Ruby L. Taylor, Founder of Financial Joy School and LEGACY! Card Game
Maya Angelou once said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” This quote came to mind when I heard Ruby Taylor’s story. In 2012, her career as a school social worker was put to a stop by a car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury. “My desire to educate and uplift didn’t die when my career ended, it was just redirected,” she tells me.
“The car accident plunged me into a financial crisis: I was on the verge of losing my condo and unable to pay for insurance or medicine. One of my former students’ parents found out and she asked me what happened to my savings and investments. When I explained that I didn’t have any, she asked, why not? My simple but true response was that I did not know I needed it.
“She proceeded to offer her husband’s help to teach me about investments and why it is important. They introduced me to compound interest, IRA, mutual funds, stocks, and the need to invest long term. My newfound education inspired me to spread the word to my friends and family.”
And so, the Financial Joy School was born…
Spreading Financial Joy
By 2053 the median net worth for black people will be $0, according to a report by Prosperity Now. Ruby had witnessed first hand the difference that wealth education can make, so founding the Financial Joy School and passing on financial knowledge is her way of helping build generational wealth for black communities and closing the racial wealth gap.
Financial Joy School is an online education center and marketplace that uses the power of financial knowledge to bring together connections, application, and education to establish generational wealth for black families.
“We will have giveaways to build wealth, free seminars to build financial knowledge, a marketplace to create connections and fun and joy to create the life the black community deserves,” says Ruby.
There is an emphasis on fun on this course, with seminars “fun, entertaining experts who know how to make finances interesting and bring joy to wealth building,” according to the website. Topics covered include, ‘What is Investing?’, ‘How Do You Invest?’ and ‘What is a Will’ – all with actionable insights and takeaways.
The fun element incorporates one of Ruby’s other passion projects, LEGACY! Card Game, which was launched in December 2020. The card game teaches players about investing concepts and career possibilities while celebrating diversity.
The game exposes children to careers they may not otherwise be aware of, while letting them know how much money they can make in different careers. Players then get the opportunity to invest their money, teaching them the importance of making money work for you.
Keeping the faith
Ruby has always been an educator and a supporter of young people. From her first job as a social worker to setting up the Financial Joy School, she is invested in teaching, but also in hearing what they have to say. “I learned young people are resilient and their voice is powerful, when we take the time to listen,” she says.
Some of that resilience can indeed be seen in a young Ruby as well. In her youth, she suffered sexual abuse, and her brother was murdered at just 16, when Ruby was 14. And her family was involved in another near fatal car accident that left her parents hospitalised for a long period of time. But she has not let it stop her.
“All of the traumas taught me to lean on my faith and over time life gets a little better and continuous healing occurs. Every situation taught me life gets brighter no matter the struggle, if we keep the faith and believe the struggles will not kill us but it will empower us to make our world a better place for us all.”
She has turned her struggle into success in setting up her businesses, and she hasn’t let being a woman in a “men’s’ club” put her off. “Some women can feel intimidated because often the business world is dominated by the men’s’ club and many want it to stay that way. Those systems create unnecessary obstacles which can create intimidation in order to keep the status quo. But change is still coming for the better.”
This optimism and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel shines through everything Ruby does and says. Even her emails are signed off with ‘Never Give Up On Your Dreams’. She’s not giving up on hers any time soon…
Arlan Hamilton – Founder & Managing Partner, Backstage Capital
From starting her own magazine, to being a tour manager for indie bands, and building a venture capital fund which has raised more than $15million, Arlan Hamilton has had an unconventional career path. But as she says herself, “At the heart of it all, I’ve always been an entrepreneur.”
Arlan is a successful venture capitalist, and not necessarily the kind of person that most would expect to head up a capital fund. But that’s Arlan: she’s unexpected. A breath of fresh air who’s not afraid of taking the road less travelled if it will lead to something special. This has not gone unrecognised, with many praising her novel approach to VC. She’s featured in Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list and been a cover star of Fast Company magazine in acknowledgement of what she’s achieved through her company. Backstage Capital is a fund that’s dedicated to minimizing funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders who are people of colour, women and/or LGBTQ.
“Backstage Capital funds underestimated founders because we believe that underestimated does not equal underqualified, or underachiever,” says Arlan. “We invest in those founders who are being overlooked by mainstream investors because they don’t fit the mould of what a successful founder looks like, according to this sector. We understand that diversity is essential for true innovation and we’re working towards a world in which technology is a net positive for all people, not just those with a higher social standing.”
“If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, why can’t I?”
Backstage Capital is all about helping the underrepresented, those who don’t normally get a seat at the table when business deals are being done. And this is something that Arlan has experienced herself. “Venture capital is overwhelmingly white and male, which can make it unwelcoming or uncomfortable for people outside of those categories,” she says.
“I’ve certainly experienced being the only *something* in the room, whether that be the only woman, or the only person of colour. I’ve been given advice that I know I wouldn’t have been given if I were male. I’ve been advised on how to dress as a woman in business, to ensure people will take me seriously. To that I say: if Mark Zuckerberg can spend every day in a hoodie and jeans, why can’t I?”
Now as Managing Partner as her own successful business, she’s the one calling the shots, while comfortably dressed in a black hoodie. She often also wears a flash of purple; her signature colour and one often associated with the LGBTQ community, but also pride, ambition and power.
Investing in others
Arlan is using her power for good, helping other entrepreneurs who may otherwise be overlooked. I asked her which of the over 170 companies that she’s invested in really stood out to her. Two really exciting organizations came to mind.
She tells me about Healthy Roots, a toy company that combats societal beauty standards for girls of colour during the early stages of identity development. “Healthy Roots dolls are the first line of natural hair dolls to enter the toy industry. They have different facial features, skin tones, and hair textures that can be styled in countless ways, teaching natural hair care to young girls of colour and celebrating their beauty. I’m so honored to be an investor.”
The other is ShearShare, a B2B mobile platform that connects salon and barbershop owners to over one million independent stylists to fill empty salon chairs on demand. “This means instead of cold calling and using Craigslist to find spaces, stylists can look and see where chairs are available near to them. This saves salon owners triple their revenue on unused space, and stylists save thousands of dollars per year in overhead costs. Shear Share helps self-employed people in the beauty industry, who have been hugely impacted during the Covid-19 pandemic, find spaces where they can continue to work.”
A selfless self-starter
Arlan may now be a celebrated businesswoman, but it hasn’t been an easy journey. In fact, she as homeless when she set up Backstage Capital as she was pouring every cent she had into her new business. She spent her time backpacking between conferences and meetings, crashing on friend’s couches, or staying in Airbnbs in-between.
It was her spirit that kept her going, and it’s clear that Arlan was born an entrepreneur. “Even from a young age, I was making money selling candy at school, and trying to convince the other kids to ‘invest’ their scratch ’n’ sniff stickers into my sticker album, with the chance to win it at the end of the school year.”
She’s the kind of person who doesn’t wait for opportunities to come along. If she wants something, she makes it happen. She started her own magazine when she was in her twenties, Interlude. And she told the Los Angeles Times that she wanted to see a band she liked go on tour. “So she reached out to the Norwegian pop-punk group when she was 21 and asked if she could arrange the tour herself. They agreed, and over time, she worked her way up to managing area-level touring for musicians including Jason Derulo and Toni Braxton.”
It was during this time that Arlan started to hear about venture capital and began educating herself on finance with late night trips to the library. “At first I wanted to be a founder, but when I learned about the state of venture capital as it was in 2015, I realized I needed to be the one giving out the checks to really make a difference.”
It’s About Damn Time
Her hard work and determination to make a difference has got her recognised. She notes one of her career highlights as being the first black woman who wasn’t a celebrity or athlete to appear on the cover of Fast Company magazine.
“There have been so many highlights,” she says as she thinks about all her achievements. “One is setting up the ‘Oxford-Arlan Hamilton and Earline Butler Sims Scholarship’ to help fund Black students going to [Oxford] University less than a year later.” The scholarship, named in part as a living tribute to Arlan’s mother, covers annual fees and living costs for an undergraduate course at the university to give young people in the UK of Black African or Caribbean heritage the opportunity to study at the leading university.
