Month: February 2022

“Does your dad want to accompany you next time?”

In conversation with Julie Perkins, Founder of Wyseminds (purpose-led growth for female entrepreneurs).

An entrepreneur I supported went to venture capitalists and they asked her if she wanted her dad to accompany her on the next visit.” The words of Julie Perkins, Founder of Wyseminds – that supports female entrepreneurs. As part of our Power of Women series, Julie talks about being a senior leader in optometry, the gender lens and why the focus now needs to be on balancing masculine and feminine traits within us all.

Q. How does Wyseminds support women entrepreneurs in growing their business?

Julie: In the world of small businesses, we can get ourselves into a situation where it just doesn’t feel right. It’s not moving forward and growth is inhibited. So, I look at what the blocks are that can be smashed down, to release women with SMEs into their next part of their growth journey. It only takes about three months and it’s hugely liberating and enjoyable.

Q. Why are no men allowed?

Julie: To be clear, there are men in the Wyseminds’ expert mix! But, let’s be real: there are still some big barriers for women entrepreneurs. When it comes to raising investment, for example. An entrepreneur I’ve supported was finalising an investment agreement with a venture capitalist group and they asked her if she wanted her dad to accompany her next time for the details! Of course, this story – although frighteningly real – is hopefully not the norm. And yet, it is a reminder to me that we must seek change in the whole process. Not having access to investment is a problem, but the cause is shared. That’s where I position Wyseminds – to uplift and ensure that entrepreneurs can see themselves and their ideas beyond the bootstrapping stage. This opens up confidence and potential – in an ongoing, sustainable way. 

If we continue to encourage and support successful entrepreneurship and good ideas only with the intention to seek and celebrate unicorns, the feeder pot will be too small. If we want to make change, perhaps the incubators and accelerators that say they are not getting enough female entrepreneurs through their doors should ask different questions (rather than assuming they don’t exist). Why aren’t they knocking on our door?  What barriers do we have in our process that only serve the past. And how can we be more attractive in the future? As for the need for the dad to attend? I suppose in a way he did – he’s a taxi driver, so he dropped her off!

Q. Are gender lenses perpetuating a culture of differentiation?

Julie: There’s a huge gap for female entrepreneurs and we can’t shy away from that. I often hear from women that they didn’t get the funding they needed. Or from the incubators and accelerators that there aren’t many women even going into that environment. We encourage women to grow on their own terms, but also be confident to take leaps. There are masculine and feminine traits within us all – which have nothing to do with being a woman or a man. Wyseminds’ celebrates more ‘feminine’ traits – like broader viewpoints and intuition – and supports them with more ‘masculine’ tools – to structure the business processes to make sure the broader view is channelled and supported effectively. Success is often about balance. When masculine and feminine traits dance together, this is the ideal. And it’s when boardrooms or operations teams perform at their best. Mutual appreciation and respect; masculine and feminine. And when we understand that picture, maybe we can understand each other a bit more – and create a culture with less gender differentiation.

Q. Before Wyseminds, you opened up and ran Specsavers in the Netherlands…

Julie: The Netherlands was the first jurisdiction outside the mothership of the UK. Every day was an adventure because it was all new, working with great people and learning so much of what not to do, as much as what to do. And that forms the basis of Wyseminds. If I could have shortened that learning curve of what it was like to have that start up and grow a brand in a very competitive environment, it would have brought me greater joy and freedom. That’s what I am now passing on to other female entrepreneurs. I’m still involved in Specsavers, but my internal voice was definitely telling me it was time to turn on an additional new channel.

Q. What was it like being in charge of a start-up?

Optometry was historically a very male profession. My mother was one of two women in the whole of her optometry course at university in 1966. That’s not that long ago! And yet now, optometry is brilliant for women and it’s a very mixed environment. At Specsavers Netherlands, we had a very female orientated board (60/40). But if I’m honest, as a woman leading a partnership of 1,000 people, if I look back, I think there were definitely times when I didn’t have the confidence to speak with my true voice. I had believed that it meant sounding like how others wanted me to. Or saying what I thought I needed to say through the prism of other perspectives. And that’s when a misalignment with values can happen. I’ve been lucky to have people around me in my career that have supported me in finding my true voice. 

Q. How can we #BreakTheBias (the theme of International Women’s Day this year)?

Julie:The challenge is vast. However, we have to take steps where we have the power to influence. If everybody is responsible for taking a step, no matter how small, and changing the bit that they can influence, change will follow. Will you ever be without gender bias? Unlikely. But, in terms of welfare, rights and equality, we all need to be striving for better. It’s like my work with female entrepreneurs. I put 12 entrepreneurs back out in the world stronger last year – is that going to make the world more equal?  Not really. But, if many people take similar small steps, that’s when you feel the ripple effects. And I’d rather be a part of the formula that’s trying to make a difference, every day – because only then, change can happen and the bias truly be broken. 

EMPOWERING WOMEN TO BE LEADERS OF THEIR OWN CHANGE

Rheeana lives in a small village in Bangladesh, where she’s achieved momentous change. She’s stopped dozens of child marriages in her area – in a country with one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. How? Thanks to the collaborative power of women and her training with The Hunger Project – an organisation committed to the sustainable end to world hunger. After learning that early marriage could be detrimental to society, Rheeana decided to take matters into her own hands – with an attempt to stop the marriage of her 12-year-old cousin.

