ust how does one become the ‘Most Connected Woman in the UK’? Having founded the leading women’s career platform WeAreTheCity off the back of 25 years in the corporate jungle, Vanessa Vallely is living proof that any woman can achieve success in the City as long as she goes in armed with three things; unwavering commitment, relentless drive and a willingness to learn.
Raised in the East End, the descendant of one of London’s original Pearly Kings, George Hitchin, Vallely’s iron-clad work ethic was the fuel that kindled the fire of her dream of working in the glittering sky-scrapers she looked out on from her childhood bedroom window. Leaving school and securing a job as a telex administrator at NatWest aged just 15, she worked her way up the corporate ladder, right up to Chief Operating Officer. Having first set out with nothing more than “15 and a half pence and a bag of ambition”, Vallely’s decades of corporate experience were built on the type of foundations that come from unwavering self-motivation. Or as she summarises, “a little bit of cockney luck and a lot of hard work.”
Like all great ideas, WeAreTheCity manifested through an emerging gap in the market in 2008. Now an established name within the City and the wider UK, Vallely saw the need for an all-encompassing platform to unite the flourishing numbers of women’s career platforms and what started out as an idea aided with a few bottles of wine whilst holidaying in Spain is now the leading women’s career website; with 5 million hits per month, 60,000 members and 130,000 unique visitors. But WeAreTheCity is more than a digital career platform, offering a comprehensive assortment of resources, advice and support for every aspect of a woman’s professional working life. The platform includes a job board for those getting on the ladder, a Career Club to boost those vying for a promotion, returnships for those returning to work and an extensive range of networking events and training resources. Now with an extension in India (boasting 27,000 members alone), Vallely places a huge emphasis on the idea that “no one leaves the site empty-handed”. Considering the staggering range of choice on offer, she’s a woman of her word.
Naturally, the ‘Most Connected Woman in the UK’ knows a thing or two about networking. Vallely stresses the importance of authenticity when it comes to building relationships, because a genuine connection can’t be formed unless you offer up the real you on a silver platter. Daunting as that can be, she’s learned from the best – namely networking master Heather White, and is frank about what it takes to expand your professional network. As long as you are upfront and honest about who you are and embrace your position as a woman in the corporate world, there’s nothing stopping you from turning your childhood dreams into reality.
On joining the corporate world
It took a lot of tenacity to secure my first job at NatWest. After filling out application forms at seven or eight different banks and always missing out on the qualifications, a stroke of luck saw one take a chance on me. Joining the corporate world and all its unfolding politics was such a huge learning curve as there is no book or manual that teaches teenagers how to ask for help and what the senior power-struggle is or how it affects them. Employers assume young adults will turn up to their first day of work with the understanding of how the game is played, when really, it’s a tough reality to digest.
On her education
I always carried a big chip on my shoulder having never gone to university. When I did finally return to education at the University of Chicago Booth, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve had in overcoming that insecurity was thanks to what one of my professors whispered into my ear on the first day. I had sat at the back of the class and he came up to me and said “are you always going to sit at the back and let others lead in the front?” The penny dropped and I thought to myself “I’ve never been one to sit at the back” and it’s something I hold in high regard now. Today, when I attend events, I sit at the front to make a statement; I’m confident about who I am and what I am capable of.
On her personal breakthrough
Speaking up was easily my break-through moment; it gave me the confidence to truly believe in myself. I had got to a point in my career where WeAreTheCity had been set up and the moment hit me when I realised ‘Brand Vanessa’ was a curly-haired woman who wasn’t afraid of her femininity, as opposed to this pin-stripe suit-wearing woman who was so restrained in her personal image. It was truly the ‘beginning of the end’, the point in which I knew I could and should work for myself.
“Employers assume young adults will turn up to their first day of work with the understanding of how the game is played, when really, it’s a tough reality to digest.”
On corporate politics
Corporate politics absolutely has the fight or flight mentality. Considering my upbringing, my reflex is to defend somebody if they are right. I’m an exceptionally fair person but this didn’t always go down well in the office. If you want to go into battle, there are a lot of factors to consider; will others want that atmosphere? Can they afford to join a mutiny in the office? Will their finances be at risk? I have a better understanding of it now but when I was younger, it was a shock to see people not backing me by default.
