The sun was shining as I drove into Liverpool Marina to meet Simone Roche MBE, CEO of Northern Power Women, and for some reason the old saying ‘it’s grim up north’ sprung to mind, although this was not the case that day. In terms of employment, wealth and opportunity, the north of England has suffered when compared to the south. I wondered if it was her positive, sunny outlook and resolute attitude that was fundamental to Roche’s success.
Roche describes her childhood as no different to any other of her peers – loving parents and family days and although an only child she was part of a larger extend family with lots of cousins, family days out, something many of us will relate to. Although Roche describes herself as ‘not being the school’s greatest academic’ she had a love of maths and languages.
Although the school attended by Roche was quite disciplined this does not appear to have driven her to conform to the usual route of secondary education. Being intrepid she was looking for an adventure and settled on the Royal Navy.
“I was motivated by looking for an adventure. I was finished with the standard academia and I wasn’t inspired to go off and look at degrees. I was just 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 thought I’d go and have a look 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, warm and welcoming.”
You need to have experienced going through a recruitment and passing out process to fully understand the positive effect it can have. It builds a pride in the service in which you serve, an appreciation of the legacy that has gone before and your part in the continued future. This all changes you as a person and your outlook and your belief in your own ability. Then there is the excitement of a job that is different to the normal 9-5 commute and that offers the opportunity to see the world. From talking to Roche this clearly shaped her and brought her natural leadership qualities to the
“I felt like I fitted and that there was so much I could be involved with. I felt like I became me. It was a place that whether you wanted to play sport or whether you wanted to give your liver a battering, whatever it may be, then there were opportunities to experience. It was different learning and I absolutely relished it. I definitely felt that sense of belonging. 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. For me, making the decision at 17 was just the best thing I could have done.
My work ethic has always been pretty high and that 100% comes from the Royal Navy. 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.”
Attitudes to what is acceptable with regards gender equality has changed even since the 1980s when Roche joined the Navy. At the time Roche was a rating, women made up 6% of naval rating personnel and despite the macho reputation of the armed forces, Roche did not recollect being discriminated against because of her gender. It may also be that growing up in Liverpool in the 70s she was conditioned to stick up for herself. Either way it does not seem to have held her back.
“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’. I think the northern factor helps, we talk about this being resilience now but I kind of think that I found my way.”
Life in the Forces was clearly suiting Roche and her ability was not going unnoticed. We all need a sponsor in our career to spot our potential and help us succeed further. For Roche it was her commanding officer who could see she had what it takes and persuaded her to take a commission and become an officer. At the time this would have taken courage and a lot of self-belief as only 1% of officers in the Royal Navy were female.
“My commanding officer at the time thought that I had potential. Many times he suggested that I should ‘have my papers raised’ – become an officer – 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. 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 when I became an officer it was at the point of transition when girls became sea-going and I passed out as a sea-going officer. 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.”
Despite relishing her life, now as a commissioned officer and having specialised as traffic controller, at the age of 25 Roche had one eye on the future. She knew that she wanted another career outside of the Royal Navy but had a concern that if she extended the period she had signed up for, which would be another 5 years, that at the age of 30 she may be considered too old by some employers. Being a woman of action Roche made the decision to leave the Royal Navy aged 25 to pursue a new career, a new adventure.
“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. 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 horse racing 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 working for the catering organisation ended up 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.”
This marked a period where Roche was extremely successful in the events and hospitality sector and was getting noticed for her work and she ended up being headed hunted to work for the Liverpool Arena. Opportunity came knocking again when People First, a research and skills organisation recruited Roche into a head of development role, and whilst this was a different challenge to the work she had been doing, it was not something that fazed her – say yes, work it out later. Roche clearly did work it out as two and half years into this employment she was promoted to Director.
In September 2011 opportunity visited Roche yet again – the 2012 Olympic games were not far away and being well qualified in this sector, she took up the role as Client Services Manager for Transport.
“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. My role was 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!
This can be challenging because they are big sponsors you are dealing with and you’re having to say “well, you know, this is London and it 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.”
