Coffee With

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    Coffee with Kate O'Brien - a business leader driven to develop business in the not for profit sector see more

    Coffee with Kate O'Brien

    Kate O’Brien, one of our newest members, is the Director of Business Development and Programmes at Grandparents Plus, the national charity working for grandparents and relatives raising children who aren’t able to live with their parents (aka kinship carers). Kate has worked for a range of organisations in the non-profit sector – she is driven and passionate about important causes.


    You are experienced operating in complex organisations, driving transformation–what key skill do you attribute your success to?

    I worked at Save the Children for 11 years, which involved lots of international travel and a variety of different roles, challenges and opportunities. I’ve worked on mergers in other organisations and been involved in numerous organisational change processes. Putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes in order to negotiate successfully is absolutely key and I use the WEB model (‘want to get, expect to get, better get’) in negotiating - so simple but effective. This is something I learnt from Leyla Gilbey– a fellow CWN member and Events Strategy Committee member –my boss almost 20 years ago! I would also add that determination is fundamental – don’t give up!


    You have a successful career in the non-profit sector – what did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?

    I really wanted to be a diplomat or a spy- the seed was sown in my childhood watching James Bond movies with my Dad! I became a member of Amnesty International, age 11 and wrote regularly to various governments around the world to campaign for the release of those unjustly imprisoned. I represented St Kitts and Nevis in a Junior Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in my teens and then went on to study International Studies with French at the University of Birmingham and later worked at the European Parliament in Brussels. However, I soon realised I was too non-conformist to work in the civil service!


    You are currently a Director at Grandparents Plus and have worked across the not for profit sector, what is your biggest challenge in your current role?

    Part of my job is to generate income from local authorities, which is a huge challenge in the current economic climate of austerity and budget cuts. I was brought in to diversify our business model, which was heavily dependent on grants from trusts and foundations. Income from local authorities grew from zero to around 15 per cent of our total budget last year by focusing on the economic case for investing in the service we offer; the improved outcomes for children in kinship care in addition to the potential cost savings. This year income from local authorities has increased by 64%.


    What is the best decision you have made in your career?

    I was working at Cancer Research UK and had a place to do a Masters at the London School of Economics in Human Rights. However, I was offered a maternity cover role as North London Manager at Save the Children. I decided to take a risk and defer my place at LSE and go for the Save the Children role, despite it only being a short-term contract, as it was an organisation I’d always dreamed of working for. I was there for 11 years, having a wide range of roles and opportunities and travelling all over the world.


     … and the worst decision you have made?

    I know it sounds cliché but I genuinely don’t think there are ‘worst’ decisions as all decisions offer learning opportunities. I think there are tough decisions – one was when I was offered the opportunity to take up a senior role as part of the emergency response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. However, I knew I wanted to start a family and that it was not the right time for me to spend a long period in that kind of environment. My daughter Rosa was born the following year so it was worth the sacrifice. I do think it’s important for organisations to acknowledge that women have to consider things that men never do and also for women to know that it’s ok to put their home life first sometimes and that they can still have a successful career. 


    CWN has members who are currently in the early stage of their executive careers – what advice would you give them and your younger self?

    Look for opportunities for growth and development outside of your workplace. Meeting people from other organisations or other walks of life can be so enriching, both personally and professionally. For example, I’m a governor at a local primary school, a mentor with the Aspire Foundation and a member of the Events Strategy Committee with CWN. I’ve learnt so much from all of these and have also met some really inspiring people. At the same time, look after yourself both physically and mentally. I had breast cancer six years ago when I was pregnant with my son Felix and it’s made me really appreciate lots of things about being alive. Make sure you invest time in a few very good friends – those you can truly depend on if the bleep hits the fan. 


    What do you think women can do to help other women in their careers?

    Join CWN! I think we have enough additional challenges as females in the workplace so I strongly encourage women to support others rather than see them as a threat. One thing I love about CWN is a genuine supportive energy, which I sensed from the outset - when attending a new members’ breakfast. Helen Bunker was sitting next to me and we’re now on the Events Strategy Committee together and recently were fortunate to benefit from a pro bono communications skills workshop, which Helen kindly hosted. Valeria Rosa and Barbara Cremer also attended the workshop and we’re in the process of reviewing each other’s LinkedIn profiles. So helpful!


    Do you think that business could do more to support the non-profit sector and if so how? 

