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Posted by Alex Vernon on

Put up your hand and roll up your sleeves: Anna Smith’s route to CEO and advice for aspiring charity leaders

Here’s an infuriating statistic for women in charities (and women everywhere). Even though we make up 65% of the workforce, a 2017 report by Charity Finance showed that 71% of chief execs at the 100 largest charities are men.

Now, there may well be a more recent report out there with better numbers for women leaders. But I haven’t found it yet. And it got me thinking: why not interview some female charity CEOs and write some stories that might – just maybe – inspire other women in the sector?

So here’s the first of what I hope will be a series of stories about women leading charities. Huge thanks to Anna Smith from One25 for kicking things off. When we met in September, we talked about surviving blokey meetings, chucking yourself in at the deep end, parenting under pressure…and rogue lunch boxes.

Anna Smith
Anna Smith

Sitting across from me in One25’s Bristol office, Anna Smith looks and sounds like one of those impressive people who was born to be a leader. So I’m taken aback when she tells me a story about how she responded, aged 12, to a task set by a supply teacher: write about what you want to do with your life.

Anna was one of four children. Her mum was at home and her dad went to work. In rural Cambridgeshire in the 1970s, she says, this was pretty much the norm. So the young Anna wrote in her exercise book: ‘I want to have children and then I’ll stop working.’

The teacher picked her up on it. “Why would you stop working?” she said. “You could carry on working, couldn’t you?” Anna remembers a light going on in her head. “I thought, ‘Whoah! I could!’”

Thank goodness for that supply teacher – because Anna did carry on working. Four decades on from that writing task and four children of her own later, Anna has built an impressive career in the charity sector, supporting some of the most marginalised people in society along the way.

Life in the Cambridgeshire countryside didn’t suit the teenage Anna. “I was screaming to get out of the village,” she says. “I went to Covent Garden on a school trip and I thought, ‘I want to live here.’ It became my obsession. After that, I only applied to London colleges.”

Anna made it – she read English at what is now London Metropolitan University. The college’s diverse, left wing environment spurred her into activism: when she wasn’t reading, she was campaigning. She Rocked against Racism, demanded freedom for Nelson Mandela and protested anti-abortion laws.

Anna Smith in 1985
Student and activist Anna during the summer of 1985

A speedy rise through the ranks

A job helping others was the obvious next step. Anna’s early roles involved supporting vulnerable people to find employment, first with the Vocational Guidance Association and then Workforce in Hackney.

I’m not surprised to hear that Anna moved quickly through the ranks. “But it wasn’t desperately out of ambition,” she admits. “It was more out of boredom. I wanted the challenge of something new and different, so I became a manager quite young.”

Freshly promoted to deputy CEO at Workforce, 26-year-old Anna became pregnant with her first child.  How would she break the news to Graham Finegold, her CEO? “I really thought he’d tell me what terrible timing it was. But he couldn’t have been nicer about it.”

Later I ask Anna who in particular has helped her progress in her career. I’m hoping she’ll name a woman, but it’s Graham Finegold who stands out. “Graham was amazing to work with: easy, bright, focused, visionary,” says Anna. “He was a great leader, but also compassionate and aware.”

Anna in 1993
Anna during her ‘Dr Martens/Annie Lennox phase’ in 1993, just before she became a mum

Blokey meetings and bump-patting

Anna remembers the external meetings and trips she attended on behalf of Workforce as ‘very blokey and jokey’. She was often the only woman in the room. “I’d go into meetings and people would make slightly dodgy comments about me being pregnant. Graham was always incredibly supportive of me as a woman in that environment.”

I want to hear more about Anna’s experiences as a relatively young pregnant woman in a senior role in a frequently male-dominated work environment. She remembers interviewing a male candidate when she was about seven months pregnant. “I remember standing up at the end and the guy put his hands on my stomach and said, ‘Good luck.’ It was well meant, but totally inappropriate.”

Would that happen now? Anna thinks not. “I do think things have changed. I was at the mayor’s office in London a few years ago and a guy stood up and said he had to go as it was his daughter’s birthday and I thought, ‘Good for you!’” (I ask which mayor. Sadiq, surely? It was Boris. Humph.)

