Written by Mel Whitney-Long

Eye for Ebony

At seven years old I was a tree-climbing, dress-hating, future astronaut. Aged 17 not much had changed. From an early age, both of my parents encouraged me to strive for whatever I wanted to be, whatever I wanted to do. It was well into my adolescence before I even stopped to consider that being a girl – or more accurately not being a boy - might be a barrier in my future. 

Reflecting on my career I have been lucky to have strong female role models to learn from. Watching other women in various leadership positions made me see that being a woman was not a hindrance to my career. I realise this is not the reality for many women. And those that do succeed, are often left battling imposter syndrome. 

I too have struggled feeling like an imposter, and at times have been given some choice pieces of advice, such as that I should act “more like a man” if I wanted to get ahead. What I have learnt however, is that it's my skills and experience that make me a valuable employee. I credit this to the exceptional community of women - and men- at Pilotlight. 

This year, on International Women’s Day, I’m excited to showcase eight exceptional women from Pilotlight’s community of purpose. These eight women were nominated by our staff team members based on their experience of working with them and how they had engaged with our programmes. These eight women leaders also embody Pilotlight’s own values:

  • We bring people together
  • We believe in potential
  • We expect the best.

Abi Olapade, Founder, CEO and Senior Strategic Business Consultant Director of AG-iATM Consulting

Abi is the Founder, CEO and Senior Strategic Business Consultant Director of AG-iATM Consulting. With 25 years’ experience delivering strategic transformation and change initiatives, she decided to pursue Board Trustee roles as part of a Portfolio career. In 2021 she was appointed a trustee of Citizens Advice Redbridge and Aldridge Education Multi-Academy Trust. 

During her time as a Pilotlighter, Abi has shared her skills and knowledge with Build Up Foundation via Pilotlight 360.

After completing a Pilotlight 360 you've now become a trustee. What advice do you have for women looking for board positions?

Discover your “Ikigai” - your unique selling point, what only you can bring to the table. Nurture it and learn to talk about it (in a 45-second elevator pitch or in a 45-minute interview). Take unsuccessful applications or interviews as continuous improvement opportunities. Always request feedback and use it. 

Join networking groups for current and aspiring board members to ask questions, share experiences, and gain insights (Women on Boards is a good one).  Attend related webinars and training sessions to gain further exposure and expand your network of board focussed contacts. 

Become a Pilotlighter to put all you’ve read, heard and talked about into practice while also supporting a cause that you are passionate about. It will definitely be a win-win experience!

Define an inclusive leader - what traits do you think great leaders possess?

I believe that great leaders are people who -

  1. Clearly communicate overall mission objectives and the role each person specifically needs to play to achieve them
  2. Sustain a culture in which life outside of work is encouraged, the term “silly question” does not exist and where people’s protected characteristics are celebrated
  3. Believe that no one should make the same mistakes they did and readily shares their life’s experiences - both good and bad
  4. See no point being at the top if they can’t help others up too. Finds time to build others up - by mentoring, coaching and sponsoring. 

Salma Ravat, founder and Manager of One Roof Leicester

Salma is a founding member of One Roof Leicester (ORL) which started as a networking forum in 2011 and became a registered charity in 2014. 

ORL was set up to identify new and innovative ways of delivering homeless services for single adults in Leicester. In 2013 Salma was employed as the Coordinator and later the Manager.

ORL is a Pilotlight Partner Charity and Salma with her organisation participated in Pilotlight 360

What advice would you give someone to be more inclusive as a leader?

Be authentic. If you want to be an inclusive leader and have an organisation that is inclusive, you must be 100% committed to it. I think it is important to self-reflect and understand your own values and your biases. Being an inclusive leader evolves, there will always be more you can do or change, therefore keep learning and gaining more knowledge. 

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learnt in your career?

As the saying goes, "no man (or woman) is an island" therefore creating a strong, effective and efficient team is vital to success. 

As a manager of a small homelessness charity, it is essential that the whole team works well together and supports each other’s work. If you create a strong bond between the team, through open and honest conversations at work and informal relationship building away from work, you are more likely to have a team that is supportive, flexible and willing to go the extra mile. 

Overall, as a leader, you need to listen, value your team and be willing to ask others for help.