Another highlight was holding a copy of her book for the first time and seeing her name on the spine. The book, ‘It’s About Damn Time’ was published in May 2020 to rave reviews. It’s about how to use being underestimated to your advantage and combines personal anecdotes and advice on how to use what you have and get past imposter syndrome.
“It feels amazing to be a published author. Every day I get feedback from readers about how the book has helped them, and I’m seeing the powerful effect of word of mouth on sales, which is great. What I’m most excited about is seeing the book in airport bookstores when it is safe to travel again, as I used to spend a lot of time browsing those stores!”
Words of wisdom
Arlan’s book is just like her aurora, a mix of nurturing warmth but undoubtable strength and resoluteness. She’s always going give backing to those who need it most and is never short of insight and advice.
Her words of advice to anyone who feels underrepresented, is that they should use it. “Whatever you have, whatever makes you different, whatever makes you feel that you’re worth less than someone else, reframe it. Look at all of your experiences as valuable assets that give you insight into the needs and wants of people like you. You don’t have to go the well-travelled route to get to the same destination.”
Arlan certainly hasn’t taken the well-travelled route herself, but she certainly has ended up in a great place. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of Lee Alderman-Davis, and do not represent the opinions of any entity Lee has been associated with, including her current employer.
“I liked to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I always like to challenge myself. It’s cliché but true… I’m a problem solver,” Lee Alderman-Davis tells me in her bright but undoubtedly resolute voice. The past year has posed challenges for various reasons. For Lee and her team in global airfreight logistics at Ligentia it meant creating entirely new ways of doing business.
Did you know that 90% of the world’s cargo is transported on passenger flights? So when you settle in on the plane for your family holiday and order your miniature G&T (Lee’s favourite drink), sitting below you in the cargo hold among your luggage could be anything from kitchen supplies to designer handbags on their way to a retailer.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic has grounded nearly all commercial flights, leaving a massive gap in the global supply chain. Lee was certainly challenged last year, having to completely rethink how to transport goods around the world. But she takes it all in her stride…
Changing focus in the time of Covid
In the airfreight charter business, the sheer amount of cargo being moved per journey means that if a single thing goes wrong, you can lose millions of pounds. If that isn’t pressure, I don’t know what is!
But the way Lee approached the pandemic tells you everything you need to know about her attitude. “It’s given us a new perspective, that even if we didn’t realise it, we can do anything,” she says.
And it’s not just a matter of business; Lee made sure that Ligentia helped frontline workers at the NHS after she was touched by a friends’ experience. “A very good friend of mine’s Matt McGahans’ father Alan McGahan died of COVID back in March 2020 when it first hit the UK,” Lee says. And when Matt went to visit his father in hospital, he was shocked by what he saw.
“They were working on a high-risk Covid ward with no masks and wearing black plastic bags for protection. That really inspired Matt to do something in his father’s name to help the NHS workers. So, he started the charity, Mask out Heroes.”
The charity raises money, procures PPE and hand delivers it to hospitals. Lee was touched by the story and joined the board of the charity, helping out where they can with the transport needs & logistics. The campaign has celebrity backing from the likes of reality TV star Calum Best, footballer Anton Ferdinand and actor Tamer Hassan, and continues to deliver PPE to hospitals, fire stations and schools.
A versatile worker
From her first job as an office junior at a freight and logistics company, to becoming a global director, it’s apparent that Lee’s success is down to her determination, willingness to get stuck in and try new things over her 28 years in the business .
“I’ve worked in many different roles, from ocean operations, European road freight, sales, supply chain, virtually everything apart from driving a truck!” she jokes. “So, I’ve done most things in the freight and logistics industry. But my passion has always been air freight, so my career developed very quickly.”
After spending the first years of her career in operations, she moved into strategic development. “[This involves] looking after large contracts, developing new business and product development, which is finding new routes to market. So, if there’s issues with certain modes of transport, we look at what new routes to markets there are.”
The importance of this was recently brought to the world’s attention when the a ship became stuck in the Suez Canal, taking over a week to free. “That’s going to have a huge knock-on effect with delays and good shortage… But those things happen all the time. You’re always dealing with different challenges and problems. You look at what’s going on in the world and think, what can we do about it?”
A consultative leader
This problem-solving mentality has helped her to progress to management, where her background has helped to forge a particular management style. “Over the years, I’ve always had more of consultative style, because my background in development and consulting the customer needs, I think that comes naturally to me. So, my management style is more about discussion and listening, hearing and suggesting, a bit like the sales I’ve been doing for many, many years.”
She’s also very capable of getting things done herself. She recounts one of the highlights of her career as when she worked with one the world’s largest iron ore companies. “I got the opportunity to travel out to West Africa to Liberia and to Guinea, and it was such an amazing experience. Being able to start something from scratch and set that business up in West Africa was a real buzz and an achievement for me because I did that single handed,” she says.
She made the move from middle management to a director six years ago when she joined Ligentia, where she is still working across multiple projects, and hasn’t looked back.
Climbing the ranks
Working in logistics and supply chain, Lee is often the only woman in a room of men, but that hasn’t stopped her from climbing the ranks. “I class myself as one of the boys. It’s not an issue. If you’re a strong, confident individual, then you can still succeed, regardless.
“I’m sure a lot of women find a large male environment intimidating, but as I’ve spent my whole career in a male environment, I’m used to it. There have been many times where there’s 20 men and I’m the only woman… But likely if it was 19 women and there was one man, it would be intimidating for that man. Regardless, if you’re not a strong person, it can be hard.”
I think that’s the real secret to Lee’s success: strength. She is the embodiment of a strong female lead and proof that a can-do attitude goes a long way.
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Morning lark
Would you rather have an active holiday or relaxing holiday? Active
Cats or dogs? Dogs.
What are you watching on TV right now? Your Honour, and then The Circle for some escapism
All-time favourite music album? Jagged little pill, Alanis Morrisette
Biggest weakness? Chocolate and Haribos
What’s your holiday destination? Val d’Isere for skiing
Favourite meal? Shepherd’s Pie
Favourite weekend activity? Walking the dog and going to the pub
Agile. It’s a bit of a buzzword, and it’s used in different contexts depending what industry you work you in. But for Jenny Brandon, it’s actually part of her job title. As an Agile Coach, Jenny helps software teams to work in more efficient, collaborative manner.
“Agile software development is a way of more collaboratively creating a product with the customer,” explains Brandon. “With coding, it’s creating a process that means both parties are equally engaged. It’s a constant collaboration process and things change. You need to be able to accommodate that.”
Jenny is a legitimate girl who codes and has had an interesting journey to get to where she is today. From snapping bra straps to travelling Europe as a scrum master, she’s had quite a career.
Jenny’s first job was as a junior programmer at company that makes machines to test objects to their breaking point. The example she gives testing the resistance of a bra strap to pull it until it snaps. She saw the job as a gateway to the industry. “I had been learning Pascal programming language. I was pretty good at it and could see there was a decent future in programming, so I went for it!”
She enjoyed the role so much that she went to university to expand her skill set and increase her confidence. She was the only female programmer in her first job, and then at university she was only one of two girls in the entire year. “It’s a technical vocation, with modules like advanced maths and ‘blokey’ topics. But I don’t remember gender being an issue at uni. We were all just trying to get through to course and get good grades.”
A lecturer saw Jenny’s potential and put her forward for an internship at Sony Entertainment Europe in London. “I think I got the role because of the novelty of being a woman in the tech sector. If I was a guy, I think would have been asked more questions… But there were more women there who were engineers, and I made good friends and gained great experience before I went back and finished my degree.”
She the went on to work for a company that made e-commerce websites for a few years and had a stint at ITV before landing a role at StepStone, where she still works today. “I went in as an intermediate dev and was hired at same time as another female developer, so I was in good company. It was a great environment; a good opportunity for training and growth. Then in 2009 there was a big transformation: the whole tech team and product team went agile. Everything was carried out in this new way of developing software that allows for feedback from the customer.”
