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Paul
Hello and welcome to KWIB FM. This morning we’re live from Liverpool Marina and we’re lucky to be joined by Simone Roche MBE, Founder and CEO of Northern Power Women, Northern Power Futures and Managing Director of Events First.

Simone
Good morning – it makes me sound very busy doesn’t it!

Paul
Absolutely. We’re very lucky to be live with Simone and her beautiful lady Isabella and I just want to start by asking a few questions if I may?

Simone
Absolutely…and you’re very welcome here to sunny Liverpool today!

Paul
Can I start by asking about your early life as parents and school often set foundations and belief for our future growth. How was your beginning?

Simone
Well, family was full of love – a big crossover. An only child but with lots of cousins. Lots of cousins, family, lots of mischief – rounders on the beach, that kind of thing. School – I was at a very small primary school and then I went to quite a disciplined school actually. I don’t think I was ever their best academic in the world but I was driven by a few things – I love languages and I love maths. I’d say that it was a pretty happy childhood, full of love. 

Paul
It’s well documented about you joining the Royal Navy. Why was life in the armed forces more appealing than further education or a straight forward apprenticeship?

Simone
I think I was I motivated by looking for an adventure. I was looking for something… I think I was finished with the standard academia and I wasn’t inspired to go off and look at degrees. I was doing my “A” levels – and I think I’d probably chosen the wrong “A” levels. I was just ready – ready to make my mark out there!

I’d wanted to be a vet at 13 and an air hostess but at 5’ realised that wasn’t going to be happening! I remember filling in the careers questionnaire form in and I gravitated, I don’t know why, towards the Royal Navy and the Air Force particularly. 

Paul
So you preferred blue to green!

Simone
It was more the Air Force blue – and the Royal Navy is the senior service you know! I remember when I went in, I passed the tests for the Air Force and then I thought I’d go and have a look up the way at the Royal Navy and there was just something that made me feel as if I was at home. Maybe it was just that they were full of banter and very warm – it was a very warm welcome. I remember the Chief Petty Officer a Geordie guy George Competis – I just remember him and his greeting and how he made me feel. I remember thinking “do you know what, I can do this” so I went off and past the tests and off I went to run away with the sailors!

Paul
Back in the 1980s and in any of the armed forces, you needed a thick skin. It’s quite male dominated environment. How did you find it and how did you deal with it?

Simone
Do you know, I never really thought about it. To me, it was always about you gave as good as you got. I think that if we went back and I maybe revisited some of the conversations that we had, then maybe I might think “umm, that might be inappropriate”. 

Paul
So you were just being a bashful northern young lady!

Simone
I think the northern factor helps!  Again, we talk about this being resilience now but I kind of think that I found my way. I felt like I fitted and that there was so much I could be involved with. I felt like I became me. I felt it was a place that whether you wanted to play sport, do stuff or whether or not you wanted to give your liver a battering, whatever it may be, then there were all those opportunities to experience. It was different learning and I absolutely relished those opportunities. I did definitely feel that sense of belonging in those early years. I met some great people, had some great postings and I think I learnt very early doors to take advantage of everything that was on offer. It definitely didn’t leave you with enough hours in the day at times but it was great. I think that if you look, then it’s there within the Navy and the Forces. For me and making the decision at 17 was just the best thing I could have done at that age.

Paul
Yes, also, I think that sometimes people get steered to easily towards university where an apprenticeship or something like the Forces where you are learning in a different way could be a better option?

Simone
I wasn’t really aware of apprenticeships as I didn’t really come across them. But this – I was definitely inspired by the thought of going to work and actually I didn’t want to do a 9-5 and so this kind of fit and being able go away was great. It’s not a job – it is definitely a way of life. 

Paul
What was your career path in the Navy like? Were you part of a programme… did you switch from a ‘rating’ to an ‘officer’? How did it work for you?