“Rheeana went to her family first, but they ignored her,” says Manda Lakhani, Trustee and Acting CEO of The Hunger Project UK. “The Imam said he couldn’t do anything. So, she went straight to the police with women in her self-help group. Going to the police in Bangladesh is quite a serious business. But, Rheeana went with twelve women to the station and said ‘We won’t leave until you stop this’ – and they won their fight; the marriage did not go ahead. It was down to sheer perseverance and tenacity, thanks to a new sense of confidence that the women had discovered together. Over the following two years, Rheeana stopped dozens of child marriages.”

From marginalised to micro financiers

Rheeana and her cohort have been on an extraordinary journey. Like many women in poorer parts of the world, they’re fighting circumstance and history: two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are female. Of the millions of young children not in school, the majority are girls. Women bear almost all responsibility for meeting basic needs of the family, yet are systematically denied the resources, information and freedom of action they need to fulfil this responsibility.

With this in mind, a key strategy of The Hunger Project is to train women into leadership in Southeast Asia, Africa and South and Central America. And it does so with its Vision, Commitment & Action workshops. During these courses, Rheeana and her peers learnt about creating their own microfinance to build businesses.

“Each woman was asked to take a fist full of rice at a meal time each day,” explains Manda Lakhani. “It was a lot to give up, but these women were prepared to do that. At their weekly meetings, they’d put their rice into a bucket as a membership fee. Then they’d take it to sell at the market to create a fund that could be lent to each member. In this way, they built up their own microfinance, their own seed capital, so they could go on to start their own businesses. Rheeana bought two chickens and sold the eggs to repay the capital. Then she got a cow and a pig – and created a small livestock farm.”

Confidence and creativity, self-reliance and sufficiency

Empowerment, it seems, opens the floodgates to transformative change, with self-reliance being the pivotal abilities that Rheeana and her collective learnt. Not only that, but also an instilled confidence in themselves that fuelled creativity and entrepreneurship.

Self-sufficiency is at the core of The Hunger Project’s beliefs and is reflected in its work in 13 different countries. And it’s clearly a strategy that’s working, with an impressive 16 million people reached and counting during the charity’s forty year history. It’s Acting CEO emphasises that it’s not about outsiders swooping in and imposing change:

“We give people a hand up. That’s really critical, because it means no one is relying on the handouts of others, that may not always be there. We work with communities, where people have been born into adversity, to give them leadership skills so they can make the changes needed themselves. An empowered woman can have an impact on many, many people around her, not just her family.”

The power of many

A group of women, therefore, has the potential to change the lives of hundreds. The power of many at its best – moving from “I can’t” to a “We can” mindset. There are lessons for us all to learn here – from creating seed capital, to entrepreneurship and starting businesses, to working together collectively and collaboratively. And above all, understanding that we all are leaders of our own change.

If you’ve been inspired by Rheeana’s story, please do learn more about The Hunger Project and donate to its fantastic work empowering women and communities across the world.

Blood, sweat and tears

If there is one topic of conversation that is guaranteed to clear a room, it is female bodily functions. In fact, that opening line has probably just sent a whole host of – forgive my assumption – male readers scurrying for the proverbial hills with their hands over their ears. Women, however, have been dealing with this for most of our lives; from the minute we get our first periods, in fact.

Who can forget those excruciating conversations with form teachers as we asked to be excused from P.E or simply to go to the loo at an awkward time? Blood rushing to our cheeks in embarrassment as it also rushed somewhere else much less desirable. Sadly, even when we finally get to bid menstruation farewell once and for all, we are faced with yet another curve ball from Mother Nature. Yes, ladies and gentlemen (still with me?), I’m talking about the menopause and popping a couple of paracetamol just doesn’t cut it.

A deluge of symptoms

Hot flushes, depression, anxiety, mood swings, brain fog, joint pains, insomnia, sneezing… the list of symptoms goes on and on. Well, up to 48, actually, and I haven’t even got on to – cue hushed tones – loss of libido or vaginal dryness… In other words, for most of us the menopause is pants.

Thanks to the likes of broadcasters Davina McCall and Mariella Frostrup, it has at least made it on to our TV screens, but when it comes to the office or – heavens forbid – the boardroom, accommodating ‘women of a certain age’ is still in its infancy. Which is pretty shocking when you think about it because, after all, roughly half the world’s population experiences symptoms and for every male CEO there is surely a mother, or a wife, or a daughter, a sister or even a friend going through hell. But, with negative attitudes towards female hormones deeply ingrained in society, perhaps not surprising. It isn’t that long ago since menopausal women were packed off to asylums to treat their hysteria.

Invisible & irrelevant

According to white paper The Invisibility Report, a survey of 2000 women aged 35-60, commissioned by advice hub, gen-m.com  41% of UK women going through the menopause feel ‘lonely, invisible, irrelevant and dispensable’. A staggering 88% of them would like workplaces better set up, with their employers willing to listen and support them.

And with a Government report on the subject confirming that the fastest growing demographic in the workplace is – yes, you’ve guessed it – menopausal women, there’s no time like the present.

A societal problem

But, this isn’t just a male problem. We women need to be brave enough to start the discussion ourselves, not only with our friends, or our sisters or our daughters but with colleagues too. Being menopausal is not a disease and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. As Sam Simister, co-founder of gen-m.com, says ‘this is a societal challenge, not a gender challenge’. By 2025, there will be 1 billion women going through the menopause globally. That’s a lot of rampaging hormones and we owe it to each other to end the taboo. Period.

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