Vanessa Vallely CEO & Founder of WeAreTheCity talks to Empiric

 Author of ‘Heels of Steel’, CEO and founder of women’s network WeAreTheCity, MD of female job board WeAreTheCityJobs and motivational speaker Vanessa Vallely talks to Elizabeth Hurst about the challenges of being a working woman, Power lists, and taking risks.

It is a privilege to talk to Vanessa Vallely about awards lists, such as her involvement with WeAreTheCity’s Rising Star awards. After all, she has been celebrated extensively over her own career, most recently being named 5th on theWomen in the City Power list 2015 by City AM and most recently one of the Evening Standards Progress 1000 of influential Londoners. We begin to talk about how she got involved on the panel of Computer Weekly’s 50 most influential women in IT and WeAreTheCity’s Top 50 Rising Star awards 2015.

How did you get involved with the Computer Weekly Top 50

“I have been in Technology for over 25 years. I started off in non-technical roles and then moved in the technical field and then up to the management of IT as my career progressed. I had long been a fan of Computer Weekly as I used to read it when I started my own career back in the 90’s. When the team at CW asked me to be a judge and then speak at the awards, I saw it as a great honour”.

You have recently launched your own awards as part of WeAreTheCity, please tell us a little about these awards

“The Rising Star awards were created to showcase the achievement of women below the management level. Our aim was to create 50 role models across 10 industries through a process of nomination and public voting. The response to the awards was phenomenal with 340 entries and over 15,000 votes from 112 countries. We couldn’t have done it without the support of our 14 corporate sponsors and the Government equalities office, all of which played a massive part in getting the awards off the ground”.

WATC Top 50 Rising Stars celebrated the 100 shortlisted individuals at an event at Bloomberg in August, and the 50 winners were celebrated in the House of Commons in September.

I ask about the positive effects these award lists will have on the women featured, and for women in general.

“The awards created a platform for our winners and an opportunity to showcase their achievements. The on going impact is the external recognition for our shortlist and winners, which will hopefully play a part in their future career. Our rising stars are now role models in their industries and will no doubt go on to inspire and support other women”

The career benefits of these awards can be seen in Vanessa Vallely herself. I ask if she could put together her own personal Powerlist and award any 3 people who would they be?

“It would have to be Heather Melville, founder and Chair of RBS Focused Women’s Network, Birgit Neu, MD of neuchange and Tamara Box of Reed Smith. They are all amazing corporate women that alongside hectic day jobs give back to other women. I believe that women should support other women and these ladies epitomise that sentiment in everything they do. They are women I deeply admire, all of which have supported me personally in so many ways.”

In her book, ‘Heels of Steel, surviving and thriving in the corporate world,’Vanessa Vallely talks about her experiences working her way up in London’s male dominated financial district. I ask what prompted her to be so passionate in sharing her story.

“I had a list of 40 things to do before I turned 40, and write a book was the last one. It stemmed from my childhood and my grandmother who owned a number of second hand book stalls back in the 60’s in Soho. One day she was a housewife bringing up two young children and the next she was a young widow who had to literally pick up my grandfathers business when he un expectedly passed away at 40. She knew nothing about running a business, but she just did what she had to do in order to survive and support her family. I think I get my spirit and drive from her, she was an amazing woman. As a child I stayed with her during the summer, which meant I spent my childhood surrounded by second hand books. I think she would be very proud that I actually ended up writing a book myself. By writing ‘Heels of Steel’ I wanted to create a legacy, not just for my own daughters, but for anyone who aspired to a corporate career. There was also an element of sharing my story for the benefit of those who are told more of what they won’t become as opposed to what they could achieve if they work hard and focus. I started off in a tower block in east London, the daughter of a single parent, and not much of an education and yet somehow I managed to carve out a fairly successful career in the city. It wasn’t without its downfalls and I attribute a lot of my success to a number of individuals who took a risk on me and took me under their wing. I wanted to tell my story and to also share that sometimes things don’t always go your way, however if you want something in life, you invariably have to work for it.”

‘Heels of Steel’ honestly maps the ups and downs, and shows that the journey to the top of your industry isn’t always going to be easy. It also gives tips, such as a “Career Toolkit” to aid those starting out. Vallely talks about the greatest challenges that she faced as a professional woman working within the corporate world.

Early on it was having confidence in my own ability. As I became more senior, it was more about recognising who I was and realising that the value I added was bringing my true self to work, not the person I felt I needed to be in order to survive in the environment I was in. I also hit problems balancing a career and a young family as I wanted it all and felt guilty for trying to have both.  I spent years trying to be everything to everyone and almost run myself in to the ground as a consequence. It took me a long time to learn that you can’t be everything to everyone and a consequence, I perceive balance in a very different way now and tend not to beat myself up if I occasionally slip off my own pedal stall.”

As a young aspiring writer experiencing the corporate world for the first time, I understand a lack of confidence when just starting out. You know you can get to a point of knowledge but it’s hard to take the first steps. Vallely remembers feeling unsure at the beginning and still admits to feeling like an imposter even when she assumed senior roles.

