In honour of International Women’s Day, last week I was lucky enough to be invited to an incredible event at Surrey Business School to celebrate the successful careers of five very unique and individual women. Personally, I am an advocate of the idea that both amazing women and men should be commemorated every day, but sometimes it’s necessary to have that reminder of how special we really are, and this was the ideal event to do so.
I was asked to interview each of these women, and found the entire experience powerfully eye-opening and truly enriching. The evening, Creating your own stories: life lessons from inspirational women, was held for students of Surrey University, but as someone who is personally on the home run of finishing my degree (fingers crossed) it really taught me some important tips for my future and advice for building a career path.
The best thing I’ve taken away with me was a general message from all five women: it’s okay to not know what you want to do, as long as you keep your options open and try your hardest at everything. If you want to get somewhere, no matter what your background or experience, you can make it happen with hard work and perseverance.
“If somebody had told me at the beginning of my career that I would be running my own business I would not have believed them.”
In addition to being creative and managing director of Farrow Creative, a graphic design company running for 11 years, Sam is hysterically funny with a warm, bubbly personality – at the panel event she has the crowd in stitches. Sam had a pretty clear idea of what she wanted to do by the end of her university course, although the idea for starting up a business came when a string of uninspiring jobs left her feeling she could do it better.
“I really feel part of something. I’ve built something up, and okay, it might not be particularly huge to some people but it’s blood, sweat and tears and it’s mine.”
When setting out, people actually dissuaded Sam from starting her own business and suggested she just get another job, but with persistence and encouragement from her Dad, her idea progressed from just a dream to a company with a great repertoire.
“It’s a very lonely experience sometimes, so I’m in my own head a lot of the time. You’re sometimes your own worst enemy.” This can be one of the hardest parts of her role, but the community she has managed to build and the support she has received make it easier. Entrepreneurship has taught her a lot about who she is, including admitting when you’ve messed up and then trying not to make the same mistake again.
Her piece of advice to anyone starting up their own business? “Do it. If you really really want to, then go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? Don’t have anybody shatter your dreams and tell you that it’s not a good idea.”
“I wish I could say that when I was starting out I had this grand plan and I knew exactly what I was going to do, but that’s not really the case.”
Simonetta’s impressive career has lead her to the current role of marketing and customer engagement at Western Union – the best job yet thanks mostly to the special customers and colleagues who make it feel like a family. Although there was no grand plan of what she wanted to do, four personal principles guided her decision-making in finding the right job: having impact and seeing achievements, learning and expanding knowledge, being able to exercise leadership and being surrounded by great people. The ability to always deliver these important factors have shaped her career path.
“I’ve always been an eclectic person, I’ve always wanted to go and do something I haven’t done before and learn something new.” An overarching challenge has been fending of scepticism from people who doubt she can do something well simply because she has no experience in it, but Simonetta believes it’s all about finding what’s right for you.
“Women can do great things, just as men can do great things and women and men together can achieve even greater things.” In relation to International Women’s Day, Simonetta reiterated the notion that us women tend to need a reminder to believe in ourselves and take risks in life. She argues that there is no reason why women can’t be successful in business – after all, the world is 50/50 and therefore should have the same level of representation in all walks of life.
“Be confident in yourself. Be resilient. For as many highs you have you’ll have lows. Be clear on what is important to you. But also be open for opportunity.”
“I never ever thought that being a badminton player could be a job. Growing up it was just for fun. I loved winning competitions and that was my fun.”
An Olympic silver medallist and world champion in badminton, currently running her own consultancy firm and a great sense of humour – is there anything she can’t do? Gail retired in 2008 and works as a motivational speaker as well as helping brands expand into the sporting world thanks to her network. Her must important job at the moment is being a mum, which she claims is far easier than being an Olympian!
