Last week, Plan contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in working with them to provide blogging and social media support for their campaigns to support girls around the world. Apparently, they want someone who writes about “… life, money, girls with a healthy dose of humour …” and so it seems that I fit the bill! More importantly, I’m a long standing supporter of their work and have blogged and attended events about it before: when I raised over £300 to support their “Girls’ Night In” campaign in 2009; at the launch of the Plan book, “Because I Am a Girl” in January 2010 and then a few months later at their International Women’s Day event at the House of Commons. It seems that I’ve just missed their event featuring Angelina Jolie and William Hague, but I’ve been invited along to learn more about their plans and how they’d like to use social media to raise awareness: so that’s where I’ll be on Tuesday afternoon. This workshop will be followed by a “Plan Talks” event featuring their long term supporter, author and broadcaster Kathy Lette, who I remember as being fabulous at the book launch event four years ago. I’ll write about that later this week.
October was a very busy month for me; I’ve been serving as a judge on the Women in the City awards, booking and planning a trip to India for later this month and returning to work in an office! I’ve joined a major investment bank and am now working full time as an interim diversity consultant, focusing particularly on EMEA corporate communications, benchmarking and networking/affinity groups.
My colleagues at the bank have been very accommodating in allowing me to turn up, learn the ropes and then disappear after three weeks in order to go back to India (Goa and Mumbai) in mid-November – a trip I’d booked in September before I had any idea that I’d be offered this job.
(As an aside, and in case anyone was in any doubt at all as to the continuing tough and brutal state of the job hunting market: I went for NINETY NINE interviews during my period of downtime. It would have been a round one hundred, but I backed out of a scheduled interview upon receipt of my current job offer).
One of the many friends in Goa whom I’m looking forward to seeing again is Bushita (her name means “grace” in Konkani, the Goan language). I had dinner with her on my last night in Goa earlier this year – and this is her story.
* * * * * *
I first met Bushita when I called in to her beauty parlour for a massage one rainy afternoon. After she had soothed and smoothed the knots out of my shoulders, we sat chatting, drinking tea and listening to the rain beat down on her flat roof. Over the weeks of my visit, we became friends and I learned that this shy, petite woman was, in addition to being a skilled masseuse, a very successful businesswoman. Against the odds and with little to help her on her way other than hard work and determination, she has become a property and land owner and is very representative of the female labour force who are fuelling India’s economic boom.
Aged 32, she was born and brought up in Goa, the youngest of six children, and endured a difficult childhood, primarily due to her father dying when Bushita was aged 6.
“I always loved school,” she told me. “And I worked hard to learn English.”
Aged 15, she met her husband Sabbas, a friend of her brother.
“He’s my only boyfriend, nine years older than me, and the only man I’ve ever kissed – and even then I made him wait for a year, because I felt I was too young.”
They married four years later. Finances dictated that they had a small wedding rather than the large Roman Catholic affair she would have preferred, although she hopes to have – “a huge party! You must come to Goa for it, Cleo!” to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in 2022.
Bushita began training to be a beautician as soon as she left school in 1997; sighing, she told me that she would have loved to “carry on studying and go to university in Panjim”, but her mother needed her to start earning and contribute to the family’s finances. So, taught by a local beauty salon owner, she learned how to do facials and give massages and then sold her wedding jewellery to pay for a college course and improve her skills.
“My mother was horrified that I sold my gold! But I knew that it was the right thing to do and that I had to invest in me. How is it you say – speculate to accumulate? Yes!”
Charter flights full of holiday makers had begun coming to Goa in the mid 1990s and that led to the explosion of tourism as we now see it. Bushita told me that she could see that this influx of western visitors would be good for business, as long as she could learn some new beauty skills so, after she’d qualified at college, she went to work at a larger salon in order to learn how to do manicures and pedicures. Tragically, her first baby, a boy, had died seven months into her pregnancy and her difficulties continued when her second child, Hazel, now aged 11, was also born prematurely in 1999 and was very ill for the first few years of her life.