Becoming a Scrum Master
So how did this new way of working change Jenny’s day-to-day job, and her career? “We weren’t producing stuff quickly or prioritising our work. So the entire tech team went on scrum training and started again. I began to realise that I didn’t love programming as much as I thought I did. [With code] you can’t learn your craft and then be done with it; you have to keep up to date with new languages and new patterns. Tech moves so fast and I didn’t have the drive to keep up to date.”
So, when a new role appeared for a scrum master during the agile transformation, Jenny took a chance on herself. “I’d been doing meditation in the morning before work and I had this clear voice that told me to apply for the scrum master job. I’ve got innate organisational skills and people skills, so I’d be perfect for it. I convinced people to give me a chance and it worked! I pivoted from a dev to scrum master, and eventually my career progressed to becoming an Agile Coach.”
On a daily basis, Jenny works with one scrum team. (For those not familiar with the scrum style of working, it’s a “framework of project management that emphasises teamwork, accountability and iterative progress towards a well-defined goal.” ) They have a stand-up meeting every morning, along with a planning meeting and a retrospective every fortnight to improve their process. She also works as an Agile Coach. “The tribe I’m in focuses on internal IT systems – anything from coaching other scrum masters or working with the tribe support group to answer queries about training or access. We have a sister tribe based in Belgium just starting their agile journey – so my time goes into supporting them.”
She also gets to continuously develop her management skills thanks to a StepStone initiative that allows employees to travel around Europe and train in various management techniques while meeting colleagues from other parts of the business. “We went to Warsaw, Vienna, Belgium, London, and Dusseldorf. In terms of networking and getting exposure to other parts of the business was great. You even get to pitch a business idea to a member of the board. Getting the exposure and meeting people was invaluable. The course content was good – reaffirming techniques that I knew, but the pitch and coming up with a new business case was biggest learning point.”
Finding the right working environment
While Jenny now works in a very supportive environment with plenty of opportunities, it hasn’t always been such plain sailing. In her first role as a programmer, she was one of only two women and experienced some (sadly not uncommon) uncomfortable situations. “Unfortunately, there was an incident of inappropriate behaviour. One of the guys had been touchy-feely with me. As an 18-year-old girl, I had no idea what was appropriate. It wasn’t until the other girl joined that we raised the issue together. Even then I was embarrassed, especially when HR just wanted to dismiss it as friendly behaviour and joking around.”
She also recalls working in what she describes as a “toxic, pressured environment” in another job. This wasn’t anything to do with gender, but finding herself pressured into working tight, stressful deadlines to write code that neither she nor the dev team had ratified.
Having worked in both toxic and nurturing environments, she now really appreciates the ethos of StepStone and the people that work there. “Rapport and getting on with the people you work with [is what makes a great working environment]. Even with the best intentions to create a culture, if it doesn’t have the right people it’s not going to work. Trust and freedom of expression are also important. You need to autonomy to not have to ask for permission and get sign off. And the autonomy to talk to different people to ask opinions, or to get help.”
Be your own mentor as a woman in tech
While being a woman in a male-dominated industry can seem like a drawback, Jenny thinks that it can be seen as an advantage. “You will need to work hard to prove yourself, but don’t be put off by being one of a few females – it takes women in the STEM area to push it forward for everyone. If you have the drive and enjoyment, then it’s up to you to do it for others.
“More women are putting themselves forwards for roles, but when it reaches management in tech – there’s far more men. The higher positions is where it drops off. I’m reading Lean In at the moment – what Sheryl Sandberg says is that not many women would say they see their career leading to a C-level role and that’s a contributing factor. We should do more to support them. I, personally, have resisted line management for as long as I can because I personally prefer being on the ground. I also don’t want to be in that boys’ club with the middle age white men at the table. If the leadership teams in industries were more equal, then maybe I would feel differently.
“If you don’t have role models that look like you then you automatically feel on the back foot. We’re starting to make moves in that direction. We’ve started up a women’s network in our company: sharing our experiences of inappropriate behaviour or being passed up for opportunities throughout our careers. There was some talk about the gender pay gap and a lot of responses of guys was that they promote based on skills not gender – so they’re missing the point. There’s still lots of work to be done, but we’re getting there.”
There’s lots of work to be done for female equality, but as more women support and lean on each other, like Jenny is doing with her colleagues, then we can welcome more women into the scrum and climb the ladder together.
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Midday is perfect for me. So I guess an afternoon pigeon!
What do you usually have for breakfast? Protein shake
Do you prefer a bath or shower? Shower
What TV series can you watch again and again? Mad Men
If you were an animal what would you be? A Hare, my spirit animal
What’s your biggest weakness? Procrastination
What’s your favourite sport to play? Weight lifting
Favourite meal/cuisine? A good vegan lasagne
Favourite holiday destination? Glastonbury
Name your favourite female icon Someone I have a girl crush on at the moment is Esther Peral. Her podcasts ‘How is work?’ and ‘Where Shall We Begin?’ are great. She just nails it
Like many of us, Nicki is struggling with working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic. She’s having to get creative with how she runs her face-to-face meetings and lots of her projects have been put on hold. But when Nicki’s work projects are delayed, it’s a big problem. It could result in thousands of children becoming malnourished.
Nicki is the Nutrition Technical Director for The Eleanor Crook Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending malnutrition around the world.
“We are funding a project in Tanzania, which involves groups of mothers and fathers meeting together and talking about critical health topics to help them support their children to grow well; obviously they can’t meet together in groups anymore, so they’ve had to stop the research” she says. “Outside of our direct projects, the biggest challenge we’re seeing now is the level of COVID across Africa is really unknown. They’re not doing widespread testing, so they’re not finding the cases. And even if they find them, many contexts will not have the resources to treat it properly.
“Because of the social distancing and travel restrictions that are being put in place, people can’t plant their harvest or get to market. As a result there is a huge food crisis looming across the whole of Africa, which will cause levels of malnutrition to vastly increase. There are 50 million children with malnutrition in the world at the moment, and we expect there to be an increase of between 10-50% over the next year. We’re trying to raise awareness about this new reality and the impact on malnutrition, to ensure the funding is mobilised to address this increased need before child deaths sky rocket.”
As well as raising awareness of the current imposing threats from COVID-19, Nicki spends her time talking to UN agencies, like UNICEF and WHO, to support them to coordinate across the nutrition sector and facilitate better malnutrition treatment services for children on the ground.
Although Nicki now spends most of her time coordinating projects from her desk, she says her favourite part of the job is working out in the field. “[I love] going to clinics located in the middle of nowhere and working with the staff, helping them understand how to treat children with malnutrition. You think you’re really remote when you’re three days away from anywhere, but that’s their reality. They stay there day in and day out and keep these kids alive.
“I don’t get to do it so much anymore, but in my current job I love going into the field and meeting different people. I’ve always been pretty hands-on; this is the first job I’ve had that has been less so – it’s more about creating impact and opportunities at the global level, and then translating that down to the country level, reaching those staff in the middle of nowhere.”
She says she has a different perspective now that she’s on the other side of the fence, providing funding to organisations rather than chasing funding. “As the custodian of the funding, you’re trying to make sure you’re giving the money to the right people… There’s a lot of inefficiencies and wasted money in how nutrition services are typically set up, so we’re trying to revolutionise it. We’re a relatively small player in a huge public health space… but that makes us flexible, we don’t have the red tape to navigate or ties with government institutions so we can try to be a bit more disruptive and push for change in ways that others can’t.”
Working in the field
Nicki’s first job in the charity sector was as a Nutrition Program Manager in Bangladesh. She spent a year helping to run malnutrition treatment programs for refugees from Myanmar and supporting new mothers to breastfeed their children.
She then progressed to a series of jobs with other charities. “The next job was in Pakistan; I was there responding to flooding, which meant Pakistan had a lot of internally displaced people, so we were providing the same malnutrition treatment services there. I then went on to South Sudan and worked as a Nutrition Coordinator. I was based in the capital and travelled around to different field sites to train staff, coordinate with the government in South Sudan and ultimately make sure that the right services were being provided in the clinics.”