On being a woman in a male-dominated industry
My gender was never a barrier for me. I’ve had some fantastic bosses and some really strong male mentors that have made such a huge difference to my career; they took me to the right level and gave me amazing opportunities. The political aspect of the corporate environment only really emerged when I moved into more senior roles.
Thankfully, the realisation that ‘women’s issues’ are simply ‘universal issues’ has finally come into place. These problems aren’t going to simply vanish and employers are now responding to that. By no means do I want to put men down but I’m also aware that some industries are naturally very aggressive, the trading floor being a prime example so it’s no surprise men can gravitate towards those positions. But there is no reason a woman couldn’t aim for a career in those sectors; I was on a plane recently and I realised the pilot was female when she spoke over the tannoy; a woman was flying the plane! I almost erupted out of my seat and yelled “you go girl!” I shouldn’t have had that bias as she is just a pilot and there is no difference from her flying the plane to a man, nor should it be extraordinary. They have just as much of a right.
On her biggest learning curve
My biggest learning curve is now; the last three years in running WeAreTheCity full time. When I set up my first business aged 22, I had no clue about business acumen, sales or infrastructure, I was just earning and spending and it was hugely liberating. The second time I left the corporate world it was a very different experience as I was leaving with a good salary and the discipline it took to run a business.
“I truly believe you are the judge of your own capability and if you really want it, you can get it. Put your blinkers on, focus and nothing is unobtainable.”
Although there is a sense of fear in striking out on your own, I knew I could depend on myself; I’m from the East End and I’d work in a market stall if that’s what it took. It’s not been an easy journey but it’s absolutely been worth the struggle and I truly believe that WeAreTheCity makes a difference every day, there is no better feeling than that.
On giving advice to those at the beginning of their careers
There will always be those who tell you, you cannot achieve something. Be it through their own fears or limitations or simply that they are too short-sighted to see beyond their own reality. I truly believe you are the judge of your own capability and if you really want it, you can have it. Put your blinkers on, focus and nothing is unobtainable. To fail, as much as it is painful, is to learn. Plus, the sting of failure always hurts enough to make you look at the situation and say, “I won’t do that again”.
On maintaining balance
Balance is key to any successful career but it’s particularly important in the corporate environment. It’s essential to set boundaries from the beginning, be it in a new position or a new company. I know people who have cancelled holidays at the last minute but that is no way to live. It makes you feel like a martyr when in reality, no one will write “she cancelled her holidays to work” on your gravestone.
Networking is all about being authentic. Making a good introduction means you have to be clear about who you are, what you do and what you can do for the other person. The conversation will evolve naturally if both parties have a mutual interest and a genuine introduction. Networking shouldn’t ever be transactional, it should always have a purpose, my purpose is to get to know people and invariably offer help or connections in some guise. I think networking can be considered a little intimidating now because it has this huge identity and life of its own within business when really, it’s just building relationships and having a conversation!
On creating WeAreTheCity
I would like to think of WeAreTheCity as a centre-point to promote what every company or organisation is doing for to progress women in the workplace. The idea came to me quite organically, mainly because the support for women in corporations was already everywhere; it was like a messy house that needed tidying.
The idea literally evolved before my husband and I’s eyes as we planned it and the idea was to bring together all the women’s career networks in one place, however that idea evolved and started to include business schools, returnships, internships and career advice. It became obvious that it should just be all-encompassing. Connecting people makes me so happy; seeing a synergy and making magic between their companies, brands and independent projects is an amazing feeling.
“My rule on mentoring is paying it back; if I take the time out to mentor you, then I want you to take the time out to mentor someone else. It’s essential that other women pass on their knowledge to those who are starting out or to those who are struggling as it creates a wonderful cascade of people helping each other.”