Jumping feet first into consultancy

Back to the mid-nineties. Anna had a baby boy, Nathan. Having separated from his father, she was struggling to stay on top of work and single parenting. Graham suggested that she could soon be CEO of Workforce but she knew it was unrealistic. “I had a little boy. I wouldn’t be able to navigate all the late meetings without a partner to pick up the slack.”

So Anna left Workforce and worked both as a consultant in her own right and, for security, for a consultancy. She did training, fundraising, bid writing – anything that was asked of her.

“I’d say ‘Yes, I’ll do Managing the External Environment training!’ And then I’d think, what IS that even? But then I’d find out more about the audience and the subject and I’d try things out… and it mostly worked.”

That’s very brave. “I think you have to throw yourself into things,” says Anna.

Maximising nap-time

I work and I parent and much of the time I feel I’m falling short at both – and that’s with a supportive husband. So how did Anna cope on her own with a young son? She didn’t even have local grandparents to lean on.

She admits it was hard. “I can remember sitting and developing training courses into the early hours, and I would be alright if Nathan slept. If he woke up – and he wasn’t the best sleeper – I’d be screwed. I’d be like, ‘I’m running this in six hours and it’s not finished!’ That’s how crazy it was. But you just go on, don’t you?”

Anna did have a strong network of friends, most of whom were flexible because they didn’t yet have kids. One particularly brilliant girlfriend, Helena, babysat Nathan once a week for six weeks so that Anna could do an evening course.

Support beyond the sink

With her own consultancy thriving, Anna made the leap to full-time self-employment. She met her partner Oliver, had her daughter Rosa (named after Rosa Parks) and moved to Spain. She kept working: it wasn’t unusual for her to hop on a plane to London, run a week’s training and fly back to Spain. Around this time she became pregnant with her third child, Maya (named after Maya Angelou).

Again I’m in awe. How on earth did she manage? What helps massively, Anna tells me, is having a supportive partner. “I don’t mean just doing the washing up and sharing the laundry. I mean turning around and saying ‘Yes, I’ll hold the fort while you run your training for a week.’ Just working as if you’re two equals.”

Then she adds: “One thing that really, really bugs me is when people say, ‘Oh isn’t Oliver marvellous!’ Because he’s only doing what I’m doing, and nobody’s saying I’m marvellous.”

YES! I’m agreeing so hard that I almost knock my recorder over. I have a similar reaction to the phrase ‘Daddy day care’.

So long consultancy, hello CEO

After a year in Spain, Anna and her family returned to the UK and settled in Bath. In 2006 she had another son, Thomas. By 2008, the economic crash loomed and Anna knew she should get out of consultancy. “Anyway, I wanted to be back in an organisation – to feel part of something again.”

CEO roles came next: five years at Survive in South Gloucestershire, and two years at Advance in London. Both charities work with people affected by domestic abuse.

Anna at One25's Bristol office
Anna at One25’s Bristol office

Working with Bristol’s most vulnerable women

In 2017 Anna joined One25, a Bristol charity supporting women who are sex working or who have had their children removed. Earlier this year it made the headlines when Meghan and Harry paid a visit, but the charity has long deserved the attention: it has been doing exceptional, life-saving work with the most marginalised women in the city for many years.

There are no blokey jokes and inappropriate bump-patting here. Men are welcome in the workplace, but the One25 team is predominantly female and always will be. The best thing about leading One25, says Anna, is that every member of the team, from case workers to cleaners to payroll staff, cares ‘very deeply’ about the women One25 works with. Those women are seen and loved and supported, ‘wherever they are and whatever they do’.

How to be a good bad guy

And then there are the tough bits. Funding is always a challenge in the charity sector. So sometimes “really hard decisions have to be made for the right reasons but getting everyone to see that can be really difficult.” And as a CEO, “there are times when you just have to suck it up and be the bad guy. And that’s not nice.”

So how do aspiring CEOs prepare for those not-so-nice aspects of leadership? “Be honest, be yourself, admit when you’re wrong,” says Anna. “Try to put your best foot forward and be your best self.”

Words of wisdom for aspiring leaders

What’s Anna’s advice for becoming a leader in general?

“Roll your sleeves up,” she tells me. Earlier in her career she and a fellow manager spent a week sitting in a meeting room stuffing envelopes for a fundraising campaign. They could have said ‘That’s not my job’. But they didn’t. They got stuck in, because that’s what the organisation needed from them.