Her longest position was almost five years with Save the Children. “It involved being deployed to and supporting emergency response scenarios. So, I would wait for the phone to ring and be prepared to jump on a plane in 24 hours – so I always had a bag packed. Or sometimes I would travel to emergency contexts and take over from staff to give them a break, or gap fill when there was a vacancy in the nutrition team in country. I did start to develop a love/hate relationship with my suitcase!”
Nicki’s career has taken her all over the world. And in the process of saving children’s lives, she sometimes has to risk her own. “The reality is that the work I do is in places that are lawless or at best not typically law abiding. You have to undertake hostile environment awareness training. You learn what to do if you’re kidnapped, shot at, if the car you’re in is stolen… It’s part and parcel of the job. You have to make a decision that you feel comfortable enough to travel to different contexts, which are often war zones or conflict settings.
“There are different risks depending on where you go as a white woman. For example, in Pakistan – there’s a risk of kidnap, and in Yemen the risk is higher still. People assume that your family is wealthy enough that there would be a ransom paid if you were kidnapped.
The most dangerous situation I found myself in was in Yemen in 2017, after the most recent war had started. There was bombing going on and gunshots could be heard in the streets. Our guest house had shatterproof glass and an underground bunker for when the bombs started dropping. We were there during the world’s biggest cholera outbreak, and I was really ill, to the point where I was wondering if I had cholera. I was thinking about this in the bathroom and bombing started so I was faced with the choice: do I run for the bunker or stay in the bathroom? It was ok – I didn’t go to the bunker, the closest bomb was dropped a block away from where we were. And it wasn’t cholera. But it was a hairy situation!
From Ranch-hand to MBE
Thankfully, these situations are rare, and Nicki enjoys the work she does. Despite the risk of kidnap, Yemen is Nicki’s favourite place where she worked. “It is such a beautiful country and there is an amazing heritage. The Yemeni people are lovely – most are surprised to learn they are a very generous, quiet and humble people, given what is portrayed in the media. It is really interesting working there, but it has changed a lot since there has been a new outbreak of war; lots of the architecture has been flattened. But it’s still a really interesting setting that was rewarding to work in.”
Her other favourite place is Argentina, which is where she spent a year working on a cattle ranch as a horse-riding guide, while she decided on her career path. “It was a really fun place to work. I would take the tourists out on horseback and make sure their wine glass was topped up. Then I met someone who worked in nutrition. I had graduated from Bath University with a degree in Natural Sciences, and I thought nutrition would be good way to build on that,” she says. “I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a difference… I was never going to choose something with an easy path, that’s not my style!”
Nicki is obviously well-suited to this work, as she’s helped so many people already, and her dedication has been recognized with an MBE for Services to Emergency Nutrition. “I’m in an atypical career. It’s not about aiming to progress up the career ladder; I’m not speaking at events or publishing books. I guess the highlight has been my MBE, but that makes me cringe a bit! I don’t feel I’ve done anything special, and there are so many others doing more than me” she says modestly.
“I didn’t expect to be recognized with this award. I made peace with accepting it through ensuring I accept it on behalf of everyone I work with. I try to use it as opportunity to raise awareness of the he amount of work still needed to reach a world where malnutrition no longer exists.”
Seeking out opportunities in the charity sector
Charity is a very competitive sector. “Surprisingly, it is hard to get very far without a master’s degree in this sector,” says Nicki. “It’s very competitive.”
As well as completing her own master’s degree in nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she raised money to help a friend named Chaplain in South Sudan do his master’s degree at Leeds University. “He graduated with a distinction – and was able to go back to South Sudan and impart and utilise his newfound knowledge. He was a refugee back in the 80s when the war was happening – he now supports a huge family. He’s done great things over the years, and is a truly inspirational person. We now fund a project he is the lead on in Uganda. He did the hard work, pitching up in the UK and managing to study, and in English which is not his first language.
She says that fortunately, she personally hasn’t experienced any gender-based prejudice in her industry. In fact, while the older people in nutrition work tend to be men, there are a lot of younger women coming through into the sector these days. The bigger discriminatory issue is actually colour. “As a white woman in the sector, I have been exposed to an unfair amount of opportunities over national staff, or women of colour, or even men of colour.
“You hear stories even of men of colour applying for jobs and getting nowhere, but when the name on the CV is changed to Brown, the interviews start getting offered. That’s the level of prejudice there is… even though it’s usually better to have people working in their own countries, because they know the context, the language, the culture… and where there are less security threats to them because they don’t stand out. It’s really unacceptable and is something we all need to make huge concerted efforts to improve, and immediately.”
That’s why she sees the importance of helping people like Chaplain, who is now running a charity in Uganda called The Refugees Resilience Initiative. Even if he faces prejudice climbing the corporate ladder, it hasn’t stopped him from setting up his own charitable organisation to help others, which at the end of the day is so hugely important.
Nicki is continuing to do great work helping those suffering with malnutrition around the world. And as she mentioned, her job is only going to get harder as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at the Eleanor Crook Foundation website to find out more about the work they do.
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Morning
Active holiday or relaxing holiday? Active
What are you watching on Netflix right now? Ozark
Go-to karaoke song? I hate karaoke! I was singing Foals songs around the house earlier though
Biggest weakness? Perfection
What’s your favourite season? Spring
Most used app on your phone? BBC app
Favourite meal/cuisine? Roast pork
Favourite weekend activity? Horse riding or long walk
Sam Smith, Global VP, Life Sciences & Healthcare, KellyOCG
Sam Smith has had a varied career, from working as an engineer with the RAF, to supporting Welsh railway workers and now she is a VP in the Life Sciences division at KellyOCG, a global provider of workforce strategy, solutions, and operations. She’s bold, brave and ambitious, everything a strong female lead should be.
“I always wanted to join the air force; there was never any other path for me, I made that decision at a very young age… I was in the air training cadets and that really carved a path to get to where I wanted to be. Being in the mechanical side, we were fondly called riggers or fitters, you’re there to keep the rotors turning, the aircraft in good condition and in the air. It was exciting. We worked with pilots and a real variety of professionals, we felt valued as part of a team and I really enjoyed it, in fact I loved it.”
Her next role came about by chance after unexpectedly leaving the RAF. She actually applied for a job with Jaguar Land Rover in their stores department, but ended up working for the recruitment agency who were filling the role. “I didn’t know that recruiting agencies existed. I thought to get a job you went to the job centre or the newspapers.”
When she got to the agency, the manager spent 10 minutes telling her why she wouldn’t get the job and why he shouldn’t put Sam forward. “I decided to put him right. I said if you put me forward for the job, which I think I’m overqualified for, I’ll get the job, you’ll get paid and we’ll never have to speak to each other again!
“So, I convinced him to put me forward, went to the interview, and got offered to job. But I had to go back to the agency to sign the paperwork. This guy said, “Don’t work with them, come work with me, you’ll be really good at this!” And I started the following week – it was light industrial, supporting a supermarket warehouse distribution centre. It was a fortuitous, lucky incident, chaos at times but the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Now Sam leads the Global Life Science and Healthcare practice at KellyOCG and is responsible for $3.4 billion in spend under the management portfolio. “ We’ve really connected with customers whose primary purpose to improve patient outcomes. When you work in that space every day, you see the sense of purpose and passion in those organizations which has an ongoing impact into my teams, into the talent that we engage. Life science and healthcare companies’ sole purpose is to prolong life, improve lives, give people pain-free lives, dignity, mobility and independence. It’s such a privilege to work in that area of the business.”
Living the highlight of her career
Day-to-day, Sam crams lots into her working hours – mainly looking after her global teams. “I would be a complete liar if I told you I was up at 4am juicing kale before yoga and running a half marathon. That’s not my life. My life is full of graft… [I have] team members all over, the majority in North America (the company HQ is in Michigan), which affords me a wonderful gap in the day where I can think. I take advantage of those mornings. Even on occasion I get into a routine with my Pelaton.”
