On Wednesday 8 March, women across the globe will celebrate just a few of the social, political and economic achievements made to create a more gender-inclusive society. The 2017 slogan for International Women’s Day is #beboldforchange – a slogan that to some may conjure up images of
the Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst and campaigning for female equality. Yes, each year International Women’s Day marks a call for action to continue the work and help to bring about gender parity.

But it has a much more widespread significance than that. Wedesday 8 March is ultimately a reason to celebrate success, to applaud achievements and to praise the talent of the inspirational figures that we know and respect today. On London’s Southbank, the Women of the World festival will run from 7 – 12 March and host workshops, present lectures and encourage debate from people who are successful, influential and leaders in their fields. These businesspeople have dedicated their careers to pushing boundaries, providing innovative solutions and emboldening a generation of young people eager to emulate their heroes.

At Continuous Improvement Projects Ltd, we asked our colleagues, our friends and other inspirational business women about their journeys – what brought them to achieve the success they have done today, what are their inspirations and hopes for the future and how do they see the landscape of their industries.

This first article looks at the background of these women – the plethora of different ways that have brought them to achieve their successes today. It is important to recognise these individual journeys, every person is full of life experience and eye-opening stories about their past that have helped shape their present. How different were the industries when they first started out?

Future articles over the rest of this month will look at who inspired them, their views on family life and what they would like to pass on to the next generation.

How did you get to where you are today?

There is no clear path to achieving success – everyone reaches their goals in different ways, with different means. Whether it be a career that was set upon from a young age, or something discovered along the way, there is real variety in the paths that these women have taken

A Beeline Towards Their Goal

Radio, TV and fashion presenter Arzu Qaderi had an international journey that ultimately brought her onto her current career path:

“I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and moved with my parents to Hamburg, Germany when I was five. Since childhood I have always wanted to explore – there’s more to life than just education and a full-time job. I always knew that I wanted to live in different countries and learn new languages. The languages that people speak are so fascinating.

I went to university in London and now have two degrees – Translation & Interpreting and Presenting & Fashion. I work in the fashion industry as a TV presenter but first I did radio, which built up my confidence. You have to start somewhere no matter what industry you want to get into. From there I’ve worked in fashion shows – I’ve also worked for various different TV channels.”

In a related field is Gráinne McCoy, Professional Makeup Artist and semi-finalist on The Apprentice 2016:

“I have been in the make-up industry for 11 years now. My career has grown from strength to strength, from account manager of a cosmetic brand to Head Of Department of English Feature Films, also working as a freelance artist for Google & Youtube. I have always been very creative and want to continue to grow my brand in this industry.

I’m currently focussing on creating make-up and delivering make-up master classes in the UK and Ireland. I’m also doing events at schools, the events are make-up related but it’s more about confidence building. My biggest fear growing up and when going on The Apprentice 2016 was speaking in public, so I’m now helping children build their confidence. I’m focussed on building my profile to the highest I can. By September I want to launch a couple of make-up products, but I’m taking a slow and steady approach.”

Danielle Reece-Greenhalgh, Criminal Solicitor at Corker Binning, is similarly focussed, dedicating ten years of her life to qualifying as a lawyer:

“I qualified as a solicitor in October after studying a degree in Law, a Masters in Criminal Law, a diploma in Legal Practice and a training contract with Corker Binning, which is a niche private firm specialising in white collar crime and serious general crime. I’ve definitely explored other avenues through my career – if you don’t keep your eyes open then you’re being quite close-minded. Once you study a law degree you can find yourself on a one-way track that people can find difficult to get off even if they want to. I’ve always been driven but I’m not one-dimensional, not all about the law.

I enjoy the fact that criminal law explores the people as well as the black letter law. You get diversity through the door and apply the law into a variety of different situations. You never know one day from the next what’s going to happen. I also enjoy exploring why people have done things, the forensic detail as well as just applying the law. In criminal defence it’s all about the other story – to explore why something has happened. My job is to provide alternative perspectives.”

A Flexible and Fluid Approach

All of the above women were clear about what they wanted do in their careers from the outset and pursued it with unflinching determination. But not everyone has such a clear-cut path into their fields.

Becky Kendall, Senior Programme Manager with CI Projects Ltd, is the first to admit that this wasn’t her first choice:

“I kind of fell into IT project management really, it certainly wasn’t a planned career. I have a Drama degree, which didn’t exactly lead me here, and no training in IT or anything computer related, so what I know I’ve learned on the job. I took a position at Lambeth Council as a Project Officer and they gave me the experience and opportunity to become a Project Manager. Working in IT without any kind of specialist technical training can be a challenge, but I like to think I bring something to the table that isn’t already there. What I particularly love about working in the field of technology is the almost endless possibilities of problem solving that technology can bring when used in the right way.”

For Elisa Allsop, General Manager with Bouygues Energies & Services, her career path involved juggling multiple jobs with study at once:

“I worked from the age of 15 in numerous jobs and left home when I was 17. My first job out of college was designing company logos – then I decided I wanted to live the dream, got on a bus from Glasgow to London when I was 21 and worked as an assistant manager in a pub in Osterley. I also convinced a local business man to employ me as an estate agent, but was always trying to get back into Design.  

I finally managed to get a job as an administrator in Dewhurst – a manufacturing company in Hounslow. I was the first female in Dewhurst to obtain my Mechanical Engineering qualification, which had its laughs and struggles. I moved from there and worked on construction projects for a small company in London before finally starting in Facilities Management with Skanska when I was 26. This was the first time I worked in just one job.”

