Vanessa Rowan Johnstone

Alumna’s Oscar-winning support of future talent

Vanessa Rowan Johnstone (Economics and Agricultural Economics, 1991) is Director of Corporate Marketing at Stifel and has worked in The City for two decades, but in 2017 she also became Executive Producer of a short film. That film, The Silent Child, would go on to win an Oscar at the 2018 Academy Awards and help raise awareness of the struggles children face growing up deaf.

We talked to Vanessa about what inspired her to get involved in such a different field.

In 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was incredibly lucky I was able to beat it. The NHS found it early and the doctors and nurses were amazing, however a consequence was being unable to have a family, and while talking to my doctors it was suggested I focus my energy on a project to help young people.

This was on my mind in 2016 when, on my way to work, I read a story in City AM about a young couple seeking to crowdfund their film. I have seen a lot of pitches in my career but this one really inspired me. Rachel (Shenton) and Chris (Overton), the writer and director of the film, had put together a comprehensive listing explaining what they were planning and why support was crucial.

So I went home, spoke to my husband, and then joined as their first Executive Producer. That seemed to help get the ball rolling, a few other large donors came on board and quite quickly they were at their target and able to get started.

There were two reasons I wanted to get involved. One was the enthusiasm and drive of Rachel and Chris – they were two young people with this great idea and a plan to make it happen, and they just needed a little support from others to get it off the ground. The other reason was the story itself. The message of the film is such an important one, highlighting how it is to grow up unable to communicate with the world around you, and how comparatively simple it is to make communities more inclusive.

A year after the crowdfunding I got a call to say the film was finished. It was so exciting to watch for the first time and I was so proud to have been able to play a small part. I was also able to use skills from my corporate job to support their promotion. When I was at Exeter I set-up the Powderham Ball with a friend and I’ve always loved organising big events, so I was able to arrange a screening at BAFTA to help spread the word.

The Silent Child premiered at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2017 and won the Grand Jury Award for best film as well as Best Actress for Maisie Sly, the deaf child playing the lead character. And then it just kept winning awards!

To see it win the Oscar felt absolutely amazing. There was never any expectation of what might happen with the film, just a belief that it was the right thing to support and a desire from everyone involved to make the best possible production. That has meant that every achievement has been a little overwhelming!


I have such admiration for the whole team, they worked extremely hard and did a tremendous job. Rachel and Chris were one of the first couples to successfully crowdfund a film and their work ethic has been extraordinary. Also the Sly family – Maisie, her parents and siblings – are so wonderful. It was an incredibly humbling experience to meet them and learn more about their experience and what they’ve been through.

I feel like when you are in the fortunate position of being able to help someone else achieve their goals, you should embrace that opportunity. There are so many young people with the ideas, the talent and the determination to succeed, and a little support is all they need to kick-start their journey. If everyone who can, gave back to just one student, then the world would be a better place!

I also support a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter. The studentship funds research into building resilience in UK agriculture. I was keen to support a project where I would be able to see real-world impact and this is an area I’m particularly interested in. To any alumni thinking about supporting current students, I’d say to think about your interests and what you want to achieve. There will almost certainly be a project that needs your support and will bring you great satisfaction.

Exeter was one of the best chapters in my life. I made some of my best friends, I learned so much, and I had an enormous amount of fun. My experience of Exeter was that it let me shine beyond the academic arena. I’ve no doubt I benefited from the standard of education, but it was also the other opportunities - the societies and the social activities – that helped me throughout my life.

My tip for current students would be to grab all opportunities that Exeter offers you. Whether you like sports, theatre, politics, music or media, there will be something to get involved in, and the skills you learn will benefit you vastly in the future. Enjoy it!


May 14 – 20 is Deaf Awareness Week and to support, Aldi UK have made an advert featuring Maisie Sly. This is the first fully-signed advert to be broadcast on ITV.

Date: 18 May 2018

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