A huge part of the company’s identity was to be a resource for women through the journey of their careers. What can WeAreTheCity do for you? Aside from offering the fundamental pillars of career support, we also offer a bank of advice surrounding the pay gap, pensions and the changing economic landscape and pressing current affairs like why it was important to vote in the referendum; all reminders of why women fought for rights and independence all those years ago and why we need to continue fighting now. I don’t do it alone; if I’m considered the oracle, then there are a huge number of orbs floating around me, connected and working as a team. They are as equally passionate as I am.
On expanding WeAreTheCity to India
My plans for WeAreTheCity India manifested through the multiple trips I took there whilst working in the banking industry. I was on a trip to Bangalore, having been convinced to go by my boss when I mentioned I hadn’t been to India, in order to get a better understanding of the work culture there. It was absolutely incredible; I met the most amazing individuals who have such respect for getting the job done. When I was over there for the third or fourth time, the girls were saying “Where is our WeAreTheCity? Why is there not one in India?” and I promised to build them one. Later on, I was collaborating with a Barclays director who was going to be in Mumbai for a year and she suggested to me that we build it and hand it over to local women to run, which is exactly what we have done.
The most productive way to have a mentor is over a select period of time; working on something which you can measure and in which you can see the tangible outcome. Your mentorship doesn’t need to be a formal arrangement - embrace flexibility! There is also a lot to be said connecting with people from different industries and at different levels as the variety of feedback you can get can be fitting for almost any situation. My rule on mentoring is paying it back; if I take the time out to mentor you, then I want you to take the time out to mentor someone else. It’s essential that other women pass on their knowledge to those who are starting out or to those who are struggling as it creates a wonderful cascade of people helping each other.
“Empowerment has to come from within. It’s like almost any attribute you have, it’s only real if you truly feel it.”
On empowering women
Empowerment has to come from within. It’s like almost any attribute you have, it’s only real if you truly feel it. When I’m in a huge room of talented women, celebrating their accolades and achievements, I feel empowered. Women can be empowered when they have the freedom to choose what they want to do and how they feel. It’s a difficult position to secure as there are so many chains and obligations that bind us such as family, finance and self-belief. Feeling balanced is a broad concept but it ties into feeling empowered. Some days, I feel balanced because my house is tidy, my dog is asleep, my inbox is sorted and then it can all go in a heartbeat; you’ve got to appreciate those fleeting moments of calm, in my world they are few and far between.
On personal image
My personal image feeds into my personal brand. Whether we like it or not, people will make their minds up about us in an instant so it’s important to use your image to your advantage. That said, it makes me cross that people are judged on their appearance as it should really be about their capability, not what dress they have on! Given my other job as a public speaker, I do have to rely on my wardrobe to convey my professional capability and whatever I wear needs to be completely transferable. If I’m out all day in a dress, between meetings and functions, I’ll want that dress to look as good as it did in the first meeting when I’m presenting on stage that night. I love shoes and Louboutins are my favourite and even feature on the cover of my book Heels of Steel. There is something about being a few inches taller, being forced to stand up straight and pull your shoulders back that makes you feel strong and focused on the task at hand. Even when I’m working from home, I’ll put the heels on whilst taking a call or answering emails, regardless of what I’m wearing.
My guilty pleasure is X-Factor and I know I’m absolutely not alone in this. I don’t watch television so catching up on these shows is a great outlet in comparison to my schedule.
The best advice I’ve ever received is to just be yourself. It’s a lesson that took me some time to learn but now I practice it every day. Ensure you speak up and be your authentic self. Don’t keep quiet; take a deep breath and contribute. You are in your current role for a reason and therefore you have value; make sure others know that.
The best thing you can do to improve your career is to network. Don’t limit yourself to just your floor or group but network across the board; from the security guard who opens the door to the senior executive you might see occasionally. Also don’t ever upset a PA – they are the unsung backbones of most companies and contribute hugely. They also have the biggest networks known to man!
The professional accolade I’m proudest of is probably my first one; the Women in Banking and Finance Award. I had lost a year earlier to a good friend of mine so when I did win, it was such a memorable moment. My parents were there and I remember looking out at this sea of 350 faces and the look of pride on their faces was indescribable.