Sam is clearly passionate about her work, and her team, and she has obviously found her niche at KellyOCG. She says that there is a unique, combined sense of purpose to what she’s doing now, both in terms of the fulfilling work she’s doing and the feeling of acceptance. “I feel genuinely blessed to be working with a very diverse and inclusive organization.
“KellyOCG is a really cool place to work. We’re not the biggest and don’t pretend that we are, but we have a unique sense of who we are. That gives me a sense of joy about where I work. I’ve been lucky to win awards, well, I’ve worked bloody hard to win awards and worked hard to be recognized with performance and with team members. But the sense of team that I have built with this Life Science team is a massive highlight. They’re phenomenal.
“When you have a combined sense of purpose and build in a commitment to kindness, it changes the dynamic of how you work with people. You and they feel invested in the outcome of what you’re doing, so it changes the mood. You can get through challenging times in a different way. I don’t mean friendship, but a connected sense of purpose – everyone is on the same page. You don’t have to be friends to respect each other. And that’s he differentiator for what we’re doing here in this team”
Comradery, brothers and resilience
From the beginning of her career, Sam has always worked in male-dominated environments. In the air force, she was the only female there for quite some time, before she was joined by a female on the electronics side, and then one more in the administration part of the squadron.
“It was odd, but I ended up having 80 brothers, and about 19 uncles, and a few grandads. It was very much a family environment. If you don’t mind getting stuck in and proving yourself, you’re accepted. I was fortunate that my humour and sporting nature helped me integrate in that male environment quite quickly. I’m still friends with many of these guys. Some of them have been to my weddings – I’ve had two, and they’ve been to both – so some of them are lifelong friends.”
Sam has witnessed discrimination and a variety of behaviours that with the passage of time fall into the category of inappropriate. With many men on the ground in heavy construction, on the railways or elsewhere the talk would certainly cross boundaries that have been firmly marked out. Back then Sam just put up with it and took it with a pinch of salt but wonders how she may react to the same language, behaviours and scenarios today. Differently for sure.
Nobody puts Sam in the corner
“There’s an age-old issue that assertive, confident women continue to be classified in different way… We’ve got to get to a point where we eradicate that type of gender flip of narrative that impacts women. Do women go to work feeling as confident as men do? Probably not. There are some people like me who flip the bird and think, I’m rocking it. There’s no guy who’s going to put me in a corner or label me aggressive when I’m just being assertive.
“You have to look at the data; look at the number of women in senior leadership and board roles. In the boards of FTSE 2000 organizations, the data doesn’t lie. There is clearly a problem, a measurable issue of women not moving forward. She’s right. In the largest 500 companies in America, there are more CEOs named David than there are women CEOs.
“I’m really lucky that I work for what I consider to be one of the most inclusive and diverse organizations in the world. And that’s my experience as a gay female. In my early career, I wasn’t able to be myself or talk about my homelife. Then you become a liar because you’re not telling the truth. I do think that women feel that they have to be somebody different and can’t be their whole selves all the time because that is seen to fall short or fall into the bracket of being over confident.”
While she feels included and accepted for who she is at KellyOCG, that hasn’t always been the case for Sam. She appreciates that in today’s society, sexuality has become much more of an open conversation, but there are still areas where gay people face homophobia. She recalls that it wasn’t that long ago that two women on a London bus were subjected to homophobic comments and physically attacked, just for showing affection towards each other in public.
“To say its better is true, but it’s not a place of real comfort. In my career I’ve worked with and for homophobic people, who have made it clear it is better for me not to disclose my home life, but then took great joy in watching me try not to lie.” It’s quite upsetting listening to her recount how these colleagues would back her into a corner. Thank goodness she doesn’t have to put up with that anymore. “I’m now in a company that acknowledges my son and my wife. You only have to meet me and it’s pretty obvious which side of the rainbow I fall on.”
The rainbow is used as the gay pride flag to represent the diversity of people within the LGBTQ+ community. But to many, the rainbow is also a symbol of hope. Rainbows appear when the storm has passed, and the sun is shining. This seems appropriate for Sam now, who can happily bask in her success that she has worked so very hard to achieve.
Cats or Dogs? Dogs
Would you rather read fiction or non-fiction? Non-fiction
Most recent film you watched? Notting Hill
What’s your signature dish to cook? Roast beef
Drink of choice? Gin and tonic
Most used app on your phone? Outlook / news app / twitter
Would you rather go on a relaxing or active holiday? Relaxing
Where do you do your best thinking? In the shower
Biggest weakness? Guilt
Favourite female icon? Rosalyn Franklin – pioneer from science perspective but overlooked. She came up with one of the most phenomenal elements of modern sci, but people attributed work to the men around her. Discovering DNA, but the work went to Watson and Krik.
Suzanne Nichols, Leader of Global Applications & Business Process Automation
Suzanne Nichols leads a Process Automation Centre of Excellence for a Global Manufacturer of Consumer Goods. For those of you who don’t know what this means exactly, she sets the standards of how her organisation should use automation technology to ensure best practice and reap ROI on their projects.
I first met Suzanne when I worked with her on a presentation for a tech conference, I was instantly impressed by her attention to detail, positive attitude and technical expertise. So, I was delighted when she agreed to take part in the Strong Female Lead blog.
Suzanne is located in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, which is on the shores of Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago. But she manages a global team, which means trying to schedule meetings across multiple continents. “Is there ever a good time for a single meeting that includes Europe, Asia and the Americas?!” she says.
Her job certainly keeps her on her toes. She describes her day as less of a routine and more like “a wonderful dance between clients (who help me understand business needs), architects (who help me define solutions) and delivery management (where I monitor performance and identify ways to get better). This is an extremely fulfilling way to spend my workday.”
Specifically, her current role revolves around Digital Process Automation where she is helping her organization gain efficiencies by leveraging Workflow and Robotic Process Automation tools. “I love the fact that no two days are alike, because it means I’m always learning, growing, and discovering new ways to help my employer thrive.”
Her IT journey started with an Operations & Service Desk role at Computer Center, before she moved on to Applications Programming, then on to Desktop and Network support. “Those roles helped me to see that I had an aptitude and passion for delivering solutions that helped meet business needs. From there, I journeyed toward EDI (Electronic Data Exchange), and Integration Services, and then moved on to Website Delivery.
For anyone who wants to get into the tech field, she advises getting exposure to multiple jobs/roles early in your career. “Internships are a great way to start! Having good breadth of experience will not only help you find your passion and talent, but it will also help you to better understand end-to-end impact that your work can have, which will definitely increase your overall value.”
One thing that is clear from Suzanne is that she is modest about her success. Even when asked what the highlight of her career has been so far, it’s all about team effort and the result for the company, rather than personal gain.
“I think the achievement I take the most pride in is the fact that I was able to step into a situation with a struggling team, immature processes, new technology and overrunning costs and turned that situation into a success. The end result was a high performing team; clear, continuously improving processes; proven technology; and 70% reduction in costs. Beyond that, the team involved became a loyal, close-knit group that thrived.” And just to prove it wasn’t luck or an ideal situation, she’s achieved this more than once with the same results.
She clearly takes pride in her team. And she admits that global team management has its challenges, including language barriers and building relationships remotely. “These challenges require a lot of extra management time to help global team members to thrive as valued, engaged, motivated team members who clearly understand what is expected of them.”
But it also has a number of rewards. Suzanne says that her global team brings diversity of thought, which can help drive innovation, follow-the-sun support, which can improve everyone’s work-life balance, and the enjoyment that can come from learning about cultures and traditions around the world.
She also recalls a sense of achievement from a project early in her career when she had an opportunity to do some pretty innovative work for the local county jail. “I may be revealing a bit too much about my age here, but I was involved in digitizing two aspects of the Inmate Booking process.
“Firstly, building a digital ‘mug-book” so witnesses didn’t have to flip through pictures of suspects manually, but could search on characteristics such as height, hair color and tattoos. And secondly, digitizing the inmate’s fingerprints and doing an immediate check with the NCIC to see if they’re wanted elsewhere. While that is a given nowadays, it was REALLY cutting edge at the time, and when I later talked to my kids about it, they thought I had really worked for one of those popular TV crime shows. Gee, maybe I did?!”