Simone
Because I’d had some really good postings, I ended up in the middle of Bushy Park whilst working at the Admiralty Research Establishment. We worked in civvies (civilian clothes) and lived in a house – there were probably only about 20 of us – not in the same house as it would have been a big house! We went to work with civil servants every day in this undercover, secret base which seems very bizarre now.  

I think that because that was a very small community, my commanding officer at the time just thought that I had potential. Many times he suggested that I should ‘have my papers raised’ – getting to the next rank – but I felt that I didn’t want to jump any queues and I just wanted to work my way up. That was the type of person I am. I guess it’s what we term now as sponsorship. He was that person that just looks out for you and sees that something that you just can’t see. He took a chance and persisted. I went to my selection process and got accepted. It was also at the time of the transition when I joined in 1988 that girls didn’t go to sea. So I joined at the point of transition when girls became sea-going. When I went through my officer training I went through as a sea-going officer. That guy, Paul, my commanding officer came to my passing out parade which was really nice. I think that again, it’s that lesson – who do you take a chance on? He didn’t need to do that – he didn’t get any extra brownie points for it; it wasn’t targeted but I very much have to keep a look out as to who I’m going to pay that forward to and who I’m going to take a chance on.

Paul
Yes, we need more of that I think. So you left the Royal Navy aged 25. I read that you were concerned that if you signed for another 5 years in the Navy that you might be too old to start another career. 1) Do you think that would be the case today and 2) what attracted you to the leisure sector?

Simone
Yes, it was really interesting because I’d specialised as a traffic controller. You have these break points in your commission. If I hadn’t have left then, it would have been another five years and I would have been 30! Maybe it would have been more difficult then; I might be looked at with a different lens and it might be difficult for me to have a second career and knowing that I wasn’t going to join for life, I did want to do something different. In my time in the Royal Navy I had opportunities to be involved in lots of things – a five nation sporting tournament in the Tioman Island? Of course! I got involved in things as the sporting officer on the ship as well as doing the day job. I loved the thrill and the rush of being able to make these logistical nightmares happen if you like. We were before the days of mobile phones and internet – it wasn’t quite pigeon but it was quite challenging.

So to answer your question, I was drawn into the events industry which was where I wanted to go. Do I think it would be the same now? I think the answer would be that I think the armed forces have worked really hard on fairness and equality. I had the chance to go back to the training establishment HMS Raleigh last year and the one thing I noticed more than anything was the change in language. They talk about their values – humour, camaraderie, ‘can-do’ attitude, resilience and they demonstrate them in pictures. It really hit home with me. Also the change in language in the training structures. You used to live in fear of being “chopped” as they called it (being kicked off the course) but the way they talk now it is about ‘training up’ as opposed to ‘managing out’ which I thought was really interesting. I think there is a different culture there now which I think, if I was my 25 year old self now, then I don’t think you would look like that because there are so many different opportunities. I just knew that I wanted a different career – I wanted to have a look at something else.

Paul
Being a Liverpool girl, when you left the Navy and got into the events sector, one of your first roles was at Aintree. That must have been very special. 

Simone
It was, I was living with my grandmother at the time in Liverpool and I’d gone into town. When you leave with your commission, they set you off with four or five months (salary) whereas now you would be given lots of training but back then, they didn’t. I went off to a temping agency as I wanted to get my hand in and do stuff while I was applying for all these different jobs. I remember I got offered a job in an insurance company for four weeks as a temp. They said “start on Monday but if you want to come in tomorrow and familiarise yourself with the computer systems” It was in the days when Windows had just arrived. So I went in and they said ‘so you were interested in the leisure sector weren’t you?’ and when I said yes, they said “there’s a job starting tomorrow at the Grand National – it’s only for two weeks” and I immediately said yes because I knew that would be brilliant – it’s one of the top 10 sporting events in the world and locally we’re proud of it. It is something that, whatever your beliefs on horseracing are, it is something that economic and tourist benefits that [the event] brings into the city are amazing. I had a ball. I was there for five years – my two weeks ended up working for the catering organisation to eight months later being approached by the racecourse to say that they’d like me to go and work for them. It was brilliant; I learned so much.

