Tell me a bit about your background and how you started your career?
At 15, I determined that my career path would lead to me becoming a CEO. I didn’t know what it meant, the actual words, but I was obsessed with the ’90s hip-hop movement and all the people I admired called themselves a ‘CEO’. I decided that was the path for me and it set up a lifelong journey as a social entrepreneur, non-executive director and now CEO.
Why did you decide to found A Very Good Company and describe the work that you did there?
In 2011, I realised that there was a better way to do business, but the advocates for this idea were few and far between. Sustainability was a niche idea; no one talked about wellbeing and mental health; Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) was solely concerned with gender balance for women already actively privileged, and Human Centred Design (HCD) was an innovative idea permeating a few select agencies. Founding A Very Good Company was my ode to rebellious business unusual, that put people and planet first. Our purpose was to create a world where people feel good, do good and live better. We invested our profits in an annual campaign called A Good Week, a celebration of good in areas such as tech, sustainability and inclusion and we worked with household names to rethink their approach to working with communities all around the word.
What other roles have helped you to progress to where you are today, as CEO of Belu Water?
I have had a non-executive career since the age of 23, my first board was the British Youth Council (BYC) and I joined as vice-chair Campaigns and Communications; BYC was my first taste of strategic governance, political activism and charity leadership. Since then I have had the great pleasure to be a NED/board member of UnLtd – The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, Consortium for Street Children, National Lottery Community Fund, and chair of the Nominet Trust and National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS). I am currently a civil service commissioner and board member of OPDC, the development corporation for west London. I am also a trained broadcast journalist. I worked on the Channel 4 Washington DC news desk during Obama’s first summer in office. Coincidentally, it was also at the start of the crash, and I produced a 9-minute news report for Channel 4 on the foreclosure crisis in Baltimore before we knew the full impact. I also launched a national radio show called Badass Women’s Hour, which gave me a whole new love for speech radio and conversation.
What attracted you to working with Belu and what are your main responsibilities there?
I gravitate towards businesses with deep purpose and commercial rigour. I call myself a retail girl because of the jobs I thrived in when I was younger. My first business was a clothing franchise, so the opportunity to join Belu was very exciting. As co-CEO I am responsible for the strategic vision, culture and operating model of Belu. Day-to-day I might be working on a supply chain challenge or a customer communications plan. No day is the same.
Why is it so important for you to put sustainability and inclusion at the heart of everything you do?
It’s not just important, it’s the lifeblood of what I do and who I am. I’m reminded of the Muhammad Ali quote, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth”. I believe in service, I’m a public servant (in the broadest sense) by nature, therefore I can’t operate in an environment that doesn’t put these principles first.
What were the main challenges you have faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
I see challenges in hindsight but never at the time – it’s the entrepreneurial spirit. Doors, walls, glass ceilings were made to go over, under, smash, ignore or simply blaze a trail through. I was never worried about what people thought of me, if I wanted to achieve something or join an organisation, I would show up, apply, apply again and apply again until I got there. I had a shaved head and I have visible tattoos; I am who I am, unapologetically.
What do you believe are the keys to effective leadership?
Knowing what drives you, being yourself based on those drivers and kindness. Lots of people do not like the word nice, but I believe in being nice. It is underrated.
What advice would you give specifically to women in leadership roles?
Follow your gut, build great relationships with people who support you no matter what, and say what you think, feel and know, without apology.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Know yourself, be yourself and look after yourself (Clore Social Leadership Framework)
The City is constantly evolving – what are some positive changes you think should be celebrated, and what areas still need more work?
The intent to change should be celebrated but the pace of change is slow. I think the conversation about mental health has come a long way. Flexible working is no longer a trust issue, workplaces have evolved to embrace a better way for all. Women have definitely broken through the barriers of 5-10 years ago, but we have a long way to go on race and disability.
Having featured in Brummell’s Ones to Watch list in 2017, and more recently in the Inspirational Women change makers list in 2021, what has been your biggest learning in the past four years?
The best is yet to come. Every year I have pinch-me moments where I get to be everything I have ever dreamt of. So, I continue to dream, think forward and be a public servant and advocate for others.
Read more about this year’s Inspirational Women list by clicking here.
Photography: Kasia Bobula; photographer’s assistant: Daniel Simm; grooming: Stefan Jemeel