While that may not seem innovative now, it was for the time. And that’s what Suzanne continues to do now: find innovative ways to deliver solutions for her organization through technology.
Female mentors and sisterhood in the tech world
Like many women in the tech space, Sue has sometimes found herself lacking in female colleagues, and struggled to get her voice heard, literally. “Once, when I was the only female on a leadership team, I had a recurring experience where anything I said in a meeting seemed to be ignored until a male counterpart would repeat the exact same words. It was rather surreal – I felt like I was being punked or living in a sitcom!
“Thankfully, I am no longer in that situation. And I’m really fortunate to have spent much my career surrounded with talented peers and leaders who value results over gender, or other characteristics.” Perhaps a female voice being ignored in a room full of men is a common occurrence in business. Sue appreciates that there are more barriers for women to overcome, but we need to have the confidence to speak out.
“So many studies have shown that there are some basic differences in how men and women are wired, and some of the characteristically ‘male’ traits can make women feel overpowered or bullied. But as smart women who are aware of these differences, we can more than overcome them – we can embrace them and use those differences to our advantage! How? By being aware and prepared! Our differences can be leveraged as strengths. But that can take effort on our part: to define how we want to be known, find a coach/mentor to help if needed, and take charge of our own destiny!”
Suzanne comments that she’s been fortunate to have a couple of great mentors throughout her career, and that has helped her to recognise her own strengths and address areas in need of growth. “To me, it’s especially helpful to have had female role models who could demonstrate how a woman can be a strong, no-nonsense professional while maintaining the parts of her personality that make her unique.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? A morning lark
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Favourite book? Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
Go-to karaoke song? That Old Time Rock and Roll
What are you watching on Netflix right now? I don’t watch much television!
Favourite holiday location? A cottage on a lake in the “Northwoods” of Wisconsin
Where do you do your best thinking? During my evening walk
Nabila Salem, President of Revolent Group, Board Member of Tenth Revolution Group
Nabila Salem has a quiet confidence about her. She is calm, poised and eloquent when she speaks, but it’s clear she means business. The topic of confidence comes up several times as we’re talking. It’s what she believes got her to where she is today, and what others need to instil in themselves as they pursue their own ambitions.
As the President of Revolent Group, a leading cloud talent creator, she tackles the global tech skills gap and helps build a new generation of cloud professionals. “We recruit, cross-train, place and continue to develop ambitious people for the Salesforce ecosystem, but it can be applied across all cloud technologies as well,” explains Nabila. “So, we’re training the next generation of certified tech talent and making sure organisations have access to the skills that they need.”
Technology has been present throughout Nabila’s career in one way or another. Her first job was at an internet café in Spain. Then, after graduating from Brighton University she worked in Internal Comms at IBM before she made the move to a smaller company where she felt she could make more of an impact. At FDM Group, a professional services group, she worked alongside the founders for 12 years. She saw the organisation grow from 300 employees to 4,000. “What was a small, UK family-run business transitioned to become a FTSE 250 company that was operating globally,” she says proudly. “In the 12 years that I was there, I wore lots of hats… it was a fantastic part of my career.”
Now she is President of Revolent Group, part of Tenth Revolution Group, the arm that creates talent. “For me, launching careers in tech and diversity and inclusion in the workplace are two things I’ve always been passionate about and my role at Revolent encompasses both,” she says.
Nabila was the first and youngest woman to be appointed to VP at FDM. “It opens the door for others, but also it can be a lonely space, being the sole woman there. So, at Revolent I didn’t want to be the only person in this role. I wanted others to follow. Of the management team that reports to me, 40% are women. And I love the fact that two thirds are working mums.”
No two days are the same for her, although it was slightly more varied prior to the COVID lockdown. She still gets up early and does an hour’s exercise before she starts her day working from home in London, which is efficiently planned out. She makes lists of things to do the night before; so she knows what to focus on the next day.
“We use Teams and Zoom to conduct meetings now, so they go on as normal, but just virtual. We have various exciting projects in the pipeline, so I’m busy with those. But ultimately, my role is to make sure the team at Revolent is as efficient and productive as they can be. It’s about communicating targets and monitoring performance. I believe performance is driven by having the right people and the right processes in place.”
Backing women in tech
Nabila has always been an advocate for other women and minorities in business. In fact, she started the Women in Tech initiative at FDM. “In 2011, we had clear goals in terms of diversity. We grew the company to have 50% women on the management team. And that’s something I’ve always been really proud of.
“I thought at Revolent Group, we’ve got to do the same thing. So, we’re now at 40% women on the management team. But diversity obviously goes beyond gender, and if you look at Revolent Group, 63% identify as BAME [Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic]. So, it’s not just diversity in terms of gender I’m passionate about, also ethnicities and social mobility and giving people opportunities,” she says.
She (quite rightly) points out that leadership is not about you, its about others. “Once you’re a leader, your job is to help other people grow and progress. True leaders don’t focus on their role, they focus on the goal.” She says that working directly with two founders of successful businesses has in turn given her the confidence to push boundaries in her own career, which helped her to become FDM’s youngest VP.
“The tech sector has always been male dominated. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always had supportive managers. The big challenge I see in women is having the confidence to go for it despite being the minority –being the minority can give you a competitive edge. The barrier exists in our own minds. So, if we can overcome that, there aren’t any barriers. Women have to believe in themselves.”
Boards, summits and mentoring
Her confidence to push boundaries has not gone unnoticed. She was named in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 List 2019. “It was a nice surprise,” she says modestly. “Being recognised amongst so many other inspiring women was quite humbling. It’s important to highlight achievements and celebrate accomplishments of women in the industry, but more so to give others something to look up to. Wherever possible, showcasing the achievements of women is a good thing because there aren’t that many women in tech. But honestly, I’ve never chased awards for myself. I was usually the one nominating people for awards!”
Nabila is also on the advisory board for the NY Women in IT Summit. She was asked to help shape their inaugural New York summit two years ago. She moderated a session, sat on various panels and participated in workshops where topics varied from mentoring to cyber security.
One of the topics she spoke about at the event was diversity in Artificial Intelligence. “AI has some serious flaws because the majority of those developing AI are white men. A self-driving car was more likely to run over a black person when tested, because it hadn’t been tested with that group of people. Then AI on Google phones wasn’t recognising black males because the black community wasn’t involved in the development of this AI which is ludicrous.”
Even during her down time, Nabila likes to get involved in helping people. “There’s a group called Migrant Leaders, a non-profit that trains aspiring leaders from migrant backgrounds in the UK. “Generally, I tend to get involved in these sorts of things because I’m passionate about it. In the past [when she was based in the US] I mentored Veterans who wanted to launch a civilian career,” she says. But she does also find time to relax by losing herself in cooking or unleashing her creative side by painting with oils and acrylics.
The future is in the Cloud
“Almost everything digital is already connected to the Cloud. Companies used to keep data in local storage for security purposes, but we’ve advanced so much. Cloud will continue to become an integral part of our lives. And it’s just much more practical: it doesn’t take up physical space and you can access it whenever and wherever we want… It’s 100% the ‘now’ and the future,” she says.
“[Cloud] is the fastest growing industry in the world. The thing people misunderstand is that a career in tech does not have to be super technical. There’s a lot of people who work in tech, like myself, who aren’t that technical. There are opportunities for everyone.” Indeed, the tech space needs all sorts to work, people skills, creativity, leadership and management. It’s not all about building circuit boards and writing code.
And the velocity of this year will require more minds than ever to forge a path forwards. “All the tech trends that were predicted for this year have gone out the window now,” she says. “I think by the end of the year, 40% of jobs will be fully remote – if not more. The world has changed. 90% or more, I think, will have some sort of flexibility in their jobs if they didn’t previously. It’s a huge opportunity for business; you can save costs, target different demographics… the world has gone virtual. This is no longer the future, it’s the now. The next normal has arrived.”