Remember the story of Anna volunteering to run ‘Managing the External Environment’ training when she knew next to nothing about it? She just went for it. And she thinks all would-be leaders should do the same. “Put your hand up,” she says.  “Say ‘I’ll do that!’ even if you’ve never done it before. Take yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Any more wise words for aspiring leaders? “Get yourself a mentor,” says Anna, who is one and has one. All the managers at One25 have mentors too. “Find someone outside of your organisation that you can go to and say, ‘Aaaghhh, I’ve got this problem, I can’t do this, I’m worried about that’, and let them help untangle it for you.”

Mess ups – and time for self care

I may be in danger of banging on about this but…how does Anna do it? How does she stay on top of a full time CEO role and four children (now aged 24, 17, 15 and 13)?

Anna describes a massive blackboard in her kitchen which charts everyone’s movements during the week, plus a sub-board for weekends. But she messes up all the time, she tells me. Once she was running the ‘walking bus’ to school and she forgot to take someone else’s seven-year-old across the road. “He dutifully stood on the green while another parent walked him across. Then he come over and told me off! I still feel bad about that.”

Another time, when Anna had three children under five, she sent the teenage Nathan to school “with a Tupperware full of cheese rather than his actual lunch.” (That one really makes me laugh, as I too have a tub full of cheese in my fridge and it’s pretty stinky. Poor Nathan!)

I want to know about that cringey but useful phrase ‘self-care’. When does Anna squeeze it in?

Every Saturday on the hockey pitch, it turns out. “Playing hockey makes me a better mother,” she says. “It means I’ve done something for me. I get home and think, ‘Ok, I’m really willing to give you the rest of my day now.’”

No one’s indispensable

As our interview winds up, Anna remembers one last piece of advice for potential leaders: keep your feet on the ground.  “You’re never that important,” she says. “At One25, the women are the most important thing. I need to remain functional and do my job well, but I’m not indispensable. I don’t believe in hierarchies and I don’t stand on ceremony.”

And with that Anna gets up, shakes my hand and strides purposefully towards the One25 kitchen. She’s on dishwasher duty.

Do you know a brilliant woman leading a charity that I should be writing about? If so, please get in touch.  

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Ten tales of courage, solidarity and badass women from #TUC150

When Catherine from Mile 91 asked me to help her produce 150 stories for the TUC’s 150th anniversary, I was excited by the scale of the project but, I’m embarrassed to admit, fairly indifferent to the subject matter. I didn’t know much about trade unions and – I’m cringing as I type – I thought the stories would be pretty dry compared to stuff I’d written in the past.

But how wrong I was!

#TUC150 proved to be one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever worked on. By its end I’d produced over 40 stories spanning from 1788 (when Chartist leader William Cuffay was born in Kent) to 2017 (when Gladys Branche from Sierra Leone spoke up for the world’s least-respected women workers). It was an education – I felt like I’d done an A Level in the union movement. And I’d had a huge career highlight:  interviewing a union hero whose story made it to the big screen in one of my all-time favourite films.

Here are my top ten #TUC150 stories…

10. The brilliant Betty Tebbs 

Betty’s mum always told her that ‘girls were best’. So in 1932, when 14-year-old Betty turned up for her first day at the paper mill and discovered that boys got 13 shillings while girls barely made nine, she was furious. What did she do? She joined a union and she made sure her voice was heard. When she left the mill 18 years later, she and her female colleagues were the best-paid paper mill women in Britain. Here’s Betty’s story.

9. The WW2 recruits posted to the pits

Called Up, Sent Down book by Tom Hickman
Called Up, Sent Down by Tom Hickman – my Dad bought me this for my birthday (bless him) after listening to me rabbiting on about the Bevin Boys.

In 1943, union heavyweight Ernest Bevin was leading Britain’s war effort on the home front. A coal crisis loomed, so Ernest launched a controversial scheme: instead of being posted to the frontline, one in ten recruits were sent down the mines instead. Their names were literally pulled from a hat. Just imagine – one minute you’re all puffed with pride at the prospect of fighting for your country and the next, you’re fumbling around a pitch-black coal mine 5000 feet below Yorkshire. There was a lot of resentment among the Bevin Boys, but at least most survived to tell the tale, unlike so many of their generation. Read more about Ernest Bevin’s achievements here.

