Fold Woman: Lisa Unwin

Fold Woman: Lisa Unwin
September 6, 2018 The Fold

On growing up: I grew up in South Yorkshire and went to the local comp. My mum was a teacher and my father ran his own construction firm; they both had strong work ethics. When I was in my early teens, there was a recession and my dad’s business was hit hard. It was a really tough time – and that early experience shaped my career path. I remember thinking, “I’ll never rely on anyone else for money.” I was determined to find a hard-nosed job and have financial independence, so I studied banking and finance at Loughborough University, got a first class degree and trained as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen. I was promoted faster – and paid more – than many of my male peers.

On her early career: I switched to management consulting and was made partner in 2001, the year before the Enron scandal. I went into labour with my first child, Florence, on the day Arthur Andersen was indicted, and I was on maternity leave when Deloitte took over our UK operations. I had no fees against my name so instead of being offered a position as partner after the tie-up, I became director of brand and communications. That was a blow but I worked hard, headed up a team of 35 and helped us clinch the first “tier two” sponsorship deal for London 2012 (in between having my second child, Luca). I thought I’d proved myself – but it wasn’t enough. Despite my influential position, I was once again passed over for promotion in 2008. That same week, our nanny announced she was moving out of London and resigned. I couldn’t figure out wraparound care for my two kids and felt utterly undervalued at work – so I quit.

On her toughest challenge: I flounced out of Deloitte with no real plan and threw myself into motherhood – a frenzy of school trips, cupcake-baking and meal-planning. I also did a creative writing course and started a tongue-in-cheek blog about my “lavish” lifestyle – it only had 19 followers but the press picked it up and vilified me. That was soul-destroying and it crippled my confidence; there were days when I couldn’t even leave the house. Eventually I began to help with numeracy and literacy at the local school and volunteered as a magistrate in East London but I missed the intellectual stimulation of work. I remember standing in the kitchen (I may have been making cupcakes), listening to Radio 4’s Women’s Hour Power List and thinking “What the hell happened to me?”. I wasn’t alone. At the school gates, I was surrounded by so many other smart women who, like me, had taken a career break to look after young children. So what was stopping us going back? I decided to find out.

On making a comeback: I thought there must be an opportunity to support women getting back to work. So I wrote a brief paper outlining what I thought the business model might look like and I sent it to a few friends, who sent it to their friends. Their feedback showed me I’d hit a nerve. In 2014, I teamed up with Deb Khan – a friend, former National Theatre workshop leader and creativity consultant – and we launched She’s Back. We worked with the University of Edinburgh to get some hard core facts, data and numbers around women who drop out (check out our movie) and we’ve just published the She’s Back book, a guide to returning to work. Our aim is to help women be brave, ambitious and ready for a comeback.

On her go-to style: I like outfits that don’t date so I tend to wear classic, simple pieces and I enjoy mixing high end with high street. These days, you’ll find me in flats: Prada brogues or Isabel Marant trainers. The last time I wore a pair of Jimmy Choo heels to work, they got stuck in the escalator on the Tube. Never again!

On her power suit: I have two power suits. The first: Stella McCartney culottes with a black jacket and white shirt. The second: pale grey wide-legged trousers from Topshop Boutique with a navy silk blouse. Both make me feel fabulous. I also always rely on The Fold, the clothes are so stylish and comfortable. And they’re washable!

On staying sane: I’ve been in the same book club since I was pregnant with Luca, who’s now 14. There are nine of us in the group – a mix of entrepreneurs, artists, businesswomen, teachers and mature students. Between us, we’ve been through it all: kids, divorce, severe illnesses, mental health issues. They are my sisterhood and they keep me sane. We read the odd book, too. My favourites are The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

On her advice to other women: Last year, I agreed to join a friend on a bike ride in Provence. I’d imagined sunshine, nice riding, no kids, no husband. Not three hours of torture on Mont Ventoux, the hardest of all the Tour de France climbs and the scariest mountain in Europe. But that ride taught me an important lesson. You can have a coach, you can find a professional to advise you on the right nutrition and training. You can have the best support team in the world. But there is only one person who can turn those pedals. And that’s you.

Interview: Kate Bassett

Photography: Harry Borden

Accessories: Lisa’s own

Shot at Lisa’s home in London

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