Sheryl Miller is a business coach, award winning serial entrepreneur and author of the book, Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m a business mentor, serial entrepreneur and, recently, a published author of business books. I’ve been a qualified chartered accountant for most of my career – previously at the firm EY – with a career spanning over 20 years working with Blue Chip organisations. I since have mentored startups, young people who are long-term unemployed or from disadvantaged backgrounds, aspiring leaders and mangers for the Prince’s Trust and the Professional Women’s Network (PWN) London. In 2009, I co-founded the Stilettos Network – a networking and events company for women from all backgrounds to discuss ways in which to personally advance in a more gender equal society.
I’m a director of a number of businesses. My main venture is Reboot Global, a company that provides life and career coaching sessions and retreats for those needing more clarity and direction, but I also run a property and lettings business with my daughter. I’m also co-founder of Soup To Nuts – an award winning agency that supports startups and SMEs with marketing, virtual assistants and business coaching.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
From a young age, I knew I wanted to pursue a career that helped people. I did once think about becoming a nurse (I was inspired by an aunt who worked at the QE hospital in Birmingham) but I also loved maths. At 14, I did work experience at an accountancy firm, and concluded that I wanted to become an accountant.
I had my daughter at 24 in the middle of studying for my accountancy exams, but I was very intent on completing the course and pursuing the career regardless – which, of course, I did despite the challenges.
My chartered qualification in accountancy gave me an incredible education in finance, but I was still yearning for a greater understanding of commerce and business, so I furthered my education with an MBA. It set me in good stead for a wider range of corporate roles and came in handy when starting my own business ventures.
I’ve always been ambitious, but I remember a real seminal moment for me happened at school during a conversation with one of my teachers – Mr. Singh. I had confided in him of my career aspirations, and he had said: “You black girls – why don’t you ever want to become doctors”. To the outsider, I can appreciate how this might’ve seemed harsh, very un-PC and superficial even, but I didn’t take his response to offence. Contrary to him expressing that I should settle for ‘less’, he was articulating a belief that I could be capable of so much more. My teacher was raising my expectations for achievement, not lowering them.
It certainly energised me to pursue goals I might’ve previously thought was out of my reach.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
I was aware of my ‘difference’ and understood that, to some degree, my gender and blackness could conspire against me to put a cap on what I could achieve – although I never indulged that victim mindset. My grandmother was a good source of inspiration from this viewpoint. She was a power press operator at a Winson Green factory back in the day, and was the only black employee in the company. Of course she faced racism, but her sense of pride and purpose in the job she undertook (humble as it was) never wavered, and she had a strong sense of faith that kept her going through difficult times.
I’ve faced my own challenges climbing the corporate ladder and being a minority working at large blue-chip companies. From bullying bosses who belittled me at meetings to managers who had ridiculed my religion when I asked for flexible working arrangements; even amongst some of the most challenging instances in my career where discrimination was flagrant and I saw myself being paid less than more inexperienced male peers, or had particular company benefits denied when other (male) peers were given them, I steered clear of identifying myself as a victim. It wasn’t easy, and I think one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only ____ In The Room, was to reflect on what I’d learnt from these experiences, and how I think I’ve become a better person and entrepreneur because of it.
It’s tempting to call the sexism and racism card, but even when discrimination and unconscious bias is so obvious, I think that – in order for marginalised people to achieve more equality and fairness in the workplace – they have to be smarter and more strategic in the way they deal with situations. Internalising the discrimination and conflagrating issues with anger, even if valid, isn’t helpful.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I remember being invited on BBC Newsnight to comment on Theresa May’s speech. I didn’t think many people I knew would watch it (plus I hadn’t actually told anyone I was doing the interview), but my grandmother watched it and mentioned that she’d seen me on telly. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to see my finished book (she passed away last year). But she had such a huge and positive impact on my life and my mindset. I know that, in the greater scheme of things of I’ve achieved so far, this is quite small. But even though my grandmother didn’t verbally say this at the time, a part of me hopes that she watched it and thought: “Sheryl’s turned out ok”.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I’ve been very fortunate to have a supporting husband who has always worked regular hours and close to home. But attitude and mindset I think has been key to energising the steps I’ve taken to become successful; my grandmother has led by example and been a great role model to me. I’ve always had faith in my ability and, for a large part of my upbringing, I was brought up religious; however, a period of soul searching after my daughter was born led me to concede that life was simply about doing your best, about being a good person, and about being good to others.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Mentoring can be absolutely transformational, life changing even. In my earliest career days, I’ve absolutely benefitted from being a mentee. I think everyone can benefit from consulting with someone as part of a necessary process of self-evaluation to ensure that we’re making the most of what we’re capable of, and that we feel nourished and rewarded in the day-to-day. Midlife often signifies a time to reflect on what we’ve achieved and whether we’re happy at the current stage in our life (and, if not, what can we do in the here and now to make a positive change to our prospects and outlook). But there will typically be many instances in our life where we will seek help for clarity and a sense of direction and purpose. This can be entering a new career after a period of study; the prospect of leaving a job for another opportunity; aspirations for promotion within an organisation or dealing with crises at work that have negatively impacted on self-belief and worth, producing a negative cycle that prevents us from seeking other opportunities, making significant changes to our lives, and living more profoundly.
Having an external perspective from someone who can listen to you unconditionally and help you find the tools and resources within yourself to become a better, braver and more fulfilled version of yourself is, I think, essential maintenance. In fact, it’s the ultimate self-care thing you can do for yourself.
I got involved with the Professional Women’s Network simply because I love mentoring and I know that many women feel over-whelmed in environments where they seem to not fit in. Over my career I have had many conversations with graduates, interviewees and up-and- coming managers. The lack of confidence and the inner struggle that many women face is palpable and I just felt a real need to help by sharing my experiences and what I had seen work for myself and others.
In 2012 I took up an opportunity to mentor young people who were long-term unemployed and often from disadvantaged background via the Princes’ Trust. I could, of course, relate to their struggles as well as their determination to improve their circumstances through entrepreneurship. These are valuable personality traits that can easily be snuffed out under the struggles, burdens and everyday petty humiliations that come with disadvantage. I realised that these individuals not only needed words of advice and encouragement but practical help too.
From a couple of female entrepreneurs planning to set up their own tattoo parlour to one person who aspired to set up a circus performance business; I’ve consulted some of the most interesting people one could ever meet, and that’s a real privilege that comes with the job.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
I would incentivise greater investment in women-owned startups. Goldman Sachs are a fantastic example of what happens when an organisation puts money where its mouth is when it comes to mobilising its own initiatives for gender equality in the business. By declaring that it would no longer invest in men-only boards and, with its 10,000 women initiative, the business seems to be setting a new precedent for the sector, showing VCs and investors how things should be done. Alongside this, I would also give bigger tax breaks to individuals that invest in women-owned start-ups.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
I don’t believe my younger self needs advice. I actually believe that my younger self would advise the person I am today to be bolder and care less about what people think.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Apart from continuing to grow the Reboot business, I’m planning a series of interviews documenting the stories of other ‘stereotype smashers’ who have become a success despite being beset by challenges – whether because of physical and mental disability or because of race or gender identity. It will definitely make great material for my next book.
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