When you arrive at a certain point in your career, people tend to assume a lot about your background, formal education and how you’ve forged your own path. I have a lot of pride in where I’m from, and my work life has come full circle with my election as Alderman of Aldgate.
I was born in Bow, and did not come from a privileged background. Both parents left school at 14, and the school I attended in the East End didn’t even have a sixth form, instead, two of us were taught in a repurposed chemistry cupboard. When I was coming to the end of school I assumed, as many people do, that I had to go on to study one of my A-levels, so I ended up with a geography degree. But even then, I wasn’t a great conformist and so instead of falling into a routine job, I decided to earn money counting traffic cones – don’t even ask!
This job meant that I was able to travel, and I eventually attended a trainee scheme at Thomson tour operators, as well as working for the Australian Stock Exchange and an environmental research company. The only job I ever applied for was that role at Thomson. Every other job has found me. The term ‘networking’ has never felt quite right to me – it feels artificial – but I’ve been very lucky in meeting great people along the way, and because I love people I’ve always been open to meeting someone for a coffee, learning about people from different backgrounds and being open to new ideas.
It was an auditor who told me I should be a management consultant, and introduced me to someone who helped me get hired. It was a client who told me I should go into the insurance market, although he had to convince me that it was actually an exciting role, and so I started working at Hiscox. At the time, it was quite a small company, but when I left it had grown tremendously and I had a lot of responsibility. The chief executive at Lloyds approached me asking whether I was going to work for them, and then a headhunter called me about a role at Northern Rock. Even at the interview, I was telling them all the qualities they should be looking for in a candidate, and all the things I didn’t have, but they hired me anyway. They picked me because I was very down to earth, and this is a trait, which I think has pulled me through all of the roles I’ve had in my career.
I’ve had a very fortunate ‘accidental’ career, as I call it. And although I’ve been lucky, I’ve always been proactive in terms of meeting with people. The more open I’ve been to new experiences, the ‘luckier’ I’ve become. My approach has always been, ‘why not? The worst you could do is fail.’ People often look at someone who is doing a certain job and think, ‘I couldn’t do that!’ And I say, ‘But you wouldn’t do that. All you need to do is achieve the objective.’ You can do it standing on your head if you want. The most important thing is to be authentic and true to yourself, otherwise you won’t be happy. And people can always tell when you’re authentic. The second thing is to have courage. Throughout my career, people have told me not to do things until I’ve done them. And the third is to have resilience and perseverance. If you want to do something, keep trying.
One thing that’s very important to me is to go into classrooms and speak to young people. I’ve done some outreach speaking in Hackney and surrounding areas, and I find it so important. I know, from my own experience, that it’s easy to feel that your possibilities and potential are limited when you come from a certain background. I didn’t have great A-level results, and I think companies need to be more open when looking at candidates, realising that different experiences and people’s determination and drive is so much more important than your grades. Of course, it’s easier, with so many applications, to start the process by cutting out those who didn’t have great A-levels, or didn’t have a first in university, but you have to look at the individual and assess them on their background and their attitude. I think the most important thing is to have a champion in the schools, a mentor that shows young people that they can achieve anything they want.
I’m so proud to be the first female Alderman of Aldgate. The name Aldgate means East Gate – the East End – and so it really feels as if it’s all come full circle. I’ve been so lucky in my career, but it was only until I campaigned for Alderman that I really pushed myself. The thing I most want to do is encourage people of any background – not just my background – to be natural, authentic, and realise they can do it, too. The most important piece of advice I can give others – and I would give my younger self – is be bold!