Sarah Cooper, Senior Operations Manager at Barclays

In 2003 Sarah started working in IT, initially this wasn’t a calculated career step but rather an opportunity that came along at the right time and place. After working in a few companies of varying sizes, Sarah arrived at Barclays in 2007 and hasn’t looked back since. 

Working in a large organisation has presented many opportunities. Sarah has now moved away from IT and project management and runs an operation in the banking and data side of the business. 

Sarah is also a Pilotlighter and with six of her colleagues, supported Listening Ear via Pilotlight Insight

How can women leaders overcome imposter syndrome?

Wow, Imposter Syndrome is so real – I have it answering these questions!  

But looking back, I would say that this is something that has developed over time. I never felt it during academic life, nor was it a problem early in my career, so I have to attribute it to the culture in the workplace.  

I would say the best way to reignite your belief in yourself is to help others. Sharing your experience and skills can make you see yourself through another’s eyes – it’s certainly helped me. Working with Listening Ear was a great opportunity to do this.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women leaders?

Change the culture, be authentic.  Imposter Syndrome isn’t a female problem it’s a workplace problem and we need to change the culture in our organisations.  

The world is changing so quickly yet the makeup of boards, CEOs, world leaders doesn’t feel like it’s moved on much from the 20th century. As women leaders we need to continue to push the Diversity &Inclusion agenda and drive change.  

Values are changing and as we put more emphasis on sustainability, ethics and empathy I think that is where women can lead the way.

Gerry Anyanwu, Trustee at Pilotlight

Multi passionate, Gerry has built a Portfolio career that has seen her work at some of the biggest media owners in London. Currently at Global Media as a Client Director, she is enthusiast about creating more purpose-led commercial opportunities within business. 

Alongside her role at Global and as a trustee, she is the co-chair of the ‘Families’ network and supports their RISE (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) staff network. She has a real desire to create an impact in whatever space she is in.

Gerry has been a trustee at Pilotlight since 2021. 

How have you changed as a leader since becoming a trustee?

Becoming a trustee has really supported the view that people are the key to success. As a leader, it has shown me the importance of creating a safe space where you can support people to be their best whilst allowing them to make and learn from their mistakes. The whole process has been rewarding. 

What advice would you give someone to be more inclusive as a leader?

Value cultural and emotional intelligence. The ability to empathise and understand your own privilege will help you become a more inclusive leader. Remember bias is not a bad word, we all have it, so creating a psychologically safe environment, where people can check their biases and thought processes is key.

Pip Dimmock, Manager at Interplay

After having moved to Wales in 2007 and worked at Mencap Cymru, Pip set out to achieve her full potential by enrolling in a Team Leading diploma. 

After completing her studies, Pip joined Interplay (integrated Play & leisure) as Project Coordinator running its 14-25 provision in 2013. Once there, Pip continued her education and completed Level 5 ILM Leadership and Management in 2015. In 2017 Pip took over as the Manager of Interplay.

Interplay is currently part of Pilotlight 360.

What strategies can women use to achieve a more prominent role in their organisations?

For me the biggest issue was self-belief. I spent a large part of my younger years (30’s and early 40’s) believing that everyone else knew so much more than me and that one day someone would notice. Once I started undergoing training, I realised that I knew a lot more than I was giving myself credit for, and began viewing those I had previously been intimidated by as people with flaws too. 

A business (or in my case a charity) needs diversity to develop, thrive and become the best it can be. I find that many women feel that they need to become the 'businessman stereotype' to be successful. However, it’s my ability to listen and nurture that makes me a good manager; my ability to empathise, but not become emotionally involved, that ensures the success of my organisation.

What can leaders do to lift the voice of other women?

Promote the benefits there are to having women as Managers and board members. I currently have an all-female board, not because of equality, but because of circumstance. 

Promoting training and enabling women to develop their skills can only enhance organisations. 

One of the factors that still holds women back is childcare. For many, their career path is broken by long periods of raising the future generation. However, if more leaders ensured that training in management and leadership was accessible as part of their employment training programme, mothers returning to work would be better able to fulfil their potential.

Mashkura Begum, Chair at Saathi House

Saathi House is a charity committed to supporting women to drive positive change in their lives, in their family’s lives, and in the local communities. For the last 45 years the charity has been on a journey to engage, enable and empower women to improve their knowledge, skills, networks, opportunities and leadership potential.

Mashkura used to attend the organisation as a young girl in the 1990s. When she was invited to join the board of trustees it was a no brainer decision for her as she had a visceral connection to the charity. 