Paul
Typical of you I guess is that, like the Navy, you threw yourself into it and thrived on the success of getting noticed. What do you put this success down to?

Simone
I think that my work ethic has always been pretty high and that 100% comes from the Royal Navy. You are always ‘on’. You are always on call. Doing that at such an early age, you don’t know any different. You are also given quite a lot of responsibility at quite an early age. You have to learn fast, think quicker and take action. So, I think that everything I’ve done and achieved as I’ve gone along has been through the learning I took from there. I absolutely learnt to say ‘yes’ and work it out later. I don’t think I got into too much trouble from that but it definitely armed me in everything I’ve done. Even now, there are certain things that happen and you reflect back to what you were part of then.

Paul
I’m guessing that you know that you’ve been successful when you no longer need to apply for jobs and get head hunted. You’ve been head hunted for the Liverpool Arena and also People First. That must have been some accolade?

Simone
Yes. And I think it’s interesting because both of them came from long-term relationships. I think that’s the power of relationships. I’ve always been a big advocate of not only LinkedIn but any relationship. It’s not just about the count of people or the count of business cards but that you’ve got to invest in and manage those relationships. It’s not about investing because you think you never know when they will come in handy but as you come along, you meet some really interesting people and often it can be months down the line when you come across something and you think it could be really useful for that person and you can just connect someone. I absolutely believe that those two opportunities came along just because I’d had long term relationships and people had seen me do, learn and develop over the years.

Paul
Does that go back to the military sector – investing in people and relationships mean something. At the end of the day, if the sh@t hits the fan, you have to rely on those people?

Simone
It’s chain of command. Everyone has a part to play. It doesn’t matter if you’re the commanding officer, a junior seaman or a civilian contractor, everyone has a massive part to play. Each part of that chain is critical. You never see it as relationships but that’s what you are doing in your day job when you are sea or wherever because someone can have a bad day. If you’re at sea for four weeks on the bounce and you’ve not touched land, people can get a bit uptight. It’s about having that conversation about someone’s wellbeing. The “are you OK, is there anything I can do”. It’s about relationships which is more than just the business card transaction.

Paul
How much of a challenge was it when deciding to work for People First as the job roles you’d undertaken previously were more hands on whereas this was more of a managerial role in some respects?

Simone
There was lots of innovation there and it was about things we were doing around skills – it was a skills organisation –  and I really enjoyed that. There was almost a sense of “the imposter syndrome” when I thought “gosh, what do I know about this?” but then I realised that I’d worked in that industry and it was really great that I’d worked up here at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, the Arena and Aintree so I’d worked in a lot of these great big establishments. I felt I had some great insight. One of the interesting things was that it was down in Uxbridge and I was living in the North. I found the whole ‘working from home’ thing really interesting and it was one of the most challenging things I’ve learnt. It took me about 3 months to stop thinking ‘can I go to the loo now? can I go and do this now?’ It was really interesting. I had a great boss who was “we’re not looking at the green light on your phone” Now we’re in a world where we need more agility and businesses are now allowing different patterns be it a 9 day fortnight or compressed working and it all comes from trust. Initially it was a bit challenging, especially when you are used to having people around you. You find different ways to manage your relationships, whether it’s a direct message, having some connected skypes or having travel buddies on the train to meetings. You become very efficient and effective with your time.

Paul
Talking of head hunting, you were also head hunted for the 2012 Olympics in the UK – one of the best ones and a special occasion?

Simone
Do you know what, because I’d worked around hospitality and the events industry, to not want to be part of something that is the biggest event in the world would have been crazy. It was fascinating. I was looking at client services manager for transport which was very challenging when you have one of your big sponsors using the Langham Hotel in London wanting to put 30 coaches outside and you’re trying to explain that you can’t do that!