With the very successful 2012 Olympics done, People First asked Roche if she would like to take up the position of Director on Women 1st an initiative borne out of the Lord Davies Report to look at what could be done to increase the under representation of women at board level. The initiative saw the development of the Women 1st network, events, programmes including the Women 1st Conference and Shine Awards. Up until this point Roche had not been aware of the issues which certainly had not impacted her career.
Having attended events looking to address the issue, it became clear to Roche there were no men at the events, which were in danger of being consider echo chambers. Roche’s initial reaction was to spin this around to find the positives and ask of herself, what it was that she could do, what value and difference could she bring. This was the beginnings of her journey to help address gender inequality.
“52% of women were in our 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. So I went to the first event and it was from there 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%? I wanted to really try and utilise the platform to be able to do more; it’s not just about having a networking event, 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 embraced that.
Other opportunities followed when Roche was contacted by Ruth Shaw with the idea of creating a platform where women can speak and share transformational journeys, the skills, tools and equipment they use to break through barriers, cross thresholds or bridge the gap between where they were and where they want to be – Tedx Whitehall Women took place on 12 December 2012.
“It was a definite ‘say yes’ moment. Ruth Shaw, now a great friend contacted me out of the blue saying ‘tell me about this Women 1st – and have you got time for a coffee? So we met for a coffee and 45 minutes later, Ruth had shared with me her thoughts about creating a Tedx. I think it was six months later that we produced the first Tedx Whitehall Women.
I’ve got a massive passion for giving people a stage, amplifying voices and giving people an opportunity to talk about something slightly differently. Ted talks take them out of their comfort zone as the talks go global. We did Tedx Whitehall Women for five years at the Foreign Office, BAFTA and HMS Presidents, it was brilliant.”
Addressing the issues around gender inequality was now well and truly kindled within Roche with the work done for Women 1st unbeknown to her, paving the way for Northern Power Women. Following a conversation with a friend who was running the 2014 Liverpool International Business Festival with weeks of events going on. Roche persuaded him to put gender on the agenda and created a fact based event called ‘Inspiring the economy’.
“I had a conversation with an old friend and he was running the festival, I asked “so, what’s this festival?” and he asked, “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.
We created an event within the festival called “Inspiring the economy” and booked some of the most amazing speakers and advocates as it was the first time I’d done something outside of London. I thought this was a great opportunity within this festival to plant these ideas. That’s exactly what happened; it did plant ideas and what came out 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.”
Northern Power Women has been hard at work championing female talent now for four and a half years. It continues to raise the profile of women with its ‘future list’ where each year representatives are added from all backgrounds, all sectors and socio-economic groups to shine a light on some amazing young role models.
Last year Roche created Northern Power Futures the aim being to have conversations with male as well as female leaders based around 2 x 2-day festivals in Manchester and Newcastle. The premise of which was “what does the future of the North look like for those who are going to lead and work there?”. What is interesting here is how Roche has moved the events away from gender, yet is still able to influence the gender inequality issue.
“To be honest, I will have achieved all I want to achieve with Northern Power Women when it doesn’t exist. We have only a quarter of Footsie 250 companies outside of London. It’s important that we 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 a platform like this. I want to change the geography of where the conversations are coming from, I want spokespeople from northern businesses to be heard.”
Roche received an MBE in the 2018 Queens Birthday Honours list for services to gender equality and as an ex-military person, educated in the history of the service she served as part of the recruitment training process and the links the Royal Family have to the military, this would have been a very special and well deserved day indeed.
Who knows if and when the likes of Northern Power Women or Key Women in Business will start to decline due to greater equality between genders. Whilst getting to this point in the future most certainly requires addressing gender equality with our children at home and school, there is work to be done with the current captains of industry, politicians and leaders. One thing that I think Roche recognised early on which may go all the way back to her naval career and the sponsorship she got from her commanding officer, is that to effect change it requires dialogue between both genders. Avoiding echo chambers and creating events such as Northern Power Futures would seem the best way to break down glass ceilings and barriers to gender equality.
Key Women in Business Magazine