The theme for International Women's Day 2015 was: Make it Happen. So I am going to tell you a story about how I made it happen, with advice for other women in the same situation:
Eleven years ago I worked for a global PR company. I'd spent six years with them, moving from South Africa, to Boston, to New York to London. It was an amazing experience. My career was soaring.
Then I became pregnant.
I asked if I could return to my job on a flexible or a work-from-home basis as I lived over an hour from the office. The hours in a PR company are notoriously long and late. Continuing to work the way I had been with a baby just wasn't going to be possible. I was told that there was only one option available to me: to be the client lead on the biggest account in the company. So no, working remotely or with flexible hours wasn't an option.
I was torn. I'd loved this company, but I had no family in the country to help with childcare. My husband earned more than I did so it didn't make sense for him to give up his job to look after our baby. And besides, I wanted to see this little person I had carried for nine months. While on maternity leave, I was still mulling over what I should do when I received an email that was sent to the management team (which included me). The org chart shown in the email had me written out of the company. I simply wasn't included. They had already assumed that I wouldn't be going back.
I could have sued. But I didn't. Loyalty to the company stopped me.
I realised that the only way forward was for me to work for myself. So I did. I started up as a freelance PR person, selling my time back to the same company for double the amount of money. Irony.
Then I had my second baby. When he was five months old, going through weaning, I thought I'd quit PR and try to make baby food for a living. I quickly realised that it was a red tape minefield, so I binned the idea. But while doing my research, I came across a baby food company who I felt could do a better job reaching mums. I wrote an email to the founder of the company and told her that. She invited me in to see her. I went to the meeting with my baby. No-one batted an eyelid. That would have been unthinkable in my previous job.
She hired me.
It then hit me that I could choose who I wanted to work with. I didn't have to stick with technology PR that I had done for years, working for big corporate brands who didn't care if I had a sick child to take care of. I could work for companies run by other women. People who got it, who knew what it was like to juggle.
So I set up a PR company specialising in the parenting sector. All of my clients were mothers who had spotted a gap in the baby market. We used to schedule client calls around nap times, and I used my own experiences as a mother to truly understand my clients' target markets. I absolutely loved the freedom, flexibility and control I had over my life.
But it wasn't all good. The amount of money I earned halved from my old job. There were times it was very hard, lonely and frustrating. There was no team to learn from. I was responsible for everything. But it was the only alternative that worked for me.
After five years, I sold the business. I sold something that I had created out of nothing, something that had come about as a result of a single email to a company. I didn't sell it for a fortune. It wasn't going to keep me in luxury holidays for the rest of my life. But I had created something that had a value that someone else was willing to pay for. And that is pretty cool.
Now I have set up Campfire Communications, another venture that supports women entrepreneurs. I also work with men. I don't discriminate. But most of my clients are women.
And I love that. So many women have been forced to step off the career ladder due to uncompromising workplace policies (not to mention the frustration of gender pay disparities that still exist). There have been huge leaps forward with many big businesses now trying to be more flexible in their approach. But for many women, self-employment is still the most manageable solution.
The problem is, these same women have their confidence knocked when they start up on their own. They doubt themselves even though they are eminently capable. Women often belittle what they do when asked what they do for a living. 'Oh, I just run a little business' or 'I just work for myself.' We are by nature more risk averse, more conservative, more modest.
These women suddenly have to become masters of many skills they never had to know before like marketing, IT, legal and finance. They lose the social interaction of their previous workplace. They tend to earn less - certainly in the start up phase, which can go on for several years. They see colleagues once more junior to them, now several rungs higher up the career ladder than they were. And despite feeling less confident than ever, they have to be brave and invest and put themselves out there.
It's not an easy path. And I do wish more women felt that they could be supported in their existing career rather than have to be self-employed.
That said, when I look at all of the women I work with, I think: You ladies are making it happen. You are taking ownership of your lives. You are creating your own employment, your own income, your own flexible hours based on your terms. You are incredible. You are the silent force underpinning the economy, while looking after children or parents or other responsibilities.
Do not underestimate how incredible that is. Never belittle it. Be proud. Damn proud.
So my advice this International Women's Day:
If you are a woman thinking about starting up a business, make it happen. Don't wait for it to be perfect. Stop doubting yourself. Just do it and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.
If you are a women already running a business, make it happen. Stop holding back. Stop being afraid. Afraid to invest. Afraid to put yourself out there. Afraid to try something new in case it doesn't work. Just do it and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.
And if I can help you make it happen, I will.