At about the same time, her mother inherited a piece of land located very close to what was then becoming a popular hotel. By borrowing from family members and using friends and neighbours as labour, Bushita built a tiny shop on the land to one day use as her dream beauty parlour. Because she couldn’t also afford to fit it out as a salon, she rented it to a tenant as a clothes shop in order to get some money for fittings. The shop remained tenanted for the next five years, whilst Bushita worked in a neighbouring salon, biding her time. She then took out a bank loan (underwritten by her mother) and built an upper story extension on to the shop, which she finally started to use as a salon whilst maintaining the clothes shop downstairs. Hazel’s Beauty Parlour, named after her oldest child, finally opened in 2005, a year after Bushita had given birth to her second daughter, Pearl Suezan; she laughed as she told me – “both of my daughters were born in September. I wanted them to be smart girls, born at the beginning of the school year – and this way, I could take my baby leave during the rainy season, when there are no tourists!”
Having worked upstairs for a few years, Bushita then saw her chance to extend again, and she started working from her home whilst converting the original salon into an apartment and guest house. She now presides over two apartments and three bed and breakfast rooms (“all with air conditioning!”), in addition to the salon and the shop, currently occupied by a Kashmiri jewellery business and told me, sighing, that she is very glad that she has diversified, as the beauty business is under threat. There’s lots of competition from the beach, as many former fruit sellers now offer beauty treatments as an easier way of working with the high spending tourist population.
However, her guest house is doing very well and that helps fund the expansion plans and renovations.
“It’s grown via word of mouth and referrals and repeat business – thank goodness!”
I saw the generation gap at work when Bushita explained that her in-laws, with whom she lives, struggle to understand her drive and commitment; “they do still want me to be more traditional, but they’re more accepting now, as they can see the business growing and becoming successful. I earn much more than my husband does [as a taxi driver] and they find this very strange – it’s almost unimaginable in their world. Because we all live together, we have disagreements over domestic ideas. Until recently, they used to nag me constantly about having another baby, ideally a boy, but my husband reminded them that I had nearly died twice and so now they leave me alone. Mostly.”
Luckily Sabbas has always been supportive and understood the need to earn money and do well.
“Over time, I have changed my husband; now we have short holidays alone together and sometimes go out for dinner. The children will grow up and leave to live with their husbands’ families, and we will be old, so it’s important that we are happy together. It’s our life and we must live it.”
What are your hopes for your daughters, I asked?
Deeply religious, Bushita would like her older daughter to be a nun, or perhaps a nurse or a doctor – “she is very caring.” And she hopes that Pearl will take over the business and ultimately run the salon and the guest house. Ahead of either contingency, she’s saving money for them both in order to pay for university or college in some capacity.
Over coffee, she confided that her greatest challenge is family based (“yap yap!”) rather than business focussed.
“The in-laws are so difficult and their weight of expectations are a great burden; if they’re fine, everything else is fine, if not – we all know about it. They are always very unhappy about my building projects when they’re underway, but they cope with it later on. They have a rural background with pigs and chickens and find this way of life to be so strange, still, after all these years.”
She continued, “Thankfully, my mother-in-law does all the cooking so that helps a lot in terms of domestic stuff and childcare. They’re also very good at disciplining the children.”
Once the Goan tourist industry shuts up shop each spring, Bushita goes on seminars in the down season to learn about new treatments (“next time you come, I will be able to do the gel nails”) and she also sells life insurance. She started this three years ago, as a way of earning money in the absence of tourists and has found that she enjoys selling door to door, to the extent that she has won both regional and national sales awards for achieving great sales figures.
“I get bored being a Goan housewife and I love business, so my advice to other women is: stand up for yourselves and speak up. You must always move forwards and don’t look back. You do have talents – yes, there may be barriers to your success, but don’t be afraid.
If you have a great idea – try it, be brave.
No can always become Yes.”
(For previous posts about my trips to Goa, please click on the words Goa and/or India in the “I’m writing about …” tag cloud on the right).
