Susannah Schofield OBE is the Director General of the Direct Selling Association, the industry body for the direct selling channel of retail in the UK.
A passionate advocate for women and young people in business, Susannah was awarded an OBE for her work in this area in the 2015 Queen’s Honours List. She continues to champion women in business and is a regular speaker on the importance of flexible working and portfolio careers.
As well as being a published author (of business strategy book Mind the Gap), Susannah has lectured for The University of Kent and City, University of London, and has also served as an advisor to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Alongside her role as Director General of the Direct Selling Association, Susannah remains actively involved in two businesses which she founded: business consulting group Dice Matrix, and global sports app, Pitch Sports.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I am Director General of the UK Direct Selling Association, the industry body for the part of direct-to-consumer retail which includes brands such as Avon, The Body Shop at Home, Neal’s Yard Remedies and Amway. Approximately £2.67billion’s worth of goods are sold this way each year, and it’s come an awfully long way since the days of the 1960s Tupperware party!
Nowadays the vast majority of direct selling takes place online and through social media etc, and it’s estimated that over half a million people earn this way as independent representatives. The vast majority – over 90% – are women, and for many it’s a flexible way to earn around their other commitments and interests.
I’m also a mum to two girls, and have a range of other business interests, including an app-based sports business called Pitch Sport and a consultancy business called Dice Matix.
I’m a passionate advocate for women in business and regularly speak on the importance of female empowerment, flexible working and portfolio careers, and I’m also the author of a business strategy book (Mind the Gap), and served as an advisor to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
No! I wish I could say I had, but the reality is that it’s evolved quite organically. I always knew that I wanted to work and to earn my own money, and that feeling began at a relatively early age, probably around 13 or so, when I worked at my local corner shop in Sevenoaks in Kent.
I waitressed through my college years and I got a fulltime job as soon as I could after that. I suppose I intuitively followed what I knew I enjoyed doing which was working with people.
I fell into sales by accident really but the game-changer for me was being fortunate in working with people who recognised my talent and helped nurture that and guide me in my career. I’m extremely grateful for some of the early mentors I had – people like Alex Finnie, who was the CEO of a charity called 3H Fund that I worked with in the early part of my career, and developed my knowledge and skills so much, and instilled in me strong business acumen.
I moved on to spend 18 years at Royal Mail, and Graham Davis, who was Commercial Director at the time, was also instrumental in shaping me professionally. He pushed me and challenged me and despite finding it very hard at times, I will always be eternally grateful for the lessons he taught me in leadership.
Although I moved through my career organically, the one thing I did plan was never to stay too long in one role. I never wanted to get complacent and have always felt that it is important to push and challenge yourself.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Yes, lots, as I think the majority of people have – from working in intensely male-dominated business cultures to being on the receiving end of quite personal criticism from people who disagree with my views and decisions. But I think that, sadly, these sorts of challenges are facts of life, and it’s how you respond to them that influences how far you will go.
I feel a lot more positive about challenge now – I see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. And I think it’s a largely down to being more confident and being further into my career.
Nowadays I quite like doing things that push me out of my comfort zone. Life is for living and each day should shape the next. If 2020 has taught us anything is that you have to be flexible and nimble, and to be able to move with your career and just make sure you are comfortable with the path, if not change your trajectory. I didn’t – and still don’t – plan to map my journey. I look for good opportunities, work with people I respect and work hard to leave a positive trail behind me.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
When I look back there are a few things that really stand out, and being awarded my OBE in the Queen’s Honours list in 2015 is certainly one of my proudest achievements, I think mainly because it recognised an area of my work that I feel so passionately about, which is encouraging women and young people in business. My husband and daughters both came with me to receive the award, and if I ever have moments of doubt, the photograph from that day reminds me to smile and keep going! More broadly, the days my daughters were born are days I shall never forget.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
This one is easy to answer – never giving up. Having tenacity, determination and relentlessly continuing to make something work. I am a great believer that it’s not how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up that really counts.
Every knock and every ‘no’ is a lesson learned. Do I have to lick my wounds occasionally? Yes of course. ‘Hearing’ feedback is a skill and acting on it is often even harder but is crucial to being able to grow and achieve more.
How do you feel about mentoring and what advice do you give to your mentees?
I am lucky enough to have mentored a number of young people, something which I still do to this day, and I really enjoy this area of my work, it’s incredibly rewarding to be involved in shaping someone’s formative years and career. I have two pieces of advice which I start by giving all my mentees: Do what you love, be passionate about what you are trying to achieve and then you will find the drive to continue. (And of course, never give up!)
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
I would stop the legacy conversations and change the narrative when it comes to working women. I hear so many women on panels talking to young women about to start their careers saying negative things like “Oh you wait” or “Wait until you have children then you will understand how hard it is!” I just feel, enough! Stop passing on the awful legacy and start to embrace change.
As we move forward it will become the norm, but I fear we let the issues that women have had to deal with become almost a preconceived subconscious prediction for the next generation. I have two daughters; both will have a career: fact. Embrace that mindset and let’s focus on how we ensure they get paid fairy, represented and go on to achieve greatness. Let legacy be history.
My entire career has been in a male dominated environment. When I joined Royal Mail the workforce was 80% men, and one of my businesses now is in the sports sector, a hugely male-dominated world. However, I have never let it stop me and I believe when women achieve, they get recognised by their peers, irrelevant of gender.
It’s a case of valuing your value, if you are working with people who don’t let you have a voice, change the people you work with. Silence is compliance and our time is too short not to be valued.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Enjoy the journey more. I wish I had taken pride in the small achievements along the way more. Despite this, I must admit that I still never feel as if I have done enough! In my own eyes I have never achieved enough, pushed hard enough, exceeded my own expectations or been ‘good’ enough.
I look at my career now and think ‘what next?’. I wish I could tell my younger self to enjoy the wins, however as a grown woman now ……. I’m still not listening enough to my own advice!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
As Director General of the Direct Selling Association, one of my key areas of work is updating the narrative and modernising perceptions around direct selling. One of the best-known brands in the sector, Avon – established in the United States in 1886 – enabled women to earn independently 34 years before theyhad the right to vote, and today the industry continues to be powered predominantly by women.
I want to move the debate on from some of the outdated, and often inaccurate, narratives about the industry, and focus on the many thousands of female entrepreneurs all over the UK running successful – and all too often overlooked – businesses this way.
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