I started in the City when I was 16. When I set up WeAreTheCity, I had been working in banking for more than 25 years and towards the latter end of my career was working in senior roles in a very male-dominated space and felt that I needed more support, to learn more things and wanted to meet women in similar positions. I needed my sisterhood.
I looked for other networks for women and there were around five of them but none were quite right for me. I wanted one that was more inclusive so you could join no matter what part of the business you worked for, or how senior you are, or what your ambition was. It was from that frustration that I set up WeAreTheCity. My husband built me the site and it was something I planned to run in my spare time, almost as a hobby, a chance to try and give back and help other people.
It was a strange time to do it in some ways. It was 2008 and the markets were failing – the last thing on anyone in the City’s mind was the personal development of women. We poured our own savings into the launch event for 200 women and had no marketing budget, no sponsorship, and no funding.
I never thought I’d have the guts to leave a permanent job to pursue something that started as a hobby but the more work I did around WeAreTheCity and gender, the more I fell in love with it and out of love with banking. So four years ago I took it up full time. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved in 11 years. We now have 120,000 female members, have run more than 85 events for 10,000 women and, through our awards, have highlighted 600 future leaders in a multitude of industries.
There is still a lot of work to be done but it’s good to see that there are more women than ever in senior positions and that gender is really now on everyone’s agenda. Women know now that they can drive their own careers forward, pay gap reporting has forced companies to be transparent about salaries and we’re looking into legislation around childcare too. There are now around 2,000 women’s networks in London and a huge increase in women supporting other women, especially with movements such as Me Too and Time’s Up. There is a myth that women in a corporate environment don’t help other women but I think a lot of the time people aren’t asking for help enough. You have to ask everyone around you for help, whether they’re male or female.
I think the key to my success as a leader is emotional intelligence, honesty and passion. I listen to my team and encourage them to think for themselves. My tips for other women starting out in leadership are: don’t emulate something that you’re not, keep your personal brand. Also, network – go to every opening of an envelope that you can, even if you just go for half an hour and speak to one person. Good leaders also give back; they nurture talent and lift others up.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in my career is nothing is as bad as it seems. I always measure against the question ‘is anyone going to die if this all goes wrong?’ I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in things and lose perspective, to be too hard on yourself. Don’t set the bar too high. Be ambitious but don’t kill yourself in the process.
I was recently awarded an OBE and I felt it was an acknowledgement of how hard I worked setting up WeAreTheCity, building it from the ground up. I come from humble beginnings and grew up in a fairly socially and economically challenged area so being able to take my mum and dad to Buckingham Palace along with my husband, who built this little website 11 years ago that led to this moment, was magical, really magical.
Vanessa Vallely OBE is the founder of WeAreTheCity the networking and advocacy platform that helps recruit and support women in business. She was awarded an OBE in services to Women and the Economy at the end of 2018. Vallely recently took part in Marriott Hotels’ In Focus series of talks to talk about leadership, the podcast of which will be available soon, check back here for a link.