8. “We were a beacon of hope.”

After weeks of writing about long-gone union heroes via secondary sources, it was a treat to hear stories straight from the horse’s mouth. The horse in question was an 80-year-old former GCHQ linguist called Mike Grindley and by the end of our interview, I was a huge fan. When Margaret Thatcher banned union membership at GCHQ in 1984, Mike was one of 14 employees who refused to rip up their union cards – and were eventually sacked. Their passionately-fought campaign against the ban was the second longest dispute in British union history. Speaking of which…

7. When oh when will someone make a film about the 1914 Burston School Strike?

This story has it all! The setting: the big skies and bleak fields of Norfolk. Our heroes: Kitty and Tom Higdon, husband-and-wife super-teachers who want to educate and nourish the children of poor farm workers. Our villains: the rich landowners who want the poor to stay that way and feel threatened by the Higdons, so try to drive them away. The cinematic climax: the skinny yet spirited school children coming out on strike in support of their teachers – the longest strike in history, it turned out (pipping Mike G to the post). Sounds like a BAFTA winner to me.

6. Long before #MeToo…

…Liverpudlian clothes store manager Audrey White was speaking up about sexual harassment. In 1983, a senior manager behaved inappropriately towards four women in Audrey’s team. She complained – and got the sack. But Audrey was a union member and she was going to fight. Her campaign put sexual harassment at work in the spotlight and ultimately led to a change in employment law in 2005. Audrey tells her story here.

5. Bristolians boycott the buses

It’s April 1963. No people of colour work on Bristol’s buses because the bus company won’t hire them. Inspired by Rosa Parks and what she sparked in Montgomery, Alabama, brave local activists organise a bus boycott. It works. In August – just hours before Martin Luther King tells Washington that he has a dream – the Transport and General Workers’ Union votes for integration on the buses. Find out more about this big moment in Bristol’s history here.

4. “We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Thank you #TUC150 for introducing me to Jayaben Desai, the factory worker who in 1976 led a high-profile strike against her employer, Grunwick photo processing. The 4’10 Jayaben is said to have told her 6ft manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.” Sadly the lions lost their strike, but Jayaben’s roar made it into the history books.

3. The match women rock their hats

Striking a Light book by Louise Raw
Louise Raw’s Striking a Light – required reading for all Bryant and May match-women fans

The story of the Bryant and May match women is well known, and justifiably so. Their working conditions were dire, they bravely downed their tools and went out on strike and they won. But here’s a lesser known, rather more frivolous, but still pertinent little detail about the match women. According to historian Louise Raw, they had their own distinctive sense of style – all thanks to their ‘feathers club’. They’d chip in to a kitty, buy the most extravagant hats they could find and then share them around. So if you had a date on a Friday night, you’d get a hat. Then you’d pass it on to the next girl for Saturday night. With all that resourcefulness and spark and sense of community, it’s no wonder the match women made such a success of their strike. Here’s more on the match women.

2. “I’ve nothing but pride in that film.”

I LOVED Pride when I saw it in 2014. So I nearly fell off my chair when I found out I’d be interviewing one of its main characters – the real-life version – for #TUC150. In the film, Dai Donovan is the warm, good-humoured Welsh miner, the founder of the surprising friendship between the striking mining families in his village and the members of the London-based group ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’.  The real Dai is equally warm and good-humoured and interviewing him really was nearly-falling-off-my-chair-worthy. The interview transcript came in at 3642 words, and I had to write a 500-word story. Aaagh. You can read it here.

1. Eleanor Marx, I salute you.

Eleanor Marx tea towel
Coolest birthday present ever (though I do wonder what Ms M would think about having her face emblazoned on a tea towel, with all its connotations of domestic drudgery!)

Bloody Brilliant Women. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Stylist magazine’s Visible Women campaign. I’m delighted that amazing women from history are finally getting the recognition they deserve, but why isn’t Eleanor Marx in any of the above? I totally hero-worship her (some would call it a girl crush). Yes, she was Karl Marx’s daughter. But she should also be known in her own right as a fiercely intelligent, influential and inspirational woman – a superb organiser, a devoted teacher and a wildly popular orator who, among her many other achievements, campaigned tirelessly for the eight-hour day. If my intro to Eleanor piques your interest, you should definitely get your hands on Rachel Holmes’ excellent biography of this ‘bloody brilliant’ woman.