Earlier this week I went along to a discussion called Networked Women, hosted at Intellect (the trade body for the UK’s technology industry) by Tracey Carr and Jan Peters. Unlike some of the events I’ve covered before, where there was a lot of standing around and no particular focus, this meeting was well organised and took as its theme the value and benefits of women’s corporate/in-house networks: have they succeeded or failed? And what is best practice – and, more importantly, what isn’t?
The first speaker was Eileen Brown, the founder of a collective called Connecting Women in Technology (and here’s a link to Eileen’s blog), which has members from such IT giants as Microsoft, Cisco, Intel Dell, HP and IBM. They take it in turns to organise two events per year, hosted by one of the member firms, as a way for the women to network outside their own company and across different business and functional sectors.
CwiT has been running events for the last three years, and Eileen shared their following top three learnings with us:
- Women want mentors and advice from women in similar roles and at similar levels – so try to make sure that you have a good mixture at your events.
- Get senior people (ideally men) to come and speak at your events, particularly men who manage women – they add value and credibility to the subject in hand
- Allow time for post-event networking and chat, as well as a mid-event coffee break, in case anybody has to leave promptly at the end – this way they won’t miss out on the chance to make new connections.
Next on was Vanessa Vallely, who, in addition to a very impressive sounding day job in finance, is the co-founder of the Network of Networks, a collective of corporate/FTSE companies who come together from time to time to discuss best practices in areas such as networking and diversity. Vanessa is also the creator of information portal We Are The City, which is aimed at women in the City (of London) who want information on career and lifestyle issues. Vanessa is the absolute Queen of collaborating with other people and other networks on events and she suggested that SUCCESS for women’s corporate networks is dependent upon:
- Getting senior sponsorship for your network – from a senior leader who is passionate, involved and active.
- Creating a really strong business case for your network, with proper objectives, and resources.
- And while you’re at it – ask for a budget!
- Thinking about your communications – use lots of channels. And say to your members: here we are, what do you want us to do?
- Organising a range of diverse events, for all levels of women in the organisation, with different role models and which take place at different times of the day
In order to avoid FAILURE, Vanessa recommends:
- Not working as a silo – get lots of involvement, from many different champions
- Remembering that the network is more than the individuals who run it
- Keeping it simple
- Involving men, by ensuring that your events are always cross-gender and open to all.
(She reminded us at this point that it can be daunting for a man to walk into a roomful of women at one of these events – which can also serve the dual purpose of providing said bloke with an insight of what it can feel like to be a woman in the workplace, perhaps walking into a roomful of men.)
A lot of real life networking tends to focus in on events, so Vanessa’s top tips for anyone wanting to create a successful and vibrant event are as follows:
- Make it exciting!
- Get membership participation
- Canvas feedback – how was it for you, what could we do better?
- Rotate the organising team and the sponsors (keep it fresh, in other words)
- Have a good mix of what she dubbed both “hard” (business related) and “soft” (lifestyle) events.
And she closed by reminding us to be wary that a network’s reputation takes a while to build, to remember that you will need a budget of some sort, even if it’s only tiny and that you can’t be all things to everyone – there will always be some people who just didn’t enjoy whatever it was that you’ve organised.
That’s life – and it’s actually a useful life lesson, too.
All very helpful stuff, and a reminder that Real World events are a very useful (and fun – cheese! Wine!) add-on to the social networking piece about which I wrote on here last month.
They have now made the official announcement about this year’s Women Mean Business conference, which will take place in Mumbai on December 8th. The conference will centre on the power of information and communication technologies as tools for women to start and expand their businesses; there will be a particular focus around mobile services, web-based technology, technological learning such as e-mentoring, and social media for business.
I’ve been finding it so interesting to be in touch with my many fabulous Indian friends and contacts, who have all been very helpful in suggesting speakers and conference participants, as well as updating me on how social media tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter are now being used in India.
You can see from this advertisement for a housing finance scheme aimed exclusively at women that using text based technology to target particular demographics is already very popular in India – and I’m looking forward to learning more about, for example, how increased access to mobile phones can benefit fledgling female entrepreneurs.
