Our business was born out of a determination to help change the workplace

I was introduced to Anna Sarjantson, my business partner, by a mutual friend. We had both had children at about the same time and experienced the changes that came with motherhood as a working parent. We realised we were not alone in being really frustrated at how much female talent was being lost from the workplace because of employers’ lack of insight and flexibility.

I had spent 15 years in HR and employment law while Anna had had a successful career as a manager in recruitment. Anna made the difficult choice to leave work and concentrate on being a mother and wife. She enjoyed her job but it was relentless: late nights, long hours and regular travel.  She couldn’t combine it with dedicated parenting and experiencing the full joys of motherhood, but she felt unfulfilled at having to give up her successful career because her industry was just not flexible enough to allow her to do both.

I had my daughter and went back to full-time work. I chose to return after only 6 months of maternity leave. My employer who flexible – up to a point – and supported my return to work., But as the ‘new mother’ tag wore off I was back to travelling nationally, with overnight stays and long working hours. I was missing a lot of my daughter growing up and couldn’t dedicate the time to her development that I wanted to.

I also realised that my pathway to progression had become limited. If you’re from an ethnic minority background you are warned that to get anywhere you must work twice as hard as your colleagues. And it is true. But once I rose to be a middle manager I found that the journey to progress further was a steep, and, at times, impossible incline.

There are very few people from an ethnic minority background in senior roles and they are almost invisible at board level. The people responsible for recruiting those roles normally lacked diversity and had no experience of diversity in recruitment, so how could they possibly help organisations to diversify their candidate shortlists or talent pipelines?

Anna and I realised that although we had made different choices and faced different challenges we were still facing the same frustration – feeling that we couldn’t achieve the careers we really wanted.

So, in 2013, we set up Availexe, our own recruitment agency, to focus on introducing the best candidates to our clients and supporting them to grow their talent pipeline. We make sure that they can choose from a diverse selection of exceptional, skilled professionals for senior-level roles, with a key focus on candidates that are female or from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The business has doubled its turnover each year

We work with a wide range of clients, from FTSE100 companies, such as Whitbread and Diageo, to entrepreneur-led companies with turnovers of up to £10 million, as well as a number of charities and social enterprises.

What’s different about us is that we focus on creating a more diverse shortlist of candidates. We go out of our way to find candidates who wouldn’t otherwise think of applying for the job because of the barriers that organisations unknowingly put into their recruitment campaigns. We do more than the average recruitment agency to find candidates from a wider range of backgrounds. We work like headhunters, in that we’ll go and find people who we know are an excellent fit for the organisation and can deliver the role, rather than putting out an advert and waiting for the applications to come in.

We also encourage our clients to be more diverse in their recruitment, by highlighting where their existing practices may stop some candidates from applying. We also challenge them to think about how the role could work flexibly, so they attract exceptionally talented females and also keep those that they may already have in their organisations.

Our biggest mistake was hiring too soon

We laugh about it now, because if anyone should know when the right time is to take on new people it should have been us. We had been growing successfully for about a year, so we decided to invest in increasing our headcount. But it was completely the wrong thing to do, because the business wasn’t ready. That mistake really cost the business for about a year. It’s okay now and we’ve hired other people since then, but we’ve made sure we brought them in at the right time and we’ve been more specific about what their roles are and how they fit into the business.

We want the business to grow but most of all we want it to make a difference

If we continue to make candidate shortlists for senior positions more diverse, we can help to change the people who work at the top of those organisations we work with, which will result in better diversity and flexibility.

If you are thinking of starting a business be very clear of your vision, mission and business goals

Refer to them every day – it’s important to remember the reasons why you set up the business in the first place.

Also, make sure you are financially prepared, as a lot of people underestimate how long it will take before they can start to pay themselves a proper salary. We were lucky: I’d had a good job and saved well and Anna was financially secure, which meant we could plough all of the money we initially made back into the business. So, we were able to focus on the business and not be distracted by an electricity bill.

I often ask myself ‘Can I do this?’

I don’t think the environment has been more challenging for me because I am a female entrepreneur, but that could be because I have a lot of confidence in myself and in my business. But I think women second-guess themselves more than men. It’s an issue of self-confidence.

We run a series of events, in partnership with Allen & Overy, to support women who are coming back to work. They combine career coaching and employment law updates and have most recently included help to rebuild their self-confidence, which can take a knock after a career break.

The number of female entrepreneurs is increasing

I think that is because many households now depend on women’s salaries, but they don’t want to be slaves to their jobs because it’s still assumed they will be the primary carer for their children. So, increasingly, women set up their own businesses to enable them to balance work and life.

Women shouldn’t feel they’re forced to become entrepreneurs, but it seems this may be so because they feel their [career] choices are so limited. Many women spend years building up their skills, so it would be a real shame if these were lost because organisations insisted on presenteeism.

It might be a better option if some of these women became self-employed consultants in their area of expertise, because they could probably earn similar money from working less hours than if they set up a business doing something completely different from what they have been trained to do.

I’m a proud workaholic

I’ve worked since I was 16, and I’ve always loved it. I don’t work fewer hours now than I did when I worked full time in an organisation. I just work differently. I’ve got an office in London and one at home. I like starting work at 5.30am, so I can do a few hours before having breakfast with my husband and daughter. I’ll then work through the day until I pick her up from school and do some activities and homework with her before doing another hour or two’s work after putting her to bed. Working this way works for my business, my family and me.

I am encouraged and inspired by fellow female founders

I regularly surround myself with other fierce females in business.  Get out there and meet other business owners, share stories and best practice to remain inspired and encouraged. The world is yours for the taking.

Discover more about Availexe.

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Female founder of Fearless Futures, a social justice training agency

 

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