There was the whole challenge because they are big sponsors you are dealing with and you’re kind of having to say “well, you know, this is London and it has its own amazing event but also has its own transport infrastructure with its own challenges as well”. But, it was great! Again, it was different types of learning and I don’t think there is a job, role or contract I do even now where I don’t think you learn something because you always do. 

Paul
People First couldn’t live without you and head hunted you back for a Women First initiative. How fundamental was that in kindling your interest in women’s empowerment and equality?

Simone
It was interesting because there was a research based organisation and Women First was born out of the first piece of research – the Lord Davies Report – and the real lack of female senior representation at board level. And so Women First

was born out of this research to look at what strides could be made to influence and impact that. 52% of women were in the sector but when we looked at the big stats, only 6% were at board level and that was the scary thing. The interesting thing was that I’d never been drawn or engaged or attended any event around gender. It wasn’t something that I was against; it wasn’t something I’d really thought about. I didn’t think it was for me. 

And so I went to the first event because you obviously want to support it and it was from that event that I started interfering! Having brought about events and connected and done stuff over the years, I thought what could we do more of? How do we really start to make a difference and shift the needle on the 6%? It’s not just about having a glass of prosecco! That can happen down the way but I wanted to really try and utilise the platform to be able to do more; it’s not just about having a networking event, it’s about that you can’t just do things in isolation. When they asked me to do this, it was very much about a wider campaign. It was about that cross-sector collaboration and bringing together different shared knowledges from the different sectors and looking outside our sectors for learning as well. I really embrace that.

Paul
It seems that it came at the right time for you because it brought together everything in your life; leadership, having the right attitude, you run events and are involved in people businesses… All of those things have come together.

Simone
Yes – it was; it was like it was all in a big melting pot and it was “right, so that’s how I can use all these skills!”.

Paul
You are a very driven person and you founded TedxWhitehallWomen. Is that a military characteristic?

Simone
No, do you know what, it was a yes/no. So it was a definitely say ‘yes’ moment. A great colleague of mine, Ruth Shore, had contacted me. She’d called out of the blue saying ‘tell me about this Women First. Have you got time for a coffee? I’m on a couple of boards and I’m interested to learn what you’re doing…’ I was “absolutely” as I love that. Let’s not reinvent wheels; let’s play nice and do more. So we met for a coffee and 45 minutes later, Ruth had shared with me her thoughts about creating a Tedx. It was something on her bucket list to do. So I thought, ‘okay, say yes!’ I think it was six months later that we produced the first TedxWhitehallWomen. 

Interestingly, as we were just saying about the melting pot of your skills etc, I just realised that over the years, I’d got a massive passion for giving people a stage, amplifying voices and giving people an opportunity to talk about something slightly differently. It’s a more succinct in Ted talks and takes them out of their comfort zone as the talks go global. That was immensely challenging and trying to do it in London was expensive. It was expensive to do and get it filmed and edited. But, it was great. We did TedxWhitehallWomen for five years and we did the Foreign Office, we did BAFTA and HMS Presidents (back to my Navy base!) but it was brilliant.

Paul
Women First and TedxWhitehallWomen had been quite London based. Was Northern Powerhouse your first escape back to Liverpool?

Simone
It was really interesting in that it was at a time when Women First was coming to a ‘funding end’ if you like. Not an end but more looking at different options. Also at the same time, there was a big festival for trade going on in Liverpool – or rather it had been announced. I had a conversation with an old friend and he was running the festival and I was “so, what’s this festival?” and he was “so, what’s this Women First, bra burning thing you’re doing?” we were laughing and I said, seriously, if you are doing an international festival, we should talk about gender because it’s about business and talent. He went ‘go on then’ – it wasn’t quite as easy as this but you get the idea. There were seven weeks of events so it was a bit of event overkill as there was so much going on.