For programme updates or to register your interest, please visit: www.cbfwconference.org
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I’ve known Avivah for three years; I organised the corporate sponsorship of her previous book’s launches in London, New York and Toronto back in 2008 (it’s called “Why Women Mean Business“, is co-authored with Alison Maitland and is still the most compelling book out there if you need cold hard FACTS to assist you make a business case for gender diversity) – and I also contributed an in-book endorsement to the cover of this volume (referenced elsewhere on the blog under Recommended reading).
Last week, I wrote about this year’s Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF) awards.
And at last year’s awards, three fabulous things happened to me.
I arrived knowing nobody bar the Chair, Christine Lawrence, and found myself at a mixed table of assorted women, all of whom were there, in much the same way as at a wedding (“bride or groom?”) because we weren’t affiliated with one of the big banks who’d bought a table of ten.
My three great things were as follows:
On my right, I was seated next to Pauline Crawford of Corporate Heart: a magical, energising, powerhouse of a woman, who has since become a great friend and a true inspiration to me.
On my left I met Christina Ioannidis of Aquitude and we immediately established that we knew some people in common; she admired my shoes, I admired her necklace and, as women do, we bonded.
My third great thing was that, at Pauline’s urging, everyone at the table bought raffle tickets in support of WIBF’s chosen charity – and both Pauline and I won! Pauline won a three course dinner (with wine) for six people at a five star hotel and I won a designer dress from No. 35 - a dress which I have since worn all over the world and which never ever fails to generate wonderful compliments whenever it has an outing.
Pauline and Christina were both at this year’s event, and nobody at my table won a raffle prize, unfortunately. But Christina reminded us that she is running a brief survey via her website, aimed at understanding more about what compels 21st century women to set up their own businesses; if you’d like to take part, please follow the link here:
- and I’ll cover the findings later this year once available.
This time last week, I was at the Dorchester hotel in central London, wandering around the pre-lunch reception with a glass (of water!) in one hand and my trusty notebook in the other, interviewing women who were there to participate in the Women in Banking & Finance (WIBF) annual awards lunch.
Check it out for a very useful footwear based tip …
Last week’s visit to city law firm Herbert Smith’s Women in Business network event, courtesy of my friend Liz, got me thinking that laws may change but that attitudes sometimes take a while to catch up.
The guest speaker, on the topic of motivation, was multi-medal winning and record breaking Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who was fabulous: funny, charming, self-deprecating and extremely witty (“I tried swimming lessons but didn’t take to it – the highlight of my swimming career was failing to drown …”).
Now aged 40, she has been in a wheelchair since she was just seven years old, having been born with spina bifida. She retired from professional athletics three years ago and recently joined the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer, as well as serving on the boards of UK Athletics and Transport for London.
Tanni is the third paralympian that I’ve heard speak in recent years (the others were swimmer Giles Long and equestrian Lee Pearson) and her message was not dissimilar; she started with a DVD clip of her greatest hits on the track and then went on to talk about focus, planning and goals. Had you been in the room as an unsighted person, you wouldn’t really have known from Tanni’s presentation (and subsequent post-event chat) that she’s in a wheelchair; her speech was full of comments about “going for a walk” and she generally gave the impression, other than occasional sidebar references to being carried up a flight of stairs, in her chair, in Singapore, by Sir Steve Redgrave and David Beckham, of being oblivious to her wheels.
I took a lot from that, in terms of having a positive mental attitude and just getting on – with stuff in particular and with life in general. So Tanni herself clearly has a very robust personality, as you’d expect from someone with her hugely impressive track record – but my flabber was well and truly ghasted when she told us about some of the attitudes and comments she’d encountered over the years with regard to her wheelchair.
As a child growing up in Wales, getting out and about was difficult, as there were no disabled toilets in Cardiff; nor could she ever go to the cinema as she was a “fire hazard”, due to the lack of wheelchair suitable fire exits at that point.
