Strong female founders tell us their biggest lessons learnt, business advice & what International Women’s Day means to them

In this piece, WeAreTheCity talks to three strong female founders about their biggest lessons learnt, their advice to other female entrepreneurs and what International Women’s Day means to them.

All three women have founded and built agencies within the advertising and marketing industry. You can find out more about them and what makes them tick below.

Melanie Welsh

Founder, Strat House

Melanie is a Founding Partner of Strat House. Working throughout her career with ambitious clients including Dove, Adidas and GSK accounts, Melanie has been instrumental in their digital transformation, helping them move from advertising-focused campaigns to data-driven, consumer-centric programmes and experiences. 

Melanie has been Head of Department and strategic lead at agencies including Havas, Skive and Soup, driving agency strategy, culture and positioning, and setting best practice across all accounts. 

Melanie has received an MBA from Cranfield university, and has also written two children’s books which are published by Random House.

Your biggest lessons learnt from being a female founder

Gosh, so many lessons. But here are three as a starting point…

  1.   The world is (still) full of people who’ve got a view on what women should do (how, where and when). Ignore all of them
  2.   Re-design from scratch. You’re still going to build in a lot of unconscious bias, but it’s your best chance of not accidentally replicating inhibiting structures or cultures
  3.   Set your own measures of success. For example, at Strat House, growth is deliberately not a factor. Instead, we pursue challenging, impactful projects (and clients) and team happiness (we do like profit though, and cash)

Any opportunities / challenges you have faced

We certainly hit the right time. We were in the right place too. We’re both very aware that far more talented women than us tried previously, but the levels of acceptance just weren’t there for them in society. We’ve been pushing on doors that are more open than at any other time in history. And we understand the privilege and responsibility of that – we know it’s part of our task to keep those doors open for more women, in our and future generations.

What led you to start an agency?

This was by no means the only, or the most important reason, but a significant factor was that we just got really fed up with working for and amongst (often lovely) people who genuinely could not see the issue with running a business that employed 56% women, and yet had still a pay gap of 13%. Could. Not. See. The. Issue. Couldn’t do the maths, couldn’t discern the systems and attitudes it betrayed. Still can’t… 

So, we left. And set up Strat House. We may not be lovely every day (thanks menopause), but we offer uncompromisingly equal opportunity to a strong team of neurodiverse women (and Nick).

 

What does IWD mean to you?

We used to be circumspect about ‘for women’ events. As older, hopefully wiser but certainly more experienced feminists we can now see that unfortunately we need moments to pause and acknowledge how far women have come in some parts of the world …and also how much farther we have to go. Women do still need their own space (literally and metaphorically) to flag issues, support each other and plan. Yes, in an ideal world we wouldn’t, but it’s not ideal yet is it?

Ultimately though, IWD will always bring to mind the timeless ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit’ meme (see below). Indeed lady, indeed.

Any advice or tips they have for female founders

Just go for it. Start today. The world desperately needs more female founders (women-led companies tend to be more efficient, profitable and happy). And it’s fun!

Lori Meakin

Founder, Joint

Lori Meakin is the Founder of creative agency Joint and WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership) Exec member. Lori’s driven by her understanding of people, what matters to them, their behaviour and how they express and share ideas & identities in any medium and across any platform.

Via teaching and the BBC, Lori is Joint’s strategic guru and an IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix winner. Getting to grips with large global business problems is her speciality with recent work on Amazon and Google as examples.

Previously Lori worked as Head of Planning for BBC Broadcast before working as a freelance strategist. She’s driven by her passion to explore, learn and create maximum value for clients’ business and for the customers their brands serve.

The lessons I’ve learned being a female founder

With our news feeds a constant stream of violence, death, trauma, families being separated, racism at the borders and threats of Putin’s aggression literally going nuclear, it feels more than a little dissonant to be sitting here writing about being an entrepreneur. Some might say it’s downright disrespectful. 

