When I became a teacher 40 years ago I thought it would be my life’s work. I loved it. But after 12 years I entered the world of business. I would never had done this had my friend, whose business it was, not seen something in me that I didn’t see myself. For this I am eternally grateful and I have tried in my own life to do the same for both women and men. The ministry of encouragement is under-rated. At the start my friend, also then my boss, could not afford to pay me much so I starting learning my new trade as a training designer, alongside work as a supply teacher. I hated the latter. I’d come from a comprehensive school in a working class suburb of Manchester, where the children were friendly, receptive and respectful. I went to a community school where staff were addressed by their first names, there was no school uniform and bad behaviour was tolerated. I had every incentive to make a success of my new career.
My friend and I worked on the premise that ‘women in business do things differently’ and in most respects we did. We started from a kitchen table and grew, in staff and revenue, very fast. We had to, to be successful at a time when business was still largely ‘a man’s world’. At the start we sold to men but employed women. This was our attempt to redress the balance. Our employment practices were quirky, innovative and mainly worked well. We were the first UK company to employ a company nanny. Staff received generous pay and benefits. Many worked from home. We were understanding and flexible employers. As this was the era when employers were encouraging mothers to go back to work we were able to translate some our own policies into training and innovative working practices for large organisations. We wrote management books together, our reputation grew. Working to ridiculous deadlines to maintain our market edge, we would be in the office weekends and holidays, five small daughters in tow, generating more ideas than we could realise, but it was fun, fun, fun. We thrived in an atmosphere of creative chaos.
Then it started to go wrong. For me. I began to feel trapped. I wanted to make changes but it wasn’t my company. We employed senior people on high salaries who didn’t deliver. Large company people can’t always function in a small company where there is nowhere to hide. And where you have to do your own admin, make your own lunches and photocopy your own stuff. We had a male non executive director, successful in his own field, who referred to me and my team as ‘the factory’. We were churning out the work to meet high revenue targets. It was relentless, just too much. I started to feel undervalued and found it difficult to make my voice heard. Hard to imagine now as I was working with my best friend. So I took the decision to leave and we drifted apart. This caused a rift between our families who had always spent weekends, holidays and many days together.
Ten years later I met my friend at the local railway station, both on our way to London. Wary at first, we rebuilt the relationship, realising how much we had missed one another. We have had various discussions about working together again. So far it hasn’t happened. Twenty five years on things would be different. I think.