On her childhood: I grew up in the countryside in Essex, near Maldon, and had a very loving, middle-class upbringing. My parents are both entrepreneurs and they always worked really hard. Even now, in their mid-70s, they run a golf driving range and pitch and putt. I had no idea what a “corporate” job was – it just wasn’t on my radar. I studied history of art at the University of East Anglia then landed a job working in an art gallery on Bond Street. I thought it would be my dream role but it wasn’t my cup of tea at all and I just didn’t fit in. After six months, I quit and started working in the City. The plan was to save enough money to go travelling – but I never left.
On her early career: I got a three-day temping job with an agricultural commodities trading firm called ED&F Man – and ended up working there for three years. I was surrounded by smart people and absolutely loved the work-hard, play-hard culture. I worked on the trading desk and it was very male-dominated. Of course I experienced “MeToo moments”; I think every woman who worked in the City during the nineties and noughties did. I then joined executive search firm Sheffield Howard as an associate; I was fiercely ambitious and was promoted every couple of years, climbing the ladder to become managing director.
On starting her own business: I’d be sitting on the tube on my way to work thinking, “Where are all the women who look like me?” At the time, there was a dearth of mid and senior-level female professionals. So I started to investigate: the more I looked, the more I found brilliant, go-getting, highly-qualified women who had taken a career break to raise kids and were finding it impossible to get back to work. At the same time, clients were crying out for more women. There was an obvious gap in the market so, in 2016, I launched The Return Hub to help professionals to relaunch their careers. We now have more than 3,000 candidates on our books and we work with around 40 employers in the financial services sector, ranging from HSBC to KPMG.
On her toughest moments: I was pretty naive when I started The Return Hub. I assumed I’d be able to be my own boss and spend more time with my kids but, in reality, I was working very long hours during the first 18 months to get the business off the ground. There were moments when I wondered if I was completely bonkers to leave my well-paid job to start something new. I remember having six meetings with an asset management firm; I thought we were on the brink of signing them up as one of our first clients but when we showed them our fee structure, their jaws dropped. They’d assumed we were a charity and we were simply “doing women a favour”. That experience nearly derailed me but it taught me early on to make sure the business proposition is crystal clear.
On the pandemic: It’s clear that the pandemic has taken its toll disproportionally on women’s careers and they have generally taken on more of the domestic responsibilities whilst juggling work. On the flip side, the cause of flexible working has been turbo-charged by at least 10 years, with companies investing in the technology and infrastructure to make this much easier. It will be fascinating to see how rapidly the workplace evolves once things are back to “normal” but I suspect it will never be the same again.
On her style: Does what you wear to work matter? Absolutely. Rightly or wrongly, there is power in the way you dress and first impressions count. When I meet clients, I’m representing serious women, with serious brains, who want serious jobs – so I have to look the part. My go-to work style is an a-line dress or smart trousers with a jacket, paired with a simple diamond necklace and matching stud earrings. I wear Air & Grace trainers to power walk to meetings then, like so many women, I quickly switch to heels in the lobby.
On staying sane: As a 45-year-old woman, I was trying to find ways to connect with my football-loving, Fornite-obsessed 10-year-old son. He’d been ploughing his way through the Alex Rider series of spy novels by Anthony Horowitz so I started reading them too so we could bond over the plots and villains. Other than that, I’ve just read How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which was hilarious. My favourite restaurant for special occasions is Zambura – a brilliant local restaurant in Clapham.
Advice to other women: You’ll be told that the place in which you work is a meritocracy. Don’t be fooled. Power, promotions and pay rises depend on who you know and how well you network. There’s no point doing an amazing job if only one person knows you’re doing it.
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