    Absolutely! There is so much scope for greater collaboration between the corporate and not-for-profit sectors. Companies often tend to partner with large charities, but I would encourage City firms to support smaller charities where funds are sometimes more gratefully received. I’ve worked for both large and small charities and know that corporate funding can make a huge impact with smaller not-for-profits. It’s great that CWN is supporting Haven House. Non-financial support can be hugely valuable, such as pro bono advice or expertise or volunteering to be a trustee - the treasurer on our Board at Grandparents Plus is a partner at EY. Businesses can help to raise awareness of key issues with their staff, such as kinship care, which is largely invisible despite three times the number of children growing up with relatives or friends in kinship care than in foster care. In London, there are 30,000 children growing up in kinship care – 20 per cent of the national total.


    What would be your favourite place to have a coffee in London and with whom? 

    It would have to be Berners Tavern in the London Edition. I absolutely love the room with all the paintings on the wall. The wealth of amazing eateries makes me so proud to be a Londoner. It would be with Rosa Parks, whom my daughter is named after. Rosa Parks is often known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ - I love her famous phrase: ‘Each person must live their life as a model for others’.

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    This coffee packs a punch! see more

    Coffee with Karen Thomas-Bland 

    Karen Thomas-Bland is an international Board Level Advisor, Non-Executive Director and Chair with over 22 years’ experience as a strategy and transformation specialist in professional services including EY, IBM, Accenture and KPMG. Karen joined CWN in April 2019 and currently has a portfolio career including NED/Chair, interim and consulting roles alongside Angel investing in scale-up Technology companies which pursue profit alongside a positive social impact.


    Your areas of expertise include creating growth strategies and international expansion. Where did you learn your ‘craft’?

    If I was to define my craft its really about helping organisations create break-through strategies, transforming their operating models and growing revenue and equity value. I do this through Non-Executive Director, Chair, Consulting and Interim Executive roles. Having a portfolio career means keeping re-applying your skills to an ever-changing series of challenges. Aside from formal training, I learn and hone my craft through gaining a broad set of experiences – I have consulted in over 100 companies, collaborating with a broad network of people with very different backgrounds and skill sets and being committed to life-long learning through taking classes, courses and being part of networks with different focus areas.


    You have had a successful career across many large organisations – what did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?

    Growing up, I was fascinated with human behaviour which led me to declare pretty early on that I wanted to be a Psychologist. I followed that initial passion through, and my first career was as a Business Psychologist. I have pivoted several times from Psychologist to Management Consultant focused on Transformation to Corporate Strategy, Commercial Director, Managing Director and then to a Portfolio Board career. It’s probably fair to say I thrive on change!


    You are currently advising boards as both a Non-Exec Director and in a consulting capacity – what are you most proud of in your career?

    A couple of things stand out. First, building a new consulting and data analytics business to £500m turnover. I scaled the business in 180 geographic markets which was a big challenge. Second my passion is working with technology entrepreneurs to scale their businesses, which is hugely rewarding. I am proud of all of them for having the vision, passion and conviction to grow their businesses.


    What is the best decision you have made for your career?

    The best decision I have made was transitioning from Executive to a Portfolio Career. I really enjoy going into organisations for a defined period of time, adding significant value and leaving the them with measurable outcomes aligned to their objectives. Being portfolio has enabled me to deliver transformational, high impact assignments across the globe on my own terms. 


     … and the worst decision you have made?

    I don’t regret any of my decisions because they were always a balance between heart and head – was I passionate about it and would it bring me value. If I was starting out again, I would put even more effort into building and nurturing my network early on. It’s no secret that great leaders are super well networked and connected. I would also always say yes to a coffee. It can be hard when you are time pressured, but it feels good to help someone and you never know where conversations and connections can lead. Finally, the one I’ve always tried to stick by is remaining relevant, which becomes even more challenging with the pace of technological change. 


    CWN has members who are currently in the early stage of their executive careers – what advice would you give them and your younger self?

    First, it sounds cliched but do what you love doing and what you feel really passionate about. If you wake up feeling energised and inspired, it makes a huge difference. Second, think about yourself as a brand – what is your unique value proposition, how do you articulate it and how will you differentiate yourself from the competition? Then protect your brand by always delivering a stellar job. 

    Third, build yourself a great network in and outside of your organisation, you need advocates, champions and sponsors. I do believe women are over mentored and under sponsored – find someone who has the power to make things happen for you. Seek people out too who will give you really honest feedback to accelerate your development. Finally, take on big roles and set big goals for yourself, even if you don’t believe you are quite ready.


    What do you think women can do to help other women in their careers?

    We need to champion women much more. We need more women on boards, in senior leadership roles, as entrepreneurs and investors. If in a corporate role we need to look for the next women coming up to sponsor and champion them, if we are on a Board, we need to advocate the benefits for other women joining, and diversity generally. We need to influence women Angel Investors, Venture Capitalists and Private Equity investors to invest in and champion women backed businesses and as women investors we need to invest in women founded businesses. Change is happening but the pace is far too slow.


