’s a part of my mind-set that I developed during my degree. We were very lucky to be taught Action Design by Jules Deering. He made me fall in love with stage design and everything to do with production and management and how you can make the magic happen backstage. I think this is what lead me into my start-up life; I was no longer interested in being the performer or the one at the forefront, but in being the one who would enable others to benefit from whatever I had created.
I did love Queen Mary – not only for Drama – I was also part of the cheerleading team. Initially, it was a bet with my friend who challenged me to go to the trials but I loved it and stayed on the team for the first two years. We were the national champions and we won multiple medals. I was a flyer so I was the one being thrown in the air. There was a very strong sense of community. The team was composed of many Drama students as well.
Were you part of any other societies? Not really, but I worked with CUB Magazine as a photographer because I was passionate about photography – I even won second place in a photography competition. I didn’t really engage with any other societies but I was General Secretary of the cheerleading team in my second year.
Musemio also won the The Fareena Baig Student Social Enterprise Award. Can you tell me how that came about? It was two years after I graduated; we had just registered the company and were about to create the prototype. We managed to start testing it within schools and we were also part of an Institute of Education programme. Then, one of Queen Mary’s Careers Consultants reached out and suggested that we apply for The Fareena Baig Student Social Enterprise Award. When I read about it, I wasn’t sure if we should apply, but she encouraged us. It was very moving for my co-founder and me; we knew a little bit about the story behind the award but when we heard Fareena’s brother’s speech at the award ceremony, we were both very emotional and felt so proud to be the recipients of the award. It feels great to be able to commemorate someone’s memory by bringing education to people and by creating a positive impact with what we do. We were over the moon when we won.
The Careers and Enterprise team also encouraged me to work on QIncubator, which was great. As a result, I volunteered last year to be a mentor and delivered a presentation as part of QIncubator to try and encourage budding entrepreneurs to be a little bit more adventurous with their start-ups rather than trying to find the perfect formula straight away.
Can you talk a bit more about what QIncubator is? It’s a programme that runs over eight weeks that allows you to develop certain business skills to roll out or understand a little bit more about your venture. For me, it was very important because I’m not a business student and I’ve never had any business skills. I remember a lot of abbreviations and random terms like “ROI” being thrown at me and I would just stand there like an idiot with my eyes wide open, feeling embarrassed that I did not possess a certain skill! QIncubator helped me gain a bit more confidence in being able to carry out user research, to understand how I can talk about my brand and to make sure different stakeholders understand my brand appropriately - because there is a different tone of voice when you speak to your customers and your testers and your investors. You either gain all these little bits and pieces that people think are easy to pick up through practice, which can be very painful, or through programmes like QIncubator that prepare you for the real thing.
Were you always interested in business and entrepreneurship? No, I don’t think I ever thought I was capable of running a start-up – it’s not something I was encouraged to do as a child or something any of my surroundings would have led me to. I’m generally very outgoing, I’m used to being the creative producer of events and I’m naturally quite a good organiser so I like managing people, making sure that everything works in the best way it can and I like solving problems. Everyone thought I would end up in the event industry. Actually, when I was at Queen Mary, I was working as a producer at a Russian-speaking annual beauty contest and I thought that was probably the most business I could apply in life. In fact, I remember I had a boyfriend from my cheerleading team and he was really keen to start a start-up but at that point I didn’t even know what a start-up was. Then the shift happened when I started doing my master’s degree and I looked at the different ways that cultural institutions were engaging with new audiences. We had actually discussed the problematics of audience participation in my BA and so I was very much inspired to see how we could use technology to disrupt and improve the relationship between audiences and cultural institutions.
I’ve always liked asking questions - if I want to know something, I will get to the very bits and pieces of it, so I would be the student who would read all of the assigned reading and all of the extra reading and I would just keep throwing questions at my lecturers. I’m not sure if all of my lecturers liked me as a result, but I think it really helped me because when you run your own business you do need to learn to ask questions - even if people don’t want to answer them - to get what you want!
You won a Sky Women in Tech Scholarship last year. How did that come about and what will it enable you to do? As a winner of the scholarship, I received £25,000 to develop Musemio further. It was one of the catalysts for Musemio because it allowed us to hire additional people and bring some of the ideas to life that we hadn’t had a chance to realise yet. Apart from the financial part, Sky has been incredibly helpful in facilitating introductions – I have two incredible mentors that I have the opportunity to work with on a monthly basis, including Debbie Foster, who is the CEO of Tech Talent Charter. She is both my mentor and coach because, as a founder, one of the hardest elements is the amount of pressure that you have to deal with on a regular basis. It’s not like there will be a point where you don’t have problems – you always have problems and you’re always under pressure but it’s about how you manage this pressure and how you manage the stress but still manage to stay sane. I also have an incredible mentor from Sky’s executive team, Vanessa Woodard, who is Head of Partnerships at Sky Arts. It’s her expertise and her belief in me as a founder and my company that really gives me the confidence to keep on doing what Musemio does. Sky has been incredibly helpful for us and, obviously, it’s great PR. When they announced the scholarship, I appeared in the Evening Standard – which was very exciting!
You have volunteered with the University at careers events and as a mentor – is this something that you’ve wanted to pay forward where you’ve received that support from other people? Yes for sure. I do love coming back to Queen Mary and sitting on panels – especially when it’s with Drama students. When you are a Drama student, everyone you meet tells you, “It will be tough, you will be working for free for the next ten years and then you might end up getting a pay cheque.” I didn’t go this way, I went into my start-up, and I just want people to see that there is a chance for them to do something different. If they end up believing that performance art, for example, is not necessarily something that they want to pursue as a full-time career, they have other options.