I ask Vallely what she thinks the key career obstacles for women are, and what she would implement on a company level to encourage women in the workplace.

“It is very easy to rattle off a list of obstacles that women might face and for us to use them as excuses to hide behind, however, I believe time is better spent working out how you overcome those obstacles. Every woman’s journey is different, therefore there isn’t a one size fits all answer. From a corporate perspective I would like to see more visibility of female role models, more internal sponsorship for women, more mentoring programmes where men and women are involved and more opportunities for individuals to build their internal and external networks. This would be a great start, not just for the women, but for all employees.

Companies also need to refresh their thinking about how they support employees. What was right two generations ago isn’t necessarily right for today’s evolving workforce.  There needs to be an understanding that everyone’s career journey is different and it is about being innovative in the ways companies listen to their employees. The method of having career conversations at mid year/year end or relying on outputs of their employee engagement surveys is outdated as it represents a temperature check at a particular point in time. I would like to see more career focus groups, data from exit interviews being analysed and input from internal networks being feed in to HR and line managers as pointers for companies to engage their workforce and support individuals in their careers.”

We ask Vanessa about her main business, WeAreTheCity is recognised and respected as the place for women to get career advice, find events, jobs, and networks. We have 42,000 female members, experience 4 million hits per month and rank in the top 5,000 websites in the UK. Aside from offering free advice, they also provide a number of solutions to companies looking to attract and retain women. I ask what the biggest contribution Vanessa believes WeAreTheCity is making, with the most powerful impact?

Our impact is that we centralising everything that everyone is doing for women in to place. If a woman wants to progress in her career, I would like to think that we have the answer in some guise. If we don’t then we will point our visitors in the right direction. We have spent 7 years building WeAreTheCity, if our visitors want to up skill they can join our careers club. If they want to build their network they can attend one of our events or one of our partners events or reference our directory of women’s networks. If they are just seeking inspiration or motivation, I would like to think that one of our 4,500 articles hits the spot. WeAreTheCity has grown dramatically over the past two years, both in the UK and via our sister site in India. I am also particularly proud of our Rising Star awards, which launched this year and the growth of our job board, WeAreTheCity jobs.   We have a vision that we will be the go to job board for women working alongside firms who really want to balance their workforce in terms of gender.

When Empiric asked me to find strong women and interview them as part of my internship, Vanessa Vallely was an obvious choice. WeAreTheCity and Empiric share a passion in wanting to actively push for total inclusion, diversity and equality. I ask Vallely if she thinks the recruitment industry is leading the way or lagging behind in term of performance for diversity, and facilitating equality for women.

“Recruitment has a massive part to play in diverse hiring, as they are effectively the front door of the organisations they represent.  I often hear “where are the women”, however there are plenty of talented women in the job market, you only have to attend one of the many different networking events if you want to find them. I would also like to see recruitment agents really push their clients on their initial requirements. Eg, could this job be part time, do we really need a degree or someone who is in industry. I also believe in balanced shortlists too, not just for women but also from people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

It’s not all bad news. We start to discuss what gives us confidence that we’re moving in the right direction in terms of gender equality.

“Well there’s the 25% of women on boards, 30% women non-executive directors, and of course the equality survey has proven that we are on the way. Everything we have achieved now wasn’t there 10 years ago. There are positive results, but still a lot of work to be done”

I decide to end the interview on a question that many young women just starting out might want to ask, given the wonderful opportunity I have to talk to an industry leader who has achieved and overcome so much; what advice would you give to individuals to succeed in their careers.

“There is no magic formula as everyone’s career is so different. My top tips are firstly to ensure you are working for the right firm. Who you work for is of equal importance. I always worked for ambitious individuals who were going places and who could teach me new things. You also need to realise that it is not your line manager’s sole responsibility to grow your career, they are a factor, but it is mostly down to you and the opportunities and risks you chose to take. Having a network is key, both internally and externally. Invariably you don’t achieve success on your own, you need other people, therefore you need to build and maintain those relationships. Establishing your network is more about quality than it is quantity. Seeking mentors and earning sponsorship is of equal importance. What I mean by earning sponsorship is no one is going to put his or her neck on the line for you unless you have demonstrated you can deliver. Think about who your sponsors are and work out ways that you can demonstrate your capability to these individuals as these are the people who will open up doors of opportunity for you when you are not in the room. In terms of mentors, these are individuals who have the past experience to guide you and offer sound advice, don’t under estimate how important these individuals are and don’t just seek 1 mentor, you need a diverse range of individuals from different industries and backgrounds. Finally, take risks! Nothing is achieved without an element of risk. Sometimes the risks you take will be worthwhile and other times they may lead to failure. Don’t be afraid to fail or make the wrong decision on occasions, it is all part of the learning process. I have failed many times, but I have come to realise over the years that the importance is how you come back from those failures. Learn from it, dust yourself off and move on.”

Elizabeth Hurst
Writer and Researcher at Empiric.