Achieving a diverse culture will also become easier, which Nabila says is harder to create than it sounds. “People join companies and look for people like themselves. It’s difficult to be what you can’t see. So, we encourage and support all our employees with progressive ways of working…You can’t expect one size to fit all. In my experience, if you’re flexible with people they actually work even harder.”
“At Revolent Group, we built an inclusive culture that encourages meritocracy. So, we highlight role models internally and give others something to aspire to,” she says. Indeed, Nabila has made herself visible, and someone that women and people in tech can aspire to be like.
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Morning
What music are you listening to at the moment? Cher – she’s taken me through lockdown
Favourite film? The Green Mile
What’s your signature dish to cook? Spanish tortilla
Most used app? LinkedIn
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? To be invisible
“I was very lucky I always knew I wanted to work at Radio 1 and be a producer there,” Grace Hopper tells me over the phone in her usual chirpy voice. And with hard work and determination, that’s exactly what she does now.
You may recognise Grace’s upbeat tone of voice from Radio 1. She is currently working on The Scott Mills show, which broadcasts on weekdays on Radio 1, and she used to work on the Greg James drivetime show before he moved to his current morning slot. Her CV boasts working with some of the most well-known voices on national radio, but the road to being a Radio 1 producer wasn’t easy: it required a lot of perseverance, and putting in a lot of hours…
Grace first tried her hand at radio when she was just 15 years old at her local hospital radio in High Wycombe. “I knew what I wanted to do, and was lucky to have that drive, ambition and vision… I threw myself into it as young as I possibly could.” And she took all the jobs (paid and unpaid) along the way. Following her degree at Exeter University, her first freelance position was at BBC Radio Devon. She also worked at Exeter Hospital Radio, Heart Radio, BBC Cornwall and BBC Somerset – and squeezed in a few shifts at her local pub!
“I got lots of beginners’ experience, but I was working seven days a week and doing loads of different roles,” she said. “Local radio is a great starting point – one minute you’ll be producing a sports show, then reading the travel news, then playing and discussing a band featured on BBC Introducing, then taking call-ins on a political story.”
She then moved back home to South Buckinghamshire and started freelancing at BBC Berks and BBC London – sometimes a double shift. “I wouldn’t advise working seven days a week, but as a freelancer sometimes you have to take all those opportunities when you want to get further up the ladder.” She got her foot in the door when she got a job as a freelance team assistant for Radio 1 for six months, before she gained a fulltime position in the role at Radio 1. “It was nice to get that first full-time job – because I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ All that hard work, like working at 5am on a Sunday morning all paid off! And then it was my chance to work my way up the ladder at Radio 1.”
Producing the Scott Mills Show
The role of a producer is being responsible for the output of the show, ensuring that everything runs smoothly. “We make sure the presenter knows exactly what they’re saying, and they’ve got all the accompanying audio and facts. I prep callers before they come on the show and keep things to time. We have to hit the top of hour, hit the news on time, and make sure the programme is going to plan.”
There’s plenty of prep work involved too. In the morning we have a team meeting to see what they can bring to the table for that show. “For live radio you have that personality and voice… Scott Mills and Chris Stark bring so many stories and input, it’s great. You have to have the presenter’s buy-in, or it won’t work.
“Then we go set things up for the show, find some callers, edit a funny clip from TV the night before, and provide the supporting tools for Scott and Chris to use in the studio. We’re an entertainment show, but also a music show, so that needs to be put in the schedule.”
Plus, if they have any celebrities in for interviews, they need to think of a way to make it novel and interesting.“We have a no-straight interview rule now. We get them involved in a game or regular show feature and it lifts the chat.” Then the interview will have to be edited (if it’s not live) and Grace has to highlight potential press lines, make sure the social media team have all the details they need, as well as videoing segments for social media and TV. All while making sure the show is reactive and reflects what the audience are experiencing and expecting that day.
Hello, from Sir David Attenborough
Grace fondly looks back on the two years she spent with Greg James on his afternoon drive time show. “We did some amazing content together. We had the royals come in and co-present which was so rare, and so brilliant.”
The Gregathlon was another highlight for Grace. Greg climbed the three highest peaks in the UK for Sport Relief, but it coincided with the Beast from the East storm in February 2018. “We travelled around with a mobile radio station and he did the show from there. The Beast from the East felt like it kind of reflected the mental health story and challenge that people go through. Sometimes these things in life come and you have to pause, and that’s ok.”
She’s also met and worked with numerous celebrities during her time on Radio 1. She admits she was nervous briefing high profile guests when she started out, but now she can greet them with complete confidence.
“I try to be really professional when briefing guests, but sometimes it’s easier to maintain the coolness. I have been starstruck when I met The Killers. I’m such a big fan! I think meeting so many celebrities has also made me realize that they are just people.” She also says she got starstruck when meeting Sir David Attenborough. And it ended up being one of her most memorable moments from working on Greg’s show.
“Adele’s video for ‘Hello’ had just come out… We wrote [Sir David] a script to narrate over the video and it had all been signed off and pre-approved. But when he came in, he was a little nervous and said do you mind if I didn’t do it, which obviously is fine – David Attenborough is allowed to say ‘no’. So, Greg and I tried to make him feel as comfortable and at ease as possible because we knew it would be a big moment and really fun, good content. But he decided just to have a chat.
“Then live in the middle of the interview, he said ‘Don’t you want me to narrate something?’ And he took this script without having read it before and read over the video so perfectly. And it became a massive global video and was written about in the press. It felt like a real success story. He said afterwards, ‘You created such a comfortable environment for me, you made me feel comfortable enough to do it.’ And that’s what it’s all about. You want the radio to be friendly and be a voice of comfort. We did that with him, and that’s why he did it.” The video now has 4.5 million views on YouTube alone.
Grace’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was named in the Radio Academy 30 Under 30 in 2017. “I was so delighted to be named in that line up. It was a lovely moment and I feel immensely proud and grateful for that accolade. It helped opened the door to the Radio Academy, so I feel like it was just the beginning.”
She is now a Radio Academy Trustee. “When you can do something for an organization you have a passion for, it’s a nice thing to do. They do amazing things like launching a benevolent fund to support those who are affected by the current financial climate. We’re overseeing the decisions to support the industry it’s quite a tough role. Now I’m helping lead on the 30 under 30 award, which is a nice full-circle moment.”
Switching off and speaking out
With such a full-on job, it’s no surprise that Grace likes to switch off in the evenings and leave her work at the door. “Although I’ve fallen foul of it on many occasions. Especially in the current climate, working from home makes it hard to distinguish the two. I tend to switch off my emails and get outside for fresh air and exercise. Netflix is my best friend at the moment. But I also love swimming – we live on our phones, especially in my job, as I always need to be up to date with what’s going on in the news. I love swimming because I have to leave my phone on the side of the pool, and I can totally switch off.”
Switching off from work and the digital world can be hard to do sometimes and can have a negative effect on our mental health. This is something that Grace is very aware of. She realizes the pressures that can build up at work, which why she is a Mental Health First Aider for the BBC.
“Sometimes you get so wrapped up in your line of work, it’s important to stop and think am I supporting others? Am I being supported? Am I looking after myself? A lot of people have taken me up on it, more than I thought would. When you have such a big workload we often don’t stop and reflect.”
As well as offering mental health support to her colleagues, Grace is also mentoring a team assistant – a role that she has done herself before, to pass on some of the wisdom she’s learnt along the way. She especially wants to reach out to women who may have had negative experiences in the workplace. “We women have to work hard to change certain perceptions. If a woman speaks up or speaks out, they’re seen as being cocky, whereas men are seen as being confident,” she says. “Especially as a mental health first aider, I think that comes into play a bit. It’s important to encourage women around me to feel more confident.
“For example, I was in a meeting once where everyone was talking over each other. A couple of males were speaking over a girl. A female producer colleague stopped everyone and gave the girl a chance to speak. She was naturally spoken over, but this woman gave her that platform. That’s what we need more of; everyone championing each other.”