I am always stressing that there is plenty of support available; you just need to be open-minded. The Careers and Enterprise team at Queen Mary is fantastic and QIncubator is very insightful, so even if you are a complete zero in business like I was, they can help you to understand the basics enough for you to get to a point where you’ll be able to seek some more help. I am always encouraging students to get in touch with me if there is any way I can help them. I actually had someone from my cheerleading team reach out to me a couple of weeks ago asking me if they could show me their business idea and if I could give them any direction on what their next steps would be because I’ve already been there. That is what I want to communicate during any events, that if you need someone, I am here, and there are other people willing to help you.
Do you think your time at Queen Mary helped you get to where you are now in your career? Yes, for sure. As I said before, I think the most valuable skill that I got from Queen Mary was the ability to think outside the box and that is something that you usually get from creative subjects. We are not taught to learn Excel or PowerPoint or all these skills that people deem to be important, we are taught to challenge people, to challenge assumptions and to look further than people would generally look and I think that’s where the value of my degree really was. It was hard to understand this when I was studying and it took me a while to be able to reflect, but it was also about courage. I spent a lot of time in the library – I was very lucky as my degree was all coursework so I didn’t have any exams. I think in my second year, I had to do an essay on pornographic imagery and feminism and I remember picking up loads of books that had “pornography” written on them in big letters. It was pretty embarrassing but I kept on pursuing it because I was determined to get to grips with it and to be able to explain why it was important.
So would you say that your degree gave you the opportunity to look into many interesting topics that you would not have otherwise looked into? Yes, but it also teaches you to really stand your ground because when you spend months and months researching certain themes or problems, you’re really looking forward to the final assignment when you’re either presenting it or getting feedback from you tutor because you believe that it’s very important to be delivered. When you’re running a start-up, that’s all you have at the beginning – all you’re doing for the first couple of months is trying to persuade other people that your vision and mission are valid and you’re doing this through heaps of research. It sounds like two different things but actually, it’s the same exercise: you research, you stand your ground and then you push and push and push until it becomes a reality and people recognise it.
What do you love most about your job and what are your hopes and plans for your career going forwards? I love strategy – for me, the ability to see and to cultivate the belief in where my start-up is going in the next six, twelve or eighteen months or five years is what motivates me to get up in the morning and spend hours and hours at my computer. We do believe that Musemio will become the number one virtual reality platform for children to engage with arts and culture. The mission of making arts and culture accessible for every child across the globe has always been there from the very beginning and will not change. We are very much committed to making sure that our services and experiences reach different communities and we are very cautious about making sure that we do not end up being an elitist app or end up being something that is not accessible. We were running a number of workshops in state schools as well as independent schools across the country (before lockdown) and we work with a number of charities to deliver the experience because we want kids to have a chance to broaden their horizons and stretch their imagination.
If you weren’t running your own company what do you think you would be doing? I think I would be in the events space as a producer. Before I started running my own business, I was really keen on getting involved in the National Theatre and I think the sky for my dreams would be working at the National Theatre as a producer. I was also very interested in set design – I even did a course at UAL in Set Design as I wanted to be the decision maker – that was always the thing, whether it be in theatre or events, and now with my start-up – how can you really make a change? How can you impact someone’s life? How can you impact lives on a big scale?
What are some of your favourite memories from your time at Queen Mary? After every cheerleading session, we would go to Nando’s and spend hours there, which was really fun. But in terms of the Drama degree, everything to do with Action Design (a module I took in my second year) and a fabulous, just incredible group of classmates. We produced a full-on production in the style of Hitchcock, which was really scary - like a murder mystery. The preparation for these practical exercises was really engaging – it did not feel like study. I never felt like I was studying at Queen Mary – not in a way to say I didn’t put in effort – I spent hours and hours in the library – but I would always be so into the topics I was researching that it didn’t feel like work.
Did you have a favourite spot on campus? I really enjoyed the cemetery – I think it looks really pretty in spring covered in daffodils. I liked hanging out next to the canal in the summer time – it was just beautiful – you actually felt like you were on a campus in one of those American movies you watch as a teenager. And, of course, everyone loves Drapers – the cheerleading team had lots of sports socials there which were fun.
What would your advice be to students applying to study Drama at Queen Mary and how can they make the most of their experience? Firstly, be aware it is not an acting school. Obviously, you can engage with the Drama Society and there are plenty of possibilities for you as a Drama student to realise your potential as an actor or a director or a writer, but it is a research degree and you’re going to spend plenty of time writing essays. I think it’s important to be open-minded and it’s important to try different things when you start university as you never know what choices will be the right one for you. For me, I was lucky enough to gain work experience as the Project Development Lead at Oxford House Theatre through a Queen Mary programme, and it basically meant I could do anything I wanted with the space. I had so much freedom, which for some people would be overwhelming, but for me it was just right. Then, when I did my internship, I actually put together a performing arts festival that was supported by Queen Mary professors because it was about enabling performance graduates and emerging performers to showcase their talent to the wider community. So, always keep your eyes open and do not feel sorry for yourself when you are a student because there are so many opportunities. Try to maximise learning, try to maximise all the diversity of experience so you can get to understand what you love.
My favourite thing when I was a student was going to Freshers’ Week. I would go every single year – because obviously you get free Nando’s and free Pizza Hut – but this wasn’t the point! If I could go back to Queen Mary, I would sign up to three hundred societies and try to be a part of everything!
Find out more about Musemio.