WIL met the Founder of the Pink Shoe, an organisation which equips ambitious females with the necessary tools to access top jobs across all sectors and professions. In this interview, Helene offers a fascinating account of how her diverse professional experiences shaped her decision to set up her own businesses in technology and healthy food, and later develop prospects in the political sphere. She lays bare key elements of a successful leader and highlights the measures she is presently taking through the Pink Shoe, to facilitate women entrepreneurship! If you are up for a thought provoking read- read bellow to access the interview.
How did you start your career as a young graduate and what steps led you to where you are now?
My career began at Citibank as a trainee, covering retail and commercial banking which was a great grounding in business. Managing in-store card accounts for Marks & Spencer, I learned a lot about marketing and the value of delivering first class customer service. Being headhunted to join a boutique magazine publisher, in a smaller company with greater autonomy and wider scope of work, I was able to be more entrepreneurial. This was a return to my real passion as I set up my first business when I was still at school. Organizing coaches for groups of friends to attend events across the UK, still too young to sign contracts, I ‘substituted’ my mother’s signature on the paperwork (without her knowledge)!
Serendipity has played a big part in my career. When offered the opportunity to work in the US, I spent two great years marketing for a small group of restaurants along the eastern seaboard. The enthusiasm and energy of the founders and team was inspiring. I helped them double the business then realised it was time to do that for myself.
Back in the UK, I carried forward this energy and enthusiasm to start my own businesses, first in technology then a healthy food business. Even at the start-up stage, I was aware of my exit; taking advice from a longstanding entrepreneur I made sure to ‘always leave some bread on the table’ i.e. sell when there is still room for growth in the business.
Finally, I got involved in politics by offering marketing and public relations (PR) help to a young candidate who then went into the House of Lords. My political PR mentor had been adviser to Margaret Thatcher, giving me the possibility to gain brilliant insights into how politics works.
Interestingly, you have been Chief of Staff for both a Conservative and a Labour Peer. What is key to being able to work across political divides?
Party political differences are much less defined ‘behind the scenes’, especially in the House of Lords, which has a more collegiate way of working. My roles were international and focused on enterprise and developing global diplomatic relationships. In both roles, I was impartial and not involved with party politics, so it was vital to work across all parties. It is still rare for someone to have held senior roles with peers across the political divides, and I would encourage more people to do it.
Party political differences are much less defined ‘behind the scenes.
You set up the Pink Shoe in 2007 to encourage female entrepreneurship and leadership and facilitate access to top jobs across all professions and sectors. How is the Pink Shoe different from other women networks? Is there a story behind the organization’s name?
At the time, there were already some excellent women’s networks, however most focused on specific business sectors or professions. There are three key elements to Pink Shoe – it works across all professions and sectors, it is a diverse group of women leaders from every different background and has close connections with Parliaments in the UK and globally.
The name Pink Shoe signifies the ‘positive footprints we’re creating’ i.e. the legacy and impact of our work and our intention to improve the world of business and society and make it more women-friendly. Surprising as it might seem, until about 100 years ago, pink was a colour for boys, and blue was for girls. This was not widely known, and I wanted to signify the power and positivity of pink in that context.
Pink Shoe actively seeks to influence policy with the aim that female leadership and entrepreneurship is pivotal to Government strategy. By working across all industries, we are able to share best practice between sectors. Last but not least, I would also like to mention that we very much welcome men to our events. It is only by working together with women and men that we will achieve the parity we are all working towards.
The name Pink Shoe signifies the ‘positive footprints we’re creating’
What other programs do you offer?
Alongside our work on entrepreneurship, we also offer programs that aim to create more balance in the public life and on boards. This is a program called BoardAble! It was created a few years ago to enable participants to step-up to Public Appointments, Non-Executive Director roles, and Senior Board positions. It is a series of professional seminars and workshops as well as one-on-one customised mentoring programs. Alongside professional seminars, we carefully match each participant with a senior woman in public life who can take them to a board meeting or just give them some insights into what it is like to be a public appointee. I am proud to say that some of the women who have completed this leadership program have already become very senior chief executives within major public organisations!
Participants are selected via a competitive application process, just as if they were applying for a ministerial public appointment. We give them feedback at every stage. Even those applicants who do not get in are offered constructive feedback on how to improve their CV and future applications.
You drive the Economic Blueprint for Women, a robust portfolio of solutions created in the US by Women Impacting Public Policy. The UK Economic Blueprint for Women is helping to create the conditions for women led businesses to gain a fairer share of business opportunities. There are still many obstacles that are unique to women entrepreneurs. What are they? What can be done to better support women entrepreneurs and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in young girls?
I do not see obstacles, only opportunities. Of course, there are challenges in business but by working together and focusing on what can be achieved we are all more successful.
With the Economic Blueprint, we have a roadshow supported by NatWest visiting different areas and regions of the UK, listening to female entrepreneurs about what they need in order to grow their businesses. Outcomes will be published in a White Paper later this year. The things they need are the same for every business owner: funding, a good mentor, and of course access to more business! We are working on practical solutions such as a digital platform so that women can collaborate to gain bigger contracts.
Knowledge is key so we have partnered with two universities to build a data repository. This will enable us to have tangible data to demonstrate to Government and industry the economic benefit of more women growing their businesses.
I am also passionate about encouraging entrepreneurial spirit in young women and indeed in new entrepreneurs of any age. As we are expected to work longer, entrepreneurship is likely to become a suitable option for people in later life too.
Finally, I believe that role models are not just the global business icons – great though they are, these entrepreneur superstars can appear unreachable to many entrepreneurs. With Pink Shoe, I am highlighting achievable business icons – women entrepreneurs with highly successful businesses but with whom young women can identify.
Much of what I’ve achieved is thanks to the amazing, inspiring and creative people whom I’ve worked. This is especially true of Pink Shoe and many visionary women that have been with me over the 12 years.
Your work allows you to meet many successful female leaders. Do female and male leaders lead differently? Are these differences real or perceived?
There are some differences in leadership style of men and women, but successful leaders have lots in common with other leaders, regardless of gender. Women are perceived as more collegiate and inclusive, yet I have worked with men who have these traits too.
The most successful female leaders I know all have the ability to build great teams. Teamwork is essential for success. In my experience, most women have a collaborative and empathetic way of working, taking a 360 view of the world. Good communication skills are also one of best gifts we have. Successful leaders in these 24/7 media times have to be great communicators and empathise with the audience.
Finally, male leaders still seem to find it easier to take credit and speak up. It remains the case that some women do not always assert themselves, and women who do – like Pink Shoe Patron PM Theresa May, can be perceived as being ‘difficult’. However, as Mrs May nicely put it, “politics could do with some bloody difficult women”.
What is the best piece of advice you recently heard from a fellow woman leader?
Not that recent, but for me this is very true: “Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” (Anne Sweeney)
Finally, I love this quote from Sheryl Sandberg and am doing my bit to make this come true: "In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders."
* WIL Friend