Radio in lockdown
Grace is still working during the Coronavirus pandemic, although she’s not limited to just producing Scott’s show. She’s been working with Jordan North, Clara Amfo and Maya Jama while the BBC work with a reduced staff to aid social distancing.
“I feel like radio is more important now than ever. We’re really supporting our listeners. People have more time and space to pay attention to things like radio, and a lot of people are isolating on their own, or feel lonely or overwhelmed by the situation,” she says.
“You can react [to the current situation] and be that supportive voice… It’s important to strike a balance between letting them know that we’re here, but also being an escape. Radio can sometimes suffer because the competition is so much bigger with TV shows, Instagram, streaming etc. I just hope that continues past the pandemic because we’ve highlighted how powerful radio can be.”
Grace says that she doesn’t do radio for the praise. She does it because she enjoys it and she likes knowing that she’s supporting an audience. But with all her success, she certainly deserves any praise that comes her way. Thanks for giving us a peak behind the curtain into the world of Radio 1, Grace!
Quick Fire Questions
Books or movies? Movies 100%
Cats or Dogs? I’m not a big fan of either… but probably dogs.
Active holiday or relaxing holiday? Relaxing – my job is so busy I like to relax.
If you had a superpower, what would it be? Teleportation
What are you watching on Netflix right now? Just finished Unorthodox… also Normal People
What music are you listening to right now? I really like Arlo Parks – she’s an emerging artist. Very soothing, she writes about things that are real in a relatable way. Also, upbeat music is good right now – I’m listening to some dance music and old pop classics
Biggest weakness? I’m an overthinker
Ideal date night? Going out for a really nice meal, and watching a movie
Who’s your favourite female icon? Fearne Cotton has always inspired me. She was on the radio as I was getting into Radio 1. I love her passion for music and I have a similar style and taste to her. She’s great at talking about her feelings and being a strong female in my industry.
Laurie Ehrbar is someone I speak to nearly every weekday. She is the CMO of the company where I currently work. So, she is my boss’s boss! We obviously talk about work a lot and have the occasional chat about our family and leisure time. But it was great to hear about her career and quick ascension in such a male-dominated industry to the C-Suite at a software company.
Laurie began her career in the B2B and the technology space of event marketing before she ventured into financial services. “My combined interest in marketing and technology found a home in the banking industry at Waterhouse Securities,” she said. “I was hired to aid in their rebranding, strategy, and announcement of the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of TD Waterhouse across all online media.”
She obviously made a good impression; immediately following the IPO, she was asked to co-head Customer Acquisition for both the bank and brokerage arms of the company, making VP at just age 26. “The rest is, as they say, history. I went on to attract the attention of other large financial institutions like Citigroup and software companies like ServiceNow, and continued to work in digital strategy, media, and partnerships in some form ever since.”
Now she is the CMO of Bizagi, a Business Process Management and Automation software organization. She describes her average day at work as making her way through a very long laundry list of both strategic and tactical initiatives – a list that seems to grow throughout the day. “I try my best to catch up with members of my team and department heads around the organization every day. I think internal meetings, over those with external agencies and vendors, should always be where I spend most of my time,” she said.
Solving problems and paying it forward
Laurie has done well to crack the world of financial services and tech marketing. I asked her what she liked so much about finserv, as it’s the area that she’s spent the majority of her career. “Simply put: creative solutions and problem solvers are celebrated,” she said.
Both in the financial services and software spaces, her marketing expertise has helped her to succeed. For anyone who is considering a career in marketing, she says that internships are key. “It’s that foundational, on the job learning, that can really help you find what you enjoy. Marketing covers a lot and not all of it is for everyone so finding what you enjoy and where you can add value is essential.”
She also credits where she’s got thanks to people who she’s met along the way. “The people who inspired me the most were those that had faith in me, gave me more responsibility and supported me and my career. It’s because of them that I pay it forward and do the same. I often think about how their faith in me, made me have faith in myself.”
Now she’s paying it forward by supporting her co-workers at Bizagi. Managing a global team, and various projects, she’s spread thin but always makes time for everyone. She’s keen to use new initiatives to push the boundaries and is well aware of the importance of tech trends in tech marketing. “I think companies will begin to use all the data they’ve been collecting more efficiently. For example, they’ll use data to create more intuitive customer experiences. Also, cloud will be viewed as the only option and on premises will be considered no more secure than a rusty old file cabinet.”
Marking the calendar for family time
Laurie’s professional life has had some incredible highlights so far, including making VP at age 26, and even doing a deal with former Microsoft CEO, Steve Balmer. “All were very exciting, but I’d say career highlights pale in comparison to family highlights. I’m most proud of how I’ve found balance during it all. I should rephrase…how I insisted on balance and wouldn’t budge,” she says with a wink. “It’s made it possible to do what I do and be a good mom.”
Juggling a family of three children and a dog means it’s hard to turn off, but Laurie says it is necessary to take the time to be present with her family. “I work from home and that allows me, when I’m not traveling, to be there for dinner, sports and the day to day. The most important part is being available to listen when they have a problem. As my kids have gotten older just being present as much as possible is the most important thing I can do.”
Laurie is very organized at the work, and the same can be said of her personal life. “My family calendar is everything. My kids often mimic me by saying, ‘Is it in the calendar? If not, I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ which is my go-to statement if something falls through the cracks like a birthday party or sporting event. If it isn’t in the calendar, then it’s not on my radar!”
When she’s not juggling work and whatever is written in her calendar, she’s certainly not one for sitting still (unless it’s in a yoga pose or reading a book). “I’m a mom of three, so my spare time is spent doing anything and everything for them. I try my best to incorporate the two. For example, cooking involves trying new recipes, often desserts, with my kids helping me create and eat them. I even read side by side with my youngest on my evenings.”
Challenging male bias
Like many career-women, Laurie has experienced sexist behaviour and male bias, and says it is far more prevalent in software than in any other industry she has worked in. “My list of examples is long and 90% of them are in software.”
“An example of one of the many ‘boys’ club’ conversations I’ve experienced in software was with a man I respected both personally and professionally – as a result it stung a bit more than if I didn’t like him. However, this example illustrates how male bias slips into daily conversation.
“Me and this person, we’ll call him Mike, were talking about someone in another department who kept dropping the ball and on everything we requested from them. The person who dropped the ball happened to be a woman. I explained to him that I honestly didn’t know how to get around her to accomplish what we needed. And Mike’s response was, ‘Laurie, you just don’t like her. That’s all.’
“I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. He boiled down my valid concerns into a ‘girl’ thing. I’m 100% certain that he never would have said that to a man. Can you imagine? Jim, you just don’t like Bill. That would never happen. It’s those comments, however small, that pile up.”
Rather than seeing it as active prejudice, she sees it more as bias; conclusion bias. Laurie highlights the dichotomy that women are so often faced with: if a woman is quiet, she’s seen by men as weak. But if she’s vocal, she’s seen as bitchy. She’s not the first woman I’ve heard use that example.
“No matter what a woman says or does those conclusions are stuck in their heads. I think as women we get used to being talked over, so we become either much quieter or much louder. The middle is simply not an option. In a room full of men, all day, every day, it certainly makes those more prone to shyness, shrink in certain situations.”
One thing’s for sure, Laurie is no shrinking violet. She is confident enough to speak her mind in the office and get things done, which has driven her success to where she is now. And perhaps most importantly of all, she’s found the balance between work and family life. If you want to have some time with her though, just make sure it’s in the calendar!
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Morning
Active holiday or relaxing holiday? Active, definitely!
Cats or dogs? Dogs
What are you watching on Netflix right now? Ozark, and I just finished Tiger King 😉
All-time favourite music album? WOW that’s hard. Maybe Prince Sign O The Times but I like all kinds of music so it’s hard to name one album
Biggest weakness? Personal – I care too much. Food related – Cheese covered French fries 😊
What’s your favourite season? Fall
Favourite snack? Avocado on wheat toast
Favourite weekend activity? Hiking
Your favourite female icon? Louisa May Alcott or Harper Lee (I love great female writers). But also Helen Keller so inspirational