I founded A Different Me, which positively impacts the lives of working parents. But how did I get here and why do I do it?
Much of what you read will tell you that you need a plan. A career plan. Yet most of the brilliant and successful women I work with haven’t followed a clear plan. Instead, they have understood their strengths, established their values, set clear goals, and taken calculated risks. These core building blocks may not feel clear when you are on the journey but having these foundations enables you to make decisions in line with your values and be empowered to take the risks that feel right for you.
When I think about my own work journey, I have ventured down a few paths which may at the time have seemed wrong – but they all gave me life experience and an opportunity to find the next step.
Initially, I wanted to work in retail and not continue to study. I used to set up the window displays at GAP and later Jigsaw while working in the store, which I loved but I also had a nagging sense that there was more to discover, more out there for me. So I made a last-minute decision to go to university. Partly it was for the lifestyle, but I recognised an opportunity to expand my outlook.
Going to university
I studied business and accounting in the absence of a master plan, but I felt that it was general enough to offer a good grounding in a range of subjects. It also appealed as the course offered a year in industry – an opportunity to earn some money!!
It turned out that my year was at HP (the global tech manufacturer) and this meant a year working in sales. This involved pretty much anything that the senior salespeople needed – running events, organising meetings, preparing quotes, hosting clients, getting coffee, but after a particularly sunny team meeting in Mallorca on a boat – I was sold! So, after I finished my degree, I returned to work for them.
A career in tech
Now I am as surprised as anyone that I went into a career in tech – as I am not a natural – the Skybox is often my nemesis. Yet, I discovered that I loved to understand how technology can be used to solve customers’ business problems.
Thinking that you need to be technical is so often a reason not to start careers in tech, but this should not be the case. The industry offers so many types of roles like law, sales, marketing, fundraising, consulting to name a few, in addition to a range of technical roles, so the possibilities are pretty endless.
I was part of the graduate sales programme (which I passed with flying colours) and started to work on my own accounts. After a few years, I moved to work for another major tech firm – Cisco. This role provided an opportunity to meet different types of customers from building companies, hotel chains, large retailers to gaming companies.
My job was to understand their business, and then determine what challenges our technology solutions could solve for them and sell this to them. The role involved coordinating large global teams to access the required knowledge, create an appropriate solution and price a proposal. This process uses skills like organisation, coordination, negotiation, tenacity, relationship building, planning and communication.
It was a crazy time and lots of fun, including hosting a building company at a German beer festival and a travel company at Ascot races.
Being the only woman in the room
The next step saw me move to focus on financial services clients, selling solutions to banks, insurance and investment funds. It was a tough job compounded by being the only woman in the room for the majority of the time.
This was frustrating, scary and isolating at times but it also taught me the value of difference. People noticed when I spoke and what I had to say. I could adopt an alternative sales style to my competitors and could pose questions that many of my male colleagues were unable to.
I successfully employed skills of empathy, humour, relationship building and collaboration to win some great deals. There was however too many inappropriate comments, incidents and situations initiated by men against the few women in the industry that crossed many lines. The tech and financial services industries have a way to go to achieve gender parity – but things are very different these days and movements like #MeToo have created a new understanding of what is and is not acceptable.
Yet as a career I can highly recommend sales. It was hard work but with lots of great opportunities – regular trips to NYC, Las Vegas and Europe, great restaurants and parties and I also worked in a Kenyan orphanage as we introduced tech to support local education projects; a memory that will last a lifetime.
Returning to work after maternity leave
However, when I had my children things changed. With my first, I came back after maternity leave and it hit me like a ton of bricks as to how hard it is to have a demanding career and have raise children. I looked for ways to create change including sitting as vice chair of the board for inclusion at Cisco.
I wanted to find ways to make a positive impact to the experience of those who are much less well represented within our industry – for example tech is still only 17 per cent women overall and just 14 per cent representation at the board level.
Alongside this role, I led the UK chapter of “Back to Business” a community that helps those coming back from long term leave – parents as well as those that have to take time out due to mental or physical health issues or maybe bereavement. The participants provided further insight into the hurdles impeding working mums within corporate organisations and can often be the reason so many leave careers when they have children, which ultimately impacts the number of women available for senior leadership positions.
Helping mums returning to work
The birth of my second child drove the next major career change. I decided I had to do more and help other women overcome the hurdles that I had faced as a working mum. So, I took the bold decision, stepped out of Cisco and founded “A Different Me”.
I work hard every day to positively impact the lives of working mothers. As a coach I work one to one, helping working mums address challenges like overwhelm, stress and balance.
Secondly, I work with corporate organisations, enabling them to recognise the experiences of their working parents and implement tools and resources that improve the workplace.
I love my business. I get to work each day with brilliant, hard-working and inspirational women that are forging change, and with organisations wanting to make a difference. All of the evidence supports what we know, that organisations with better gender balance are more successful and profitable.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the countries that dealt most successfully with the crisis were led by women – leaders who brought their skills of problem-solving, collaboration, rapid response, crisis management and thought leadership.
You are the next generation of women who will work in our organisations, who will shape what our institutions do and how they do it. You will need to continue to be bold and use your voice to call out things that are not right.
Use the power of communities like this one to share great ideas, support each other, and inspire those who are coming behind you. Have the career that you want and challenge those that say you cannot.
My advice to you
I can never have just one piece of advice, I am not built that way! So, I will say start with the basics – trust and value yourself – listen to your gut, take advice and educate yourself but don’t let other people’s reflections of your career decisions impact your ability to evaluate and decide what is right for your own journey.
Spend time really recognising your strengths and understanding your values, which will evolve. Through understanding them, you can articulate them, so others know what is important to you, and you can use them as the basis for making your career decisions.
Make the most of this very precious one life that you have. Know your worth, use your voice to make positive change, work hard and enjoy the journey.
To find out more about Rachels’ work helping mums returning to work and finding corporate solutions, visit: www.adifferentme.co.uk