I regularly write for story-gathering agency Mile 91 and this post originally appeared on their blog.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Happy International Women’s Day Anisa! And here’s Leslie Knope with a high-five.

'What would Leslie Knope do?' A worthy role model for my gal. Pic from Pinterest/Vulture.com
‘What would Leslie Knope do?’ A worthy role model for my gal. Pic from Pinterest/Vulture.com

Stories about inspirational women mean a lot more to me now that I have a daughter. I’m storing them away in my mind, ready to whip them out at timely moments when Tess is old enough and interested enough to listen. “Yes Tess, you CAN be an investigative journalist who travels round the world in 72 days! Look at Nellie Bly!” (The wonderful Nellie Bly who, I was happy to see, appeared in this list of 12 remarkable women from history ‘who didn’t give a f***’.)

A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are also brilliant sources of amazing women that I’m saving up for Tess. And speaking of Amy Poehler, I want Tess watching Parks and Recreation as soon as possible. That way, whenever we have a problem we can turn to each other and say, “What would Leslie Knope do?” (For anyone who hasn’t seen Parks and Recreation, Leslie is the show’s main character, played by Amy Poehler. She’s an endearing, feisty, funny, thoughtful blonde with big political ambitions. And she loves waffles. I adore her.)

I’m pretty sure I know what Leslie Knope would do if she met Anisa, the young woman I’m dedicating this post to. She’d high-five her and invite her out for waffles.

I met Anisa in January when I was writing stories for the youth volunteering programme International Citizen Service (ICS). I say ‘met’ – we spoke on the phone. But Anisa was so warm and chatty about her time as a volunteer in Zambia that it felt like we’d met personally.

Anisa on ICS in Zambia with a dude with cool hair. Anisa, I salute you!
Anisa on ICS in Zambia with a dude with cool hair. Anisa, I salute you!

Here’s why Anisa has joined Nellie Bly and Leslie Knope in my list of role models:

She’s brave.

Anisa told me that in her close-knit Muslim community in Leicester, it’s unusual for unmarried women to travel abroad alone. Despite resistance from her parents, Anisa wanted to challenge this norm. “I know it sounds cheesy,” she said, “but I wanted to be a role model for other girls in my community. I was determined to travel and hopefully change things for the next generation.”

She’s honest.

When she arrived at the home of her Zambian host family, Anisa was overcome with homesickness. And she was refreshingly open about this. “I immediately rejected everything: the bare floors, the picture of Jesus on the wall, the orange sofa. The tipping point was discovering that to go to the loo I had to go outside in the dark. I was sitting on my bed, crying, thinking ‘I’ve got three months of this – how can I do it?’”

She’s strong.

Anisa didn’t let her homesickness win. Instead, “Within a week I was seeing the positives in everything. I’d got through the horrible bits like seeing cockroaches and what had seemed tough, like hand-washing all my clothes, suddenly seemed fun. I was thinking, ‘I’m happy sitting outside in the sun scrubbing my clothes – they’ll dry quickly too!’”

She’s self-aware.

ICS changed Anisa. “I wasn’t a confident person at the start and without my ICS team, I think I’d still be in my shy little bubble. As the weeks went by, I had the confidence to plonk myself down and chat with whoever was sitting around. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before – I’d have shied away or pretended to read a book.”

She made a difference.

Anisa worked with women’s groups in rural Zambia, helping challenge myths around HIV & AIDS. “We made it clear that you can’t become infected by hugging or holding hands or sharing the same plate. Sharing that knowledge was really important because it means people living with HIV won’t be as ostracised in their communities.”

I loved it when Anisa said: “When I got back from Zambia, I felt like I could take on the world. If I managed to do the most challenging thing of my life, then I could do anything!”

But then she added that as the months since her return went by, that I-can-do-it feeling had started to fizzle out. She had a job interview coming up and she wasn’t sure she was up to it.

You ARE up to it Anisa! Thank you for being a role model not just for the girls in your community, but for my daughter Tess – and for me. Happy International Women’s Day!