And here’s what I was thinking – the law has clearly (and rightly) caught up with the need for there to be wheelchair access in public places and so now a seven year old girl in a chair can go to the loo and see a film at the cinema. But how do we change people’s mindsets as to what the differently abled can do with their lives? Tanni has an eight year old daughter called Carys and she told us all sorts of funny stories about taking her daughter to the track to play whilst she and her husband trained; as a toddler, they’d stick Carys in a fluorescent baby-gro (for visibility) and let her crawl about at the side of the track, or park her in the long jump pit with a bucket and spade and tell her that she was at the beach. Tanni’s love for and pride in her daughter shone through; she wants Carys to be a human rights lawyer when she grows up.
But when she was pregnant, Tanni was told that she couldn’t be an athlete and a mother (did anyone ever say that to Paula Radcliffe? I bet not) and apparently some random woman walked up to her one day, pointed at her baby bump and said “people like you shouldn’t be allowed to have children” – !
How the hell do you come back from a comment like that?
So I think we’ll only have really won through in terms of rights and awareness for Tanni and everyone like her once disability ceases to be just about access to disabled toilets and dropped kerbs (in the UK, we’re getting there, even if Singapore still needs to do some work) and becomes much more focused on mindsets, behaviours and challenging biases, both conscious and otherwise.
Tomorrow is the 100th celebration of International Women’s Day, and I’ve been really interested to note the extent to which it, as an event, has gained popularity and awareness over the last couple of years. One of the first projects I ever undertook when I started working in gender diversity around five years ago was a global survey in order to understand which countries celebrated (or even, were aware of ) IWD and I remember that the results made quite depressing reading. My colleagues (and these were people in senior diversity and HR roles) hadn’t even heard of IWD in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia; it’s commemorated on a different day altogether in South Africa (there it’s “National Women’s WEEK” each August, as I witnessed at events in Jo’burg and Cape Town in 2008) and in the UK it was celebrated but in a very low key way, with only a few corporates getting on board and doing something to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.
It was (and is) marked in a big way in countries like Russia and China, where it’s a public holiday, and quite a few western European countries also make it a social occasion, with activities tied into fund raising for women’s charities, but there was no sense at all of it being a global multi-media event.
Fast forward to this year, and I’ve seen references all over the press, even in the mass market tabloid papers – where it perhaps has most impact in terms of readership numbers. From the official IWD website, you can see that Reuters are on-board as a media partner and there are things happening all over the world, including in many of the countries where just a few short years ago IWD was a relative non-event. I’ve been invited to celebrations in London, New York and Bangalore; of course, I am actually going to the London one, which is being hosted by Plan and the Africa All Party Parliamentary Group at the House of Commons and is a lunch thing to “Celebrate the Potential of Young African Women.” Click here to read more about what Plan are doing to help girls in Africa and elsewhere complete their education.
I’m then legging it across town to join in the Fawcett Society’s photo shoot, which they’re organising to support their new pre-Election campaign, “What About Women?”. We all have to wear our FS “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt, so I really hope the weather warms up a bit …
My favourite TV channel (it shows “Mad Men”!) is BBC4, who are truly brilliant at creating themed programming strands: a week of shows from the BBC archive on any one of a number of concepts; prog rock, India, advertising, blues music and Islam, to name but a few recent memorable groupings.
Starting tomorrow, and this surely has to be to commemorate IWD, even though they’re not explicitly saying so, is a week of programmes about women and feminism – most of which will be repeated if you miss them tomorrow night and/or are also showing on BBC2. I’m setting Sky+ for the all-female audienced version of “Question Time” later in the week (still only ONE woman on the panel itself, though – why? Click here to suggest more female panellists) and for Vanessa Engle’s three part documentary series on the impact of feminism called, simply, “Women”.
Part one is set in the 70s and is about what were then known (usually disparagingly) as “women’s libbers”. Also from that era is Monday night’s repeat of a documentary on the 1976 Grunwick strike, now regarded as a key moment in union history and one at which female and Asian workers first tested and protested their employment rights.