    You have lived and worked across the world – which city or country did you enjoy the most and why?

    I have loved living and working in all the cities I have been fortunate to be based out of, but New York probably edges it for me. The city has a dynamism and energy that makes working their exciting and has the feeling of endless possibilities. It also suits my own personal work style which is fast paced and focussed on getting things done!


    What would be your favourite place to have a coffee in London and with whom? 

    My favourite place for a coffee is the café in Regents Park on a Sunday morning. I defy anyone to visit their and say London is not a friendly city. Borrowing a dog helps as other dog walkers are the friendliest people you will meet! I would have coffee with Elizabeth Holmes. I have just finished the book ‘Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup’ which covers the rise and fall of the firm Theranos, a multibillion-dollar biotech startup which Elizabeth founded. It’s a fascinating read and full of great lessons for entrepreneurs and investors.


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    Coffee With Alex Downs see more

    Coffee With Alex Downs

    Alex Downs is a senior consultant at Milltown Partners and an active member of City Women Network for over 4 years; making significant contributions to its Communications team. Milltown are a global advisory firm working with organisations and individuals on the communications and public policy challenges that define their reputations.


    Tell us what you do and what do you love about your job?
    I’m a strategic communications consultant. I work with clients, mostly large or mid-size companies, on issues related to their reputation.

    I love the diversity of the work - no one day is ever the same. And I’ve been lucky enough to work with (and learn from) a very diverse group of clients over the years and some wonderful colleagues.


    You’re 31 years old now – what did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?

    When I was really little, I loved the idea of being an actress or a singer. Then I decided I wanted to be film director – I think part of me secretly still wants to be one... I was always fascinated by all the behind the scenes work that goes into film projects. 

    You’ve been working over 10 years now – what has been most fulfilling in your career so far?

    The strong working relationships I’ve built with my clients and colleagues over the years. I really enjoy working with people, so consulting has been a great fit in that respect, and I love the amount of teamwork involved in the day-to-day work.

    I also enjoy when I’m able to help connect people from different facets of my life – whether its connecting friends to CWN, the Junior League of London (a charity I’m involved with) or through work. I was actually introduced to CWN in 2015 by a friend who was on the Board at the time and I’ve been really thankful to have the opportunity to work with such impressive women. It definitely proves the value of networks.

    What is the best decision you have made for your career?

    This might be a bit of an unusual answer, but when I look back, one of the best decisions I made was to start learning German when I was in high school. I had an incredible German teacher, who encouraged me to continue studying the language through university, which I did. The time I spent after my studies living and working in Germany and with German clients has had a big impact on my personal and professional development, especially in the first few years of my career. And it was a bit of a differentiator when I first started applying for jobs. So it’s a decision I’m very thankful for.


    . … and the worst decision you have made?

    Probably not having progressed my UK citizenship earlier… I am eligible as I have lived here for so long (my family moved here from the US when I was 9), but it’s one of those things that I’ve always put off until ‘later’. Reminds me that I really need to put that back on the top of my to-do list…


    You are involved in the CWN’s own ‘Rising Star Program’ – what advice would you give them and your younger self?

    Listen to your instincts and be as proactive as possible. Be thoughtful about what elements of your job you particularly enjoy – then find opportunities to do more of that type of work. Look for opportunities to give back – either through mentoring, charity work, or by volunteering with organisations that can benefit from your time and experience. Some of my most valuable professional experiences have actually been through working with CWN and charities.

    I also think it’s really important to invest time in networking. It’s sometimes hard to prioritise when life gets busy, but I think it’s increasingly important not only for your career, but also for your own personal development.


     What do you think women can do to help other women in their careers?

    Always be advocates for each other… continue to put forward female colleagues, friends (and even ourselves) for roles, panels, awards, committees – and actively encourage development and promotion of female peers when you have the opportunity.


    What would be your favourite place to have a coffee in London and with whom? 

    Favourite place to have coffee in London would probably be at one of my local cafés, Local Hero or Megan’s in Fulham.

    And with whom – that’s easy – Michelle Obama. I’m a huge admirer of her, as well as her husband. I’m hoping she runs for president in 2020 – maybe instead it could be coffee in situ in the White House.

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    Coffee With Alisa Grafton see more

    Coffee With Alisa Grafton


    Partner at Cheeswrights; City Women Network - Board Member and Communications Chair


    1. How has the incessant digitalisation of everything changed the way you lead your business?

    The legal industry in general is going through some big changes – which while improving efficiency, also pose challenges. I am learning to see technology as a friend and always learning. My motto is “be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still”!