Saathi House participated in Pilotlight Direction in 2021.

What advice would you give young women who feel like they’ll never be perceived as leaders?

I am someone who grew up in inner-city Birmingham and am from a working-class background. I was the first in my family to attend university, never in my plan did leadership figure. 

During my journey, I had numerous occasions where I had the imposter syndrome and felt I was not the expert in the room. However, over time I realised you do not have to be the expert or have grey hair and 20+ years of experience to be a leader. What you need is an open mind, curiosity, the ability to ask the right questions, have self-belief and be authentic.

I would stress to young women, no matter what background they are from, to develop strong networks, find dynamic mentors, interact with like-minded individuals and surround themselves with enablers – those that encourage and nurture!

Define an inclusive leader - what traits do you think great leaders possess?

We live in an era where the traditional definition of a leader has eroded. We now want our leaders to be in touch, have the emotional intelligence to connect with others and have integrity and compassion. In my view, an inclusive leader is someone who has compassion. This means focusing on relationships through careful listening, understanding, empathising with and supporting other people, enabling those that we lead to feel valued, respected and cared for so that they can reach their full potential. 

In summary, inclusive leadership is primarily about inviting those who do not look and think like us to the table and giving them a seat and a voice!

Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO at Kidscape

Kidscape is a bullying prevention charity that provides practical support, training, and advice to challenge bullying and protect young lives.  Lauren has been the CEO of Kidscape for five years, and prior to this led the work of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, coordinating Anti-Bullying Week across schools each year. 

She has worked with children, young people and families for 20+ years and is a passionate advocate for children’s rights – particularly in relation to education. She is also a Trustee of Children England, a committee member of Action for Children and a Mum to two primary aged children.   

Kidscape participated in Pilotlight Insight in November 2021.

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions in the charity sector? 

Experience charities of all sizes. In large charities, you benefit from learning from the expertise of others and trying different roles. In smaller charities there is an opportunity to multi-task and bring ideas to the table. 

Engage and collaborate with others both within and outside of the charity sector, whether through trustee roles, groups, networks, opportunities like Pilotlight and on LinkedIn. This is a great way of building a broader community, hearing fresh perspectives, learning about new causes, campaigns and ideas and being available when new opportunities arise.

What can leaders do to lift up the voice of other women? 

The charity sector can be competitive. Simon Sinek in ‘The Infinite Game’ talks about a ‘Just Cause’ bigger than ourselves. If we focus on the cause, not ourselves, it’s easier to be grateful for one another, and build one another up. 

I have known huge love and grace from other women in the sector. I’ll never forget being heavily pregnant and facing a work restructure. My manager and a dear friend took early retirement, so it was more likely I’d secure a role. It was that role that took me on my path to leadership. We are nothing without one another.

Shahida Aslam, Director of Operations at Helena Kennedy Foundation

The Helena Kennedy Foundation (HKF) exists to overcome social injustice. It provides financial bursaries, mentoring and support to disadvantaged students from the further education sectors, enabling them to complete their studies in higher education and progress into employment.

Shahida first joined as an Operations Manager in 2010, when she was looking for a new challenge. As a sole employee of a national charity, she was thrown into the deep end. This was her first managerial role and she had to learn to navigate new opportunities and challenges. 10 years on Shahida is now the Director of Operations and has been an integral part in supporting over 2k students progressing to university, raising £1.4m in support, and developing a small team alongside a network of alumni.

HKF is currently participating in Pilotlight 360.

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learnt in your career?

The powerful role of a mentor has been an invaluable lesson for me. I attribute my success to surrounding myself with good people. There has always been a mentor in some form or other. Whilst my boss/es and trustees are there to hold me accountable, my mentors have also been there when I needed guidance. There is always someone to turn to on my board or outside the charity.  

Despite how stretched people are in the charity sector, because resources are sparse, they still choose to give back. I give back by sharing my knowledge with partner organisations and individuals, which helps to feed my soul.

How can leaders create inclusive organisations?

As a British, female, over 40 South Asian, I am very aware of the challenges faced by organisations to be inclusive. Some good starting points are to pay attention to your recruitment and where the advertising takes place.

When interviewing be selective of who is on the panel and be selective with your language.

With inclusivity at the forefront of our minds, we absolutely need to be authentic and genuine. We also need to be prepared to challenge our own practices and processes.