“Sport is a fantastic bubble, it’s unique. There is something so special about the people, the places you go, the camaraderie and team spirit.” While admitting that a career in sport is tough, Gail says if you can give 100% all the time and be unconditionally committed then it’s worth the rewards that come with it. We all understand sport is physically hard in pushing your body to the limit, but we can overlook the mental effects. “Sport is an emotional rollercoaster. You have to sacrifice a lot. You can’t drink for instance, or eat certain foods. You can’t go to your mates wedding because you have a competition somewhere else – all these little things add up and that’s why you have to go all or nothing.“
The attitude and lifestyles implemented when we are growing up, like boys playing more sport than girls at a younger age, contribute to the reason behind gender gaps in some professional sports according to Gail. Until we get a culture change she feels it will always been more difficult for women to reach the top. While gymnastics and hockey are thriving areas for women to succeed, they won’t achieve the status men do in football and rugby because right now the playing field isn’t equal.
“It’s hard for women in sport in the fact that the rewards and the sacrifices women have to make are harder in general. But you know what? Why not be a role model for people. Why not say I know it’s tough but I’m going to do it anyway. That’s what I love – seeing women going out and rewriting the books, changing the record.”
“I decided there was no point being an actor or a director if there was nobody out there putting bums on seats in that auditorium for me.”
Halfway through her theatre studies degree, Abi realised that the business side of the industry wasn’t very professionalised and audience generation was a problem as well as building sustainable audiences for the future. After gaining experience through placements her passion encouraged her to keep on learning after graduation. She is now the school manager at Surrey Business School and a member of the senior management team, but the path there has been a varied one.
“There are so many things you learn in those first few years, all of which you look back on and wish you’d known. Value your own experience, value the experience of people around you and draw on that.” Abi says she’s still learning and loves the variety of the jobs she’s previously had and of her current role – it’s reassuring to know she abandoned her original plan and took the opportunities that came her way.
“Sadly I think women do have to work harder. I don’t think that’s the case everywhere, but there are some organisations and some sectors where it’s still tough. It’s heartbreaking to say that 100 years on from women’s suffrage we’re still fighting a basic battle.” Although this is true, change is happening and has been happening for a long time which is starting to be noticed. The rise of social media in particular has been an eye-opening platform where stories and campaigns can be shared by ordinary people, and Abi believes these really reflect how far things have come. The most successful businesses are realising that they have to have a balanced workforce and nurture them all regardless of sex, ethnicity, face, disability or any other identifying features.
“You’re a master of your own destiny. Make decisions that will propel yourself forward in the way you want and don’t hold yourself back because you think you haven’t got enough experience. Have a go. Keep learning and have fun – work should be fun.”
“I got to my job through opportunity rather than anything else so the message is take the opportunities that come along. Don’t turn stuff down, be opportunistic, take a chance, live by your own values and enjoy it.”
“I had very clear ideas about the things I didn’t want to do and I didn’t want to work in a career that was considered a ‘good place for women’ like banking or teaching. I wanted to be in an environment where there was a sense of creativity and making a difference.” Karen is currently the CEO at Surrey Sports Park, but hasn’t always known what she wanted to do – and apparently still doesn’t. Her keen eye for taking new opportunities is inspiring and shown through her choice to leave the garment manufacturing industry after 24 years and try something new. She returned to university to get a masters in sport and leisure management and then in 2005 began working for England netball. Karen then became university sport chief executive of BUCS for eight years.
“People are the easiest, the best and the worst.” Changing people’s lives for the better through health, welfare and people’s enjoyment of the services provided is one of the most rewarding aspects of Karen’s current role. “That’s a real joy for me, seeing the difference we can make through sport and physical activity to people’s lives.” However, people are also the most difficult aspect as not everyone is on board to change culture for the better.
“I’m a bit bored with the gender debate now, I’ve been talking about opportunities for women in sport for the last 13 years I’ve been working in the industry. We’re now at a place where everybody’s talking about it and now we just need to get on and behave in that way.” This perspective is refreshing, as gender gaps are an area everyone seems to discuss while not much actually seems to always be happening. Taking Karen’s view can push us all to consciously do something about inequality instead of simply talking about it – even if that’s just aiming high for the jobs we as women want and not stopping until we get there.
“I think you make your own luck in your career, and in life. If you don’t restrict the opportunities that come your way then there’s no reason why women can’t have exactly the same options as men.”
JACKET Paul Smith | DRESS Topshop | TURTLENECK Peacocks | BOOTS Topshop
I hope you enjoyed hearing the stories and motivational messages from these women as much as I did first hand! Happy International Women’s Day (everyday).