    2. Brexit is a volatile issue for many businesses in the UK and those operating in the City - how do you lead with confidence when there is so much uncertainty?

    You have to focus on opportunities. It is easy to be drawn into the current debate of no deal vs bad deal but in reality there are a lot of lateral solutions to the Brexit conundrum when it comes to business operations in the City. It is crucial to look for opportunities and find innovative solutions – rather than regret what we may have been. 


    3. What do you believe your role is as an influential female in the City in helping other women within the work environment?

    Believing that you can and giving things a go is my modus operandi. I don’t always get things right – in fact I fail more often than I succeed – but a healthy degree of gumption is often powerful enough to move you in the right direction and, hopefully, inspire others along the way. Let your light shine and watch others do the same.


    4. What would most of your colleagues be surprised to know about you?

    I love doing art projects with my young daughter. It is me, not her, who is usually covered in glue and up to my elbows in paint – nothing glamorous, in short. I also love dabbling in most sports, being master of none!


    5. The inclusion journey has seen some key milestones e.g. reporting of gender pay gap and the increased enrolment of CEOs committing to a 30% target. What do you see as the role of women leaders in the City in furthering progress?

    We need to lead not by emulating male colleagues but by using the skills that come naturally to us, as women. Whether you are outspoken or shy, it needs to be a given that women’s voice is as powerful as that of men. Role models from a range of confident women with different leadership styles set inspiring examples for all.


    6. What would be your favourite place to have a coffee in London and with whom? 

    Nothing beats an unhurried coffee at the weekends – so I would say anywhere quiet chewing the cud with my husband

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    Coffee With Roz Morris see more

    Coffee With Roz Morris

    1. How do you think the digital revolution will change the way your business works?

    Following a career as a journalist and broadcaster, I run a business specialising in communications in business - media training, presentation training and public relations.  These are all contact sports, and I think there will always need to be contact between real people to improve their performance in practical ways.

    However, we are already providing more training for clients abroad via Skype and other forms of video conferencing. Plus the demands of being able to use Facebook Live like a professional broadcaster are also growing.

    So yes the digital revolution will bring changes in skills required for businesspeople to use the media – both in its traditional and digital forms. Social media and digital communications in general have already changed all concepts of privacy and built up the need for creating personalities and exposing the lives of celebrities as drivers of sales. So I think we are deep into the cult of human personalities and a long way from Max Headroom and AI interviewers interviewing AI interviewees.


    2. Brexit will have a big impact on jobs in the City - how do you lead with confidence when there are so many unanswered questions?

    I believe Brexit will change the landscape of where the City sits in the global financial world to some extent, but, as we have already seen, the City of London has a very strong place as a global financial centre and evidence is growing that it will maintain that. I am also confident that, whatever the shape of Brexit, the City will invent new ways of making a lot of money. It always does.


    3. What do you believe your role is as an influential  female in the City in helping other women within the work environment?

    As I am now in my sixties, I feel very strongly that we are now finally at a point of historic change where women are revealing the extent of sexual harassment and are determined to change the culture permanently.  We all thought we were doing our bit on this decades ago but it now seems that, despite lots of real practical progress in defeating sexism,  like being taxed in our own right even when married, gaining access to jobs previously closed to us, and no longer getting letters addressed to Dear Sir etc.. sexual harassment has just gone on and on.  So, we must make sure that women are ready now always to tell men to back off and to own and use the power now being offered to them of being able to name and shame.


    4. What would most of your colleagues be surprised to know about you?

    I’ve been a vegetarian for forty years and I think meat eaters now have a duty to  cut back on animal protein and therefore cut down the huge methane emissions from cows and pigs which are adding to global warming. The reckless consumption of intelligent animals is causing huge problems in terms of global warming, the cutting down of rainforests, cruelty to animals and the health links between stomach cancer and eating large amounts of red meat.  So the sooner people give up or cut down on eating what I call primitive protein the better it will be for all of us.  


    5. What would be your favourite place to have a coffee in London and with who?

    My favourite place to have a coffee is at the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall.  It’s great for informal business meetings as there’s always lots of positive energy and an optimistic buzz of business being created all around you.  I always find it an inspiring place to be.  

    I’d love to have a coffee there with James Dyson and hear his views on his new university for engineers, his new electric car, and on the huge opportunities for international trade after Brexit.  As he’s a billionaire expert on global trade, I think, in our current circumstances, we should all be listening to him.


    Roz Morris is Managing Director of TV News London Ltd and was Vice President of CWN from 2008-2010.