We created an event called “Inspiring the economy” because I wanted it to be fact based. We booked some of the most amazing speakers and advocates and it was the first time I’d done something outside of London because I had hoped it wouldn’t be needed. I thought this was a great opportunity within this festival to plant this. That’s exactly what happened; it did plant and really what came out of it were these really anecdotal and factual statements that made me think that I needed to do more. There needs to be a legacy here. It’s not just about one event. There was a young woman who set up her on business from it and another who totally restructured her own working arrangements because she was just stagnating. I had a conversation with a gentleman who told me about the challenges around employing women and why it was so difficult because they get pregnant – my mouth was just agape. It suddenly led me to believe that I needed to make sure that I recruited the good guys – the ones who wanted to be part of “ready for change” which morphed into Northern Power Women.

Paul
It’s good that you said that because it can sometimes be seen that if we’re going to change it, both genders have to work together to change it. It’s not going to happen in isolation. 

Simone
Absolutely. If you have just women talking to women about women, nothing happens because it becomes a bit of an echo chamber. We have to make sure that we bring in and have those wider conversations. As part of Northern Power Women we have a ’future list’ and a ‘power list’. The future list we add to each year and that is representatives from all backgrounds, all sectors, all socio-economic groups and it’s about putting a light on these amazing young role models. We’ve created Northern Power Futures last year based on looking at having these conversations and we created 2 x 2-day festivals in Manchester and Newcastle which was “what does the future of the North look like for those who are going to lead and work there?”. It’s been really interesting about how those events were not about gender, yet we were really able to influence by not using the word gender. Sometimes you’ve got to be, I suppose, mischievous, as sometimes people can put a wall up or think “that’s not for me”. Probably as I did many years ago! I didn’t put a barrier up but I wasn’t drawn down that path. Sometimes I think you have to change the language.

Paul
It might be that you didn’t see that barrier as you came out of a place where gender wasn’t as big an issue?

Simone
No it wasn’t; it’s interesting because even though the percentages were very small. When I was an officer in the Navy the percentage was 1% of females, it’s now more like 10-11%. It’s shifted but it’s not where they want to be. I think it’s a massive shift. I don’t think I was ever treated differently for being female but I was for being Northern! It was definitely the days of the BBC English and no regional accents.

Paul
They all love the regional accents now – you’d be able to get a job presenting on TV quite easily now!

Simone
Indeed!

Paul
Northern Power Women has been going for four years now. Have you achieved all you want to achieve? What are the plans ahead?

Simone
To be honest, I will have achieved all I want to achieve when it doesn’t exist. Originally I would have loved to have said ‘right in five years, we’ll close it down. We’ll go in and create a big noise; we’ll create a massive platform around phenomenal role models and again, telling stories of all genders, all backgrounds, all sectors’. We are only a quarter of Footsie 250 companies outside of London and it’s important that we want to make role models outside of London visible, accessible and heard. That to me is exciting – to be able to tell stories about a fantastic pilot, rally driver, great tax accountant. When I think of when I made my decision about what I wanted to do 30 years ago, I would have loved to have been able to look at this platform. Whilst it’s not a careers portal but I do think that we have the brochure for the ceremony every year and every year we are adding to the role models. We don’t create a new list or a new scoring; the great thing is that you can move to Kent… but you’re still Northern, right?! I wanted that visibility of role models to be so present. I also wanted to change the geography of where the conversation was coming from. I wanted all of a sudden a spokesperson from Boohoo.com or a Northern business or Manchester Airports Group or Newcastle Football Club be heard as opposed to it just being the same people who, by the way, are doing great things but otherwise how do our young people return into careers, suffer any redundancies and have to make new decisions. How can they look and see who is doing what and where?

Paul
You spent some time as an advisory board member for World Merit. What was your remit here?

