Inspirational Woman: Jenny Varley | CEO & Founder, Flink

Jenny VarleyFrom the word go, I was driven by doing seemingly impossible things, motivated even further if I was told my goals were impossible.

I wanted to write for a magazine after graduating (25 years ago!), but not just anywhere – it had to be in NYC. So, I sent (actual!) letters to Editors every week for six months until Marie Claire  magazine said yes. This unrelenting persistence helped me carve out a career in PR when I returned to the UK, and later in marketing, for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team (formerly BAR Honda). I did make a handbrake turn early on – just to try something different – into film Location Management after cold calling about 50 managers a day until the Harry Potter locations team said yes. I picked up rubbish for free off Kings Cross train station until they gave me a job as a Location Assistant three weeks later. This was the start of my career, albeit brief (3 years) in film. This taught me early on, if you are persistent and determined enough, you can make anything happen – even without contacts.

Fast forward to the financial crash, I joined HSBC (11 years ago). Here I was given the freedom and trust to build new things (a global TV programme for 250k employees and build a global newsroom), make mistakes and be trusted to fix them and drive innovation and change (lead HSBC to be first bank to publish internal comms on YouTube, change the global employer brand, design and deliver HSBC’s first employee mobile app). I was rarely able to stay within my comfort zone as increasing responsibility enabled me to grow which is why I stayed for over a decade. I joined HSBC as an event manager and left as the Global Head of Digital Communications & Employer Brand.

Towards the end of my tenure at HSBC, I reached a point where I wanted to change they way we designed jobs that would make people’s lives better. Three things triggered this desire and passion while I was leading my former team. I burnt out during a particularly exciting but demanding point in my career which caused alopecia (I did not manage this responsibly and realised how important role modelling self-care to my team was), secondly, I struggled to create effective part-time opportunities for working mothers at a senior level and thirdly, I struggled myself to working out how to navigate miscarriage and meet the demands of a full-time job without sacrificing my career or  mental health. We started experimenting with job-shares in my team as a way of protecting jobs, careers and wellbeing. I started researching job-shares within HSBC and beyond to understand why this form of flexible working had not yet scaled. I could see that there were some obvious parts to the process and workflow that if automated, could be transformative for people, supported by the right cultural mindset. So I left HSBC last year (March 2020) to work on Flink full time.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I knew where I wanted to start post University and got a job on a local newspaper in Birmingham first. As I discovered new opportunities, roles and sectors that I didn’t really know existed – I would then go after each one. But I never had a 5-year plan or anything close.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Only recently. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress – it may work to some respects in a corporate role but there is no place for it in start-up land. I’ve learnt to get out of my own way and let go of perfectionism. Self-limiting beliefs have also been surfacing. Moving from the safety of corporate job to a starting a business is outside of my comfort zone.  It’s an emotional roller-coaster and it’s scary. I’ve thought about choosing a different path a hundred times over. So I just keep reminding myself that fear is the enemy of success, and quitting certainly doesn’t speed anything up!

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Turning life around after some tough personal experiences and taking the leap from corporate life into the startup world as a non-tech person. I’m also very proud of my career at HSBC – the incredible team I had the privilege of leading for so many years achieved some incredible firsts for the bank in the areas of communications and digital and we won over 70 industry awards for the work.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

My incredible network. It takes time to build and nurture relationships so it’s important to start early. My network has opening up so many doors for me and I’m forever grateful to those people.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I love mentoring. I’m a member of WACL (Women in Advertising & Communications) and I participate in the mentoring programme for rising female talent – I currently have 5 mentees I meet with regularly. I’m also extremely lucky to have some incredible mentors who are helping me navigate starting and running a business.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Fixing the part-time jobs market. Businesses are run on full-time jobs but we are kidding ourselves if we think they are just 40 hours a week. Full-time jobs are boundaryless and this is worsening inequalities for women – and even more so for women of colour, not to mention working parents, carers, people with disabilities and older workers. Quality part-time opportunities at mid and senior level are scarce so we need to get better at designing flexible and inclusive jobs. Job-sharing would be a start.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

What is for you will not go by you – so don’t sweat the small stuff.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Immediate challenge is our first investment round. The accelerator we’re on comes to and end in July so investment is key focus over the next few months so we can develop our enterprise MMR. Ultimate vision, is to create a job design platform that is inclusive of anyone that needs or wants to work less, not just remotely. This might be to accommodate additional part time learning and gain new qualifications, to stay in work past the usual retirement age, accommodate family changes, or provide space for people that need to care for loved one. The issue, needs and opportunity go far further than the classic maternity requirements of new mums and dads. Embracing structured flexible working can be transformational for all and it’s time we add ‘lifestyle’ to the diversity, equity and inclusion lens.

What are your thoughts on flexible working?

I’ve done a full 360 on this. Back in 2014, I woke up one morning with hair on my pillow – I had developed alopecia through stress. I was a workaholic and set impossible standards for my team. I was all about presenteeism – if you’re not at your desk then you’re not working. It took this experience to completely change the way I worked and led the team and introducing job sharing was part of that change.


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