It’s all relative: Sue Walter

The new CEO of family members’ club Maggie & Rose talks about the challenges of serving modern families and bringing people together

People 29 Nov 2019

Sue Walter, CEO of Maggie & Rose
The main space at Maggie & Rose Islington
The nursery at Maggie & Rose Islington
Brasserie at Maggie & Rose Chiswick
Kitchen at Maggie & Rose Kensington

Becoming the CEO of Maggie & Rose was a complete no-brainer for me. You know when something is right, when the hair raises on the back of the neck, and you think: ‘Actually, this is right for me.’ I remember when Maggie & Rose launched in 2006. I was working at the Hospital Club at the time and I thought that it was genius. There was nothing else like it on the market and I thought that parents needed it – especially as I was a young parent at the time.

For me, Maggie & Rose helps people not experience what I went through when I was raising my son, which was just awful, honestly. I remember crying on the tube one day because I was so stressed from trying to find childcare and do my job. If we can help people not experience that then that’s something that resonates with me. In today’s world, everything is so fragmented. Whether it’s because of technology, or politics, people are just pulling apart. I think anything that brings people together is a good thing – and clubs do that, 100 per cent.

The hospitality industry generally underserves families. You often get places that are dog-friendly but there aren’t many places that are child-friendly, which is interesting. When you’re with a child, it’s either adults in a place made for children, or children in a place made for adults. Where do families go? It still feels stuck in the 1940s and 1950s, when everyone had a traditional role – mums stayed at home and dads went out to work. That is no longer an option for families, particularly in a city like London where life is so expensive. Families need spaces where parents are able to be working parents.

Creature comforts at Maggie & Rose Islington
Creature comforts at Maggie & Rose Islington

At Maggie & Rose, parents don’t have to try to run around and do everything at once: cook dinner, fix the leaking sink, play with your kids. It’s okay to come here and get support from other people to help you to be a parent. But it’s also somewhere you can work, and not feel guilty about working. We see it as the extension of your home – we have furniture that’s safe so that if someone falls or knocks into it, it’s not going to hurt them. It’s also colourful and stimulating for the eyes as well as feeling comfortable for both adults and little ones.

Families need places that are more than the church hall or the local coffee shop, where other customers are still rolling their eyes. I know from being a mother that when my children were little you wanted to be able to go somewhere where you could work and connect with other people. You need to be yourself as much as being a mum. Our members may vary from location to location but the thread that pulls the whole thing together is that they are a child’s grown-ups, whomever that might be – grandparents, step-parents, aunts and uncles.

It’s not just women who are missing out on chances to connect and network. More and more of the parents we know are same-sex couples or stay-at-home dads. It’s all carers who miss out. It’s not just the networking part that’s important but also the social and mental health side of connecting with other people. Caring for others – whether a child or relative – can be really lonely. Most networking is done in the evening, so these people miss out because you can’t take your baby. At Maggie & Rose, if you come to an event in the evening, we offer childcare. And we’re also doing more in the daytime, which helps to support those going back to work following parental leave.

When my son was little, maternity leave used to be six months if you were lucky and now it’s a year. It was hard enough going back after three months, as I did. I thought I’d had a lobotomy and I felt like such a fraud. I walked into a board meeting and thought: ‘Oh my God, I have baby brain’ and couldn’t think straight. My confidence was shot to pieces. And after 12 months it is even harder. We are trying to help people going back to work after maternity leave, or paternity leave, and also making sure that we are bringing inspiring and interesting speakers to our clubs. You don’t stop being interested in that stuff once you become a parent. Not everybody wants to know about breast-feeding. You are still the same person you were before you had a child, but somehow people treat you differently.

Working with our members to find out what they need is all about communication. We talk to them face-to-face, there’s no replacement for that. We listen to them and don’t assume that we know best. We’re about to open a new club in Islington and I wouldn’t be surprised if, six months from now, the offer has changed and evolved. It has to, because we have created something in consultation with our community. We had a pop-up in the area for a year, where people came in and we listened to what they had to say and we will continue to do that.

In the future we want to develop our sustainability credentials. Our wood is from sustainable woodlands, we aren’t using single-use plastic and we’re using recycled, eco-friendly materials. We want to move much more into that space because again, people are doing that in their homes, and we want this place to be a reflection of our members’ homes. Sustainability isn’t just about the materials we use in our homewares; we’re also working with Little Village, a fantastic charity that recycles unwanted toys, clothes and equipment and gives them to disadvantaged families. It’s about sharing the love and giving these items a second life.

As well as the clubs in Kensington, Chiswick and Islington, we have a club in Singapore, two in Hong Kong and one in Hangzhou, and have plans to open more in the UK and Asia. Our ambition for next year is to go into North America, to places that have a diverse community of professionals. The challenge of parenting is universal; you can take our clubs anywhere.

Longer term, I do have an aspiration to have a Maggie & Rose Foundation where we give children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunities to try the Maggie & Rose experience, whether it is one of our summer camps or classes. We will develop it a bit further, but I think companies and corporations can and should do a lot more in giving back.

Maggie & Rose Islington is due to open in February 2020,