Simone
That is a global youth organisation working on sustainable development goals. I had a very interesting 17-18 days out in New York and Pennsylvania. We had 360 global youth change makers from 86 different countries. They came together to work on their sustainable development goals. So 86 countries with lots of different cultures and lots of different levels. But, they are all kick-ass passionate people who are passionate whether it be gender equality, climate change, whether it’s education or about life below the water, plastics etc, then it’s fascinating and so hugely encouraging to think that you’ve got these wonderful people. I knew that when I was out there. My remit was to look after 100 odd speakers over the couple of weeks of the camps that we ran. It was relationship management of the speakers as a voluntary piece.

Paul
Was it a little intimidating when you’ve got so many different empowered young people?

Simone
No, it was absolutely magnificent and joyous. I get a bit fed up with the language around millennials “all millennials are entitled; all millennials want this etc”. Everyone is different. I’ve seen so many equally lazy 40-50 year olds so I don’t subscribe to that. I loved it and it actually changed the content of my Facebook page for a number of years because we now have friends from all over the world and because we’d done the Tedx talks and I’ve been to TEDx Global twice now, I’ve got the most rich, diverse and interesting people around the world which is amazing. 

Paul
That’s very inspiring. In 2018, I guess all the inspiration you’ve given was recognised with your MBE for services to gender equality. As an ex-military person yourself, it must have been very, very special to go to the Palace and get such a prestigious award?

Simone
It was just so lovely. It was such a long process if you like. I got the letter in the May and you have to remain tight lipped until I think 10.30 on the 8th of June.

Paul
How did you manage that?

Simone
Do you know, I didn’t tell my husband for three weeks because I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to be sent to the Tower! Then it was the whole celebration and the outpouring. You have a little thought of ‘gosh, what are people going to say?’ I mean, I felt honoured – it is the honours system and I felt massively honoured about it. I felt I’d taken it for all Northern Women Power people out there, doing amazing things. The actual  day itself was just something .. well, I don’t think you can really explain it. It was just wonderful. I can remember people being very nervous and I can remember thinking “I am not going to be nervous; I’m going to have the time of my life!” but, I was as giddy as a goat quite frankly. “I’m so excited!” were my first words to Prince William and he kind of just grinned at me thinking “crazy woman!”. We spent a couple of minutes talking about Northern Power Women and the power of female entrepreneurs and the role men have to play which I spoke to him about. It’s really interesting that you have that dialogue but the thing is that I don’t need any motivation but it has only inspired me more. Now it’s ‘so what are the next steps for Northern Power Women?’ ‘How do we reach more? How do we make more impact?’  I challenge myself every day on that and beat myself up about that every day because you always want to do more. It’s a massive community; we reach so many people in so many different ways but it’s not a network or membership – it’s a movement. It’s really trying, I suppose, to enable more action to take place because everyone can do something. We launched at the Awards this year and the campaign is “#We can”. We’re going to keep it going all year. We’ve just done #We can mentor, #we can lead, #we can achieve. It’s quite a powerful add on. We’re going to keep it going this year and get people to sign up to it. I don’t want people to pledge: I want people to say what they can do or what they have done. That’s what I want because that’s how we move. 

I had a woman on a call last week and she told me how she got involved, came to an event and met me and has now gone and set up this amazing investment network. She said “I did that because of you. I wanted to do it but you motivated me to do it.” That was amazing but then I get frustrated because I want to know what everyone is doing because we share that! If we can stop people reinventing the wheel, one really impactful thing – like my commanding officer going ‘short Northern bird, you’ve got talent!’ – then it could just be ‘you need to get together with xx as you’ll be good together’ but we need to be mindful about doing that one thing. That’s how we change the world.

Paul
Absolutely. Simone, it’s been a real pleasure to meet you. Hopefully you’ll have lit some fires under our listeners as it’s really motivational to hear you speak. Thank you!

Simone
Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed being part of the podcast and look forward to answering any questions.

Paul
That’s all we’ve got time for from KWIB FM. Tune in next time.

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