dotdigital Summit 2019: an interview with Vanessa Vallely OBE

Awarded an OBE for her services to women and the economy, Vanessa Vallely is one of the UK’s most prominent figures in gender equality. And, this year, she’ll be joining the amazing panel of speakers in our first-ever personal development track.

Since 2008, Vanessa has been bestowing her business tips and advice on audiences – leaving them inspired and motivated. And, this year, she’ll be joining the amazing panel of speakers in our first-ever personal development track.

In anticipation of International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March, we could think of no one better to catch up with than Vanessa.

Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you’ve come from, where you’ve worked, how you got to where you are today?

I grew up in Hackney, East London. I left school at 16 with an ambition to land myself a job in Banking in the city. Academically, I didn’t do too well at school, as there were other things going on in my life at the time. I managed to scrape a few C’s grades in terms of my GCSE’s, but it certainly wasn’t reflective of what I could have got if things were different and I would have been able to get my head down to study. I managed to get my first job in a bank, which I subsequently lost after six months! At the time, I thought the world was over! My early career taught me a lot of lessons from a very early age, which on reflection was an invaluable education for the more senior roles I would eventually go on to take. What followed was over 25 different job positions across nine financial organisations up to Chief Operating Officer. I left the corporate world to pursue my passion to help to progress the careers of women through my company, WeAreTheCity.  I am now CEO of two businesses, I sit on a couple of boards and was recently awarded an OBE from Prince Charles for my services to women and the economy.

What inspired you to get involved with gender equality and motivational speaking?

Definitely the lack of women at senior levels within the organisations I worked for. I was often the only woman at my organisations’ leadership table. Outside of my day job, in 2008, I set up WeAreTheCity to help women progress in their careers. It was more of a hobby than a commercial business. I was frustrated as there was lots of different activities going on for women who wanted to upskill but they were spread all over the internet. I wanted to create a website that provided resources and inspiration for women who were looking to progress. It was actually my husband that pushed me to make WeAreTheCity a reality, as opposed to a dream, as he bought me the website domain and built the website. We both ran WeAreTheCity alongside our day jobs for six years before I finally plucked up the courage to leave corporate and run WeAreTheCity full time. When I left, we had a community of around 24,000 women and two corporate clients. Today we have 120,000 members and we help over 120 companies to attract, retain and develop female talent.

WeAreTheCity is now the one-stop-shop of information and resources for professional women that I dreamed it would one day be. We publish news that interests women and resources such as networks and events where women can learn new skills. We also promote the activities of other organisations who are running initiatives, programmes and events aiding female progression and development.  Aside from the website, we run over 15 learning events a year, two conferences for future leaders and technologists. WeAreTheCity runs our annual Rising Star awards and TechWomen100 awards. We have a job board for clients looking to attract female applicants, Gender Networks, which is a forum and network for women running networks inside their firms, as well as a Careers Club for women who want to really accelerate their career. We also generate various different pieces of research each year, all focused on Gender.

Do you have a favourite experience from your career?

Like many careers, there were high’s like promotions and there were low’s, like being passed over for promotion. I think the best and most scary experience was actually leaving corporate.

I thought when I left corporate, given 25 years of experience that I would naturally have all the skills I needed to set up and run a successful business.  I was wrong!  It has taken me a good five years to feel comfortable about Vanessa as a leader of her own business as opposed to Vanessa as a corporate worker.

The highlight has to be when my accountant told me the business had started to make a profit! It makes all the hard work, sweat and tears worthwhile.

Other highlights include seeing our Rising Star and TechWomen100 awards go from strength to strength. To think what we do at WeAreTheCity has contributed in some small way to their ongoing success is a truly amazing feeling. 

 What do you think the audience will gain from your talk?

My talk will definitely provide the audience with food for thought as to how they can drive their own careers. Their success is not just down to their line managers, it has to come from them. Aside from sharing my own story, I will also share the five component things that I believe accelerated my career. We will cover the imposter syndrome, personal brand, networking, their digital footprint and the importance of mentors and sponsors.  It will be fast paced given the 20 minutes, however I can guarantee they will leave inspired.

What are 3 top tips for success?

  1. Network to get work
  2. Your personal brand matters – be wary of the behaviours you exhibit
  3. Your personal brand matters – be wary of the behaviours you exhibit

What has been your biggest challenge during your career?

I spent the first half of my career convincing people to give me a chance. Often I didn’t have the backstory they wanted, the accent, the academic qualifications etc.  It took a long time for my voice to be heard, but I never gave up.  If you want something in life, you have to work for it.  You will need people around you to open up doors of opportunity (see tips above) and above all be resilient and tenacious. Another challenge came when I had children, I was wrapped up in a world of guilt of being ambitious and also wanting to be the best mum I could be. I did what I thought was best at the time, there is no book written that can guide you on that one. You have to make your own decisions.  My kids still talk to me, so it couldn’t have been that bad!

What influential female figures have been the most inspiring to you and your career?

I have many role models, Tamara Box at Reed Smith and my own mentor, Lara Morgan, as I deeply admire her tenacity and drive. From a tech perspective, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Professor Sue Black OBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and Christina Scott, of News UK.  All of these are in senior tech roles and continuously work to inspire other women.  I also greatly admire Amanda McKenzie OBE, previous CMO at Aviva, was heavily involved with WACL and now CEO at Business in the Community.  I have other women in what I like to call my personal boardroom (see book by Zella King).  These are women I confide in on a weekly basis, they know me, they get me and are not afraid to tell me if my idea won’t work!

In your opinion, what is the largest barrier to women at work and how can it be overcome?

I have a bit of a thing about the word barriers!  We can all say there are barriers, things stopping us doing this, doing that etc, however it is how we overcome our perceptions of those barriers that we need to focus on.  There are still a number of industries where there are lots of women at the top, but no room for the next generations to move in to their positions. These senior women should be clearing paths for their future leaders and offering mentoring and sponsorship.  There are also a number of industries that are still male dominated, and yes if the culture is stuck in the dark ages, that can be hard.  However, if bad behaviour is stopping you progressing, you need to call that out.   Often, and without generalising for every woman, we are put off by a set of characteristics that we believe are needed for certain roles.  We have to challenge our thinking, disrupt the perception and take a risk.  We can bring our own unique style to any role.  Sometimes the biggest barrier is actually ourselves.  Ask yourself the question, what is really holding me back! If it’s the firm you are in and its culture, then make the move and go somewhere where your talents are both appreciated and nurtured!

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

To just chill a little bit and appreciate that things often take time. I was very ambitious when I was younger and expected to climb mountains in months instead of years.  I would also advise myself not to beat myself up to hard for the mistakes I made. These were not actually mistakes, they were opportunities to learn and grow and that I wouldn’t always get things right!

And if you could meet any woman from history, who would it be?

It would have to be Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama.


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