Issue 6 - Women 1st

Simone Roche

Mrs Motivator. Simone Roche’s enthusiasm for her work at Women 1st is infectious, finds Mel Flaherty. “My husband thinks I secretly work for MI5,” laughs Simone Roche, about her weekly commute from their houseboat in Liverpool to London. “And my family think I have an easy time, just swanning around and meeting people for a chat.”

In truth, Roche’s role as Director of Women 1st, the not for-profit initiative created by People 1st, the sector skills council for the visitor economy, is neither as mysterious or relaxing as her nearest and dearest suspect. During her one or two days a week in the capital, it’s not unusual for Roche to schedule in as many as nine meetings, whether to scout out potential venues or to persuade inspirational people to speak at the many events she “curates”. It’s all part of her mission to help women in these industries to achieve their career ambitions and to increase their numbers in boardrooms, by showcasing positive female role models.

A diverse role

Not that she is complaining: “I love it,” she insists with such genuine and infectious enthusiasm, as is constantly evident when she discusses her whole career, that it is easy to see why she has been so successful in persuading high profile figures from sectors as diverse as retail to banking to support the cause.

Speakers at the 2013 Women 1st Conference included Susan Gambardella, Vice President, Global Account team for Coca-Cola Refreshments, MP Margaret Hodge and Jill Easterbrook, director of developing businesses at Tesco. And it’s not just other women who she’s convinced to back the drive to increase gender diversity in the workplace. Men regularly come along to the networking events and the annual Shine awards, which celebrate the top 100 most influential women in the industry, plus the organisation’s Leadership Council includes David Fairhurst of McDonald’s Restaurants and Sean Wheeler of The Dorchester Collection. “We’re not about burning our bras and defacing effigies of men. We only do that on Wednesdays,” Roche jokes.

In all seriousness, she stresses that Women 1st is not a “girls’ club”. The aim is not to establish an equivalent to the ubiquitous ‘old boys’ network’, rather to provide an opportunity for women to celebrate their own achievements, to enhance their skills through training and to share all this as role models and mentors, thus creating a virtuous circle that encourages females to progress.

Roche says an increasing number of people are recognising the need to empower women to maximise their potential – there is a real business cost when talented women find it too difficult to return to their career after having children, for example. The headline figures are that women make up 60% of the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism workforce, but just 6% of Board positions. One of Women 1st’s aims is to have at least one female candidate on the long list for every Board/executive team position by 2017.

Shining example

Roche wholeheartedly believes the sectors Women 1st represents are in a unique position to be a shining light when it comes to promoting and benefitting from better opportunities for female employees.

“I want our industries to be the leaders in making change, not just following what other industries are doing, and I think we can do that because we [the businesses within the industry] operate across the whole visitor economy and there is such growth,” she explains. Part of the problem, Roche believes, based on the constant research that guides everything Women 1st does, is that certain recruitment and career progression practices have just not moved with the times.

“Even the fact that people are living longer is having an effect – more people are becoming carers of elderly relatives, as well as of children,” she says. “People tend to recruit the way they always have recruited but the world has changed, technology has changed, and you can be more flexible now. Things like the way adverts are written hasn’t changed either, and companies need to think about ways they may have always done things, such as having a meeting after a game of golf, which may be particularly inconvenient for a woman.”

Despite her passion for the subject, Roche herself says she has never felt unable to progress in her career because of her sex, neither does she recall being treated unfairly in the workplace because she is a woman.

This is quite a feat when you consider that she spent the first eight years of her working life in the Royal Navy (there were no family connections, she just got drawn in to the camaraderie, fun and sense of adventure she witnessed on a stand at a careers fair), an institution not necessarily most readily associated with gender diversity. As it was, Roche proved herself and was promoted to the position of officer, “despite being a short Northern girl,” as she puts it. At the ripe old age of 25, at a point when she would either have to sign up for another long period of service or move on, she decided to seize the opportunity to start a new career.

During her time with the Navy, she discovered a talent for and a love of organising events; staging sports tournaments for crews on several ships at the time. Post-Navy, a temp job with Letheby & Christopher, the contract caterer, came up during the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse. She was in her element and eight months after the contract ended leapt at the chance when the racecourse called her directly to offer her a job organising non-racing events, even though the salary was way less than half what she had earned as a Naval Officer.

By the time she left five years later, the half dozen weddings staged annually at the course had risen to 60. Continuing to broaden her experience, Roche then had a five-year stint at Live Nation Theatres selling non-theatre space, before moving on to her next role at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which was a real learning curve. “There was lots to love and lots to be challenged about, being in a family business,” she recalls. “It was like being involved in running a whole town, with a hotel, theatre, engineers, performers….It was really hard work and a big change going from having 80 staff in high season to one out of season.” During the high season, she used to put signs on all the doors leading into the public areas, reminding staff to: “Smile, it’s show time!” It’s a mantra she says she bides by herself, to this day. After three years in Blackpool, Roche was approached to help deliver the ACC Liverpool Arena project in time for the city’s year as European Capital of Culture, but was quickly headhunted by People 1st to help showcase the industry. There was a brief secondment to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, where she helped look after transportation for sponsors – you get the impression this wasn’t quite the challenge she was hoping it would be and that she was more than happy to come back to drive the then freshly funded Women 1st.

She is clearly relishing her job, and indeed her whole life, right now. She has found downsizing from a five-bedroom house to a houseboat (with a time living in a flat to ease the transition), liberating. She and her husband have a medium-term plan to raise the anchor and relocate somewhere on the South coast or maybe Europe. Professionally, she has plenty of events coming up including some related to March’s International Women’s Day with Helen Grant MP; May’s International Women’s Conference in Belfast and June’s Industry Festival of Business, plus she has been invited to the TED Global conference of inspirational speakers in Rio, Brazil in the Autumn, following the TEDx Whitehall Women event she was licensee for in December at BAFTA. She talks just as excitedly about all of this as she does her constant round of meetings with people she is trying to get involved with the work of Women 1st.

“It feels such a privilege to be able to bring such great people to great people – once they see how genuine you are about these issues, it opens the door and they are willing to help.” Conviction and commitment are qualities Roche possesses in spades. It is little wonder the work of Women 1st is gaining such momentum.

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