Laura Buntine, Business Analyst at the Financial Conduct Authority, has an equally wide variety of skills and careers. She initially ran her own company before settling (for now, at least) in the financial services sector:

“I’ve been a Business Analyst now for about 6 months in financial regulation, but if you’d told me that when I left school, I would end up in anything related to finance… I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t go to university – I auditioned for music conservatoires but after 2 years I didn’t get into anywhere I applied to. In between that I was working and then moved around with my own catering business – in the south of France, doing ski seasons, I was a housekeeper for a while. Each organically grew out of the other but it meant that I had a varied CV.

Coming back to UK I got some temp agency work – I needed something short term. I probably would have gone back and cooked again, but a lot of the business is done on word of mouth (occasions, parties, functions) – you don’t get a regular stream of work from one person. So you have to spend some time building it back up and I needed something else to do whilst I attempted that.

I was put on a Financial Services Compensation Scheme project – a redress scheme at the time when PPI was becoming a large issue. One of the girls I was working with moved across to the FCA so I applied and went in not really knowing anything about finance – it was very much by accident.”

By comparison Becs Jeffrey, Marketing Partner at Fi and Becs and The Apprentice 2016 candidate, moved from the corporate world and started up her own business after the birth of her son:

“I worked in a marketing team for the Co-Operative Group, doing a lot of the copywriting – things like website content; PR; press releases; brochure content, the full marketing mix really. I absolutely loved it and worked very long hours and then got pregnant. I had my little boy in 2012 and when I was on maternity leave I started thinking about going back to work for my corporate job. At the same time my sister, who’s a designer, started working freelance and designing products for the nursery industry. Her clients would ask her whether she could write for their products, but that wasn’t what she did. She asked whether I’d want to do some of the descriptions for the companies that she designed for.

I did a bit here and there as freelance, so when I was meant to be going back to my job I made a big brave decision one day to try it for 6 months. I rang my sister, we decided to start a business that day called ‘fi and becs design and marketing’. We’ve essentially grown it from that. After 3 years we’ve got 120 clients, we work with companies all over the UK, China, America, Germany and Ireland. We specialise in graphic design, branding and copywriting.

When I do copywriting for clients now, I target mothers or families. It’s a whole new area of the market that I didn’t previously write for.”

The proof is in pudding – all of these women are now managers, consultants or in senior positions in their chosen field. The obvious connections are tenacity, perseverance and capability – having either met with or worked with them all, the dedication and capability of each goes without saying.

What was the industry like when you first started?

Many of these women have seen dramatic changes in the time they have been working – equality in the workplace certainly has progressed dramatically this millennium.

Yue Kendall, Head of Audit in Asia for Tesco, notes how businesses are now being held to account statistically on their levels of diversity and inclusiveness:

“A lot of listed companies now have to report the number of women in senior positions. In Tesco we set ourselves a target to make sure that every year 30% of senior positions have women. I saw that change in the last five years, but before that it was never talked about. People said that it was just reality. But since 2010 I have seen a real push to fill senior positions with women, but sometimes they can’t get the right candidates. Work-life imbalance mean that some women have to give up positions, but there is definitely a trend to address this issue.

Perception is really important. In my time in Tesco, I have seen very few women in IT because perception is that IT should be done by men. So in all senior positions in IT functions, they are all men. You have lower level IT technicians that can be women – that shouldn’t be the case, anybody can be an IT director.

Benedicte Cormier, Project Manager at CI Projects Ltd, notices particularly the differences in technology and how this affects recruitment into her sector:

“The recruitment process is far more volatile and fickle to start with. The way we as candidates look for a job or an organisation looking for candidates has drastically changed and is driven by the digital platform. Nowadays, LinkedIn is the channel to post and get a role.

When I first started working, people were in jobs on a long-term basis, especially in senior roles. Through the years, I have seen in my industry, on average, a role being held no more than 2 years before being replaced or looking for the next move. Higher/ faster turnover of staff means efficiencies in terms of reducing overheads, having the right skill-sets on board and being more adaptive to trends and markets and competitors. However knowledge & stability in a business come from years of experience, which at times is no longer a requirement in marketing agencies unless you are the founder/owner.

Finally, Fiona Daly, Director of Sustainable Business Development at ADSM, remembers how male-dominated the landscape of FM used to be. But she looks on the changes with hope and pride:

“I have worked in the NHS for the past 8 years and for a global company for the 7 years prior to that. When I first came into FM, I came into a very male-dominated environment. In both cases 100% of the engineering workforce (at the time) were men and when I did my BIFM Qualifications, I was one of 2 women in a room full of men. I sat down in front of the (then) MD of the company and was told that I was the company’s ‘Woman in FM’.

But this is changing. It’s about changes in perception – I was given the platform to make things happen. I saw that as an opportunity and used it. Now the company is run by a woman who has won the Women in the City ‘Woman of Achievement’ and BIFM’s ‘Leader of the Year’ awards. During my time in the NHS, I saw the Board transform from a 95% male board to a nearly entirely female board, and whilst in FM I remained the only female Associate Director, there were more women taking positions within the general management team and, most importantly I think, there was were female FM and engineering apprentices.”

It’s safe to say that a lot has changed for the better in the careers, and indeed the lives, of each of these women.

The next article will examine their inspirations, what drives them forward and the friends & family that support them to reach their goals.

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