Check out the BBC4 listings (or iPlayer) if you’re in the UK, there’s some great stuff in there from the amazing BBC archive.
Happy St David’s Day – and, to those in India, Happy Holi!
What a week.
Monday: in Goa, wearing flip-flops, SPF40 and a big hat.
Wednesday: back in London, clad in corporate attire, feeling extremely chilly – and attending a big corporate LGBT bash at British Telecom’s offices near St Paul’s.
The event, chaired by the rather fabulous Michelle Bridgman (a nose at her website confirmed what I suspected on the day – she’s done a lot of stand up comedy: “Are there any straight people here? We’ll start a support group for you if so …”) was to promote LGBT History Month, which is celebrated in the UK each February, and it was also the launch of the new ILGA website.
ILGA is the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Association which was born in 1978 out of a grass roots movement aimed at, as the co-Secretary General Renato Sabbadini explained, creating global change and awareness of the issues facing the LGBT community. They campaign on the two main pillars of homophobia – law and culture – and Renato hopes that their new interactive website will support their work.
As recently as 2007, homosexuality was de-criminalised in India (where BT has several major call centres), but that still leaves eighty countries in which it remains a criminal act, and a shocking FIVE in which it is punishable by death. And, to their huge credit, BT partners with ILGA and provides them with hosting and technology solutions, such as the new ILGA website; click on the link and take a look.
It’s a new tool, (accessible in French, Spanish and Portuguese as well as English) which informs people of their rights and their risks when travelling – and as such serves as a wonderful (and timely) resource for both employers and individuals. Last year, for example, I took a call from a US based gay colleague who was considering taking an overseas assignment in Singapore and who wanted to obtain the name and contact details of the co-worker who ran that office’s LGBT network. In Singapore, the punishment for being gay is life imprisonment and so of course our (then) mutual employer didn’t have a gay network; I would have found it very useful with my global diversity hat on to be able to direct my co-workers to such a site, and to ensure that my colleagues in the global mobility team were both aware of it as a resource and also had a nodding acquaintance with the issues facing our LGBT colleagues outside countries such as the US and UK.
One of the senior BT developers who worked on the site asked us to imagine how it might feel to be a gay or lesbian member of staff who wasn’t “out” to their manager and who was asked by their employer to go to a country on assignment or on a business trip where their sexuality could put them at risk – how do you, as a gay employee, have that conversation if you don’t have the information to hand which informs both you and your employer of exactly what you could be facing? And how can a manager make appropriate resourcing and deployment issues about their staff without having an up to date awareness of the risks (both potential and actual) in the countries in which the company has a presence?
Thus, on ILGA’s home page you can see a map of the world, into which you can drill via a variety of datasets (for example, female to female relationships, or age of consent laws) and then see how the map changes colour based on the legal status of that situation: so we can see that it’s illegal to be a lesbian in Algeria and Pakistan for example, legal in many other countries and “legal only in some areas” in Nigeria. You can also click on (or search for) a specific country of interest and see what the story is with regard to the law there; I clicked on India where I read about the legal background, anti-discrimination laws, asylum and immigration issues and social climate. There’s also an interactive section, aimed at mimicking the social networking component of sites such as Trip Advisor, where users are encouraged to post their stories of life in and/or visits to various countries, to enable others to gauge the mood and “gay friendliness” (or otherwise) of hotels, bars, restaurants and the country and people in general.
I was hugely impressed by both the site as a resource and also by BT’s support for ILGA. Although a lot of corporate support in the diversity space often is about chucking money at a cause or a group (and thank goodness for that), I think it does BT great credit that they’ve done so much more than that in this instance – they’ve put their massive technical and intellectual expertise to work to support this great cause and provided a genuinely useful tool which could really make a difference to both their own staff and to LGBT people worldwide. The site is so easy to use that I was readily able to demo it to a friend after the event and we were amazed at the wealth of information available; it’s clearly been an enormous project and hopefully will have an even more significant impact both as an information source but also as a risk awareness and a consciousness raising tool.
Loving your work, British Telecom.