However, as well as appreciating our own safety like never before, doing what we can to support the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and reflecting on the less-shared details of civilians in other war zones who are suffering horrifically, I would argue that this is also a time for each of us to ask ourselves ‘how can I use the freedoms I have to make the bits of the world that I can influence better?’

For me, that means building, along with my co-founders, a thriving creative business where difference is not an obstacle to be managed but an opportunity to learn and grow and create better things together. And it means nurturing a family where each of us grows and develops positively, both independently and together.

I never meant to be a “female founder”

As a young woman first starting out, I would never have imagined I’d be writing something about being a female founder, for two reasons. Firstly, I never imagined I’d be a founder of a creative agency. And secondly, because I never thought I’d want to be thought of as a female anything. I used to argue vociferously that my sex and gender were irrelevant and I was “just a person”.

But years of experience, examining the data and listening carefully to the younger women in my life all mean I’ve learned some important lessons about what it means to be a female founder.

Women need to build a world that works for them too

My first learning is that being a woman isn’t just being “a person” because we live in a world that was built by and for men. The places we inhabit, our political, economic and social systems, the art and culture around us, our scientific and medical knowledge, even the very language we speak have all been established over centuries or millennia almost exclusively by men, when women’s lives were absent from public spaces and their contributions largely excluded. 

And as Caroline Criado-Perez documents, that makes the world a more difficult and dangerous place for women. We’re more likely to be misdiagnosed for heart attacks because of years of false assumptions that the female body is the same as the male one other than our size and our reproductive bits. We’re 17% more likely to die in an identical car crash because cars’ safety is still designed around crash test dummies that are based on the male body. Women are less likely to perform well in interviews for jobs that are advertised using language that includes the generic masculine, and men picture a man 80% of the time they think of a ‘person’.

So we need more women being entrepreneurial, leading and building the world in a way that works for them. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” But evidence shows that the progress we need now is for more women to adapt the world to herself.

How we can create that change

We need to stop diagnosing that feeling of not belonging as imposter syndrome and start seeing it as an opportunity to shape the world to fit us better. 

We need to recognise that the qualities women tend to over-index in are the ones proven to make more successful leaders.

And we need to create change with men, fighting biases and habits, not each other.

 

A mum as well as a female founder

Finally, re-framing being a mother as being co-founder of our family helps me better respect and value that complementary role too. Here, like at work, my job is to create the conditions in which we can all thrive and grow, and build a culture that encourages that. 

That’s why I wrote a story for my young daughters and their friends about the importance of kindness, teaching them how it benefits us all. And I recognise that shameless self-promotion like this isn’t ladylike… But as we need more women to push themselves forward, I thought on International Women’s Day I’d lead by example. 

After all, don’t we all need to take every chance we can to build a world with less selfishness, less thoughtlessness and more kindness in it? 

Jackie Stevenson

Founder and CEO, The Brooklyn Brothers

Jackie is founding partner & CEO of global award-winning earned-first advertising agency, The Brooklyn Brothers, recently ranked as a Top 3 UK, and Top 5 Global Agency of the Year by Campaign, and one of 2020’s Bravest & Boldest Agencies by Contagious. As one of London’s few female founders and creative CEO’s, Jackie is a pioneer for female entrepreneurship and a champion of gender equality.

An entrepreneur at heart, Jackie started her career at Ogilvy & Mather, helped CDP launch one of London’s first integrated agency models, and joined start up Craik Jones growing it into one of the UK’s most awarded agencies. In 2008, she launched her own agency, The Brooklyn Brothers, growing it to over 170 people worldwide. In her spare time Jackie is also an avid ballroom dancer. 

Jackie is a renowned female leader and a vocal campaigner for gender equality.  She was the 20/21 President of WACL, a leading member of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Women in Business committee and a trustee of Dallaglio Rugby Works. The Brooklyn Brothers recently ranked as a Top 3 UK and Top 5 Global Agency of the Year by Campaign, and one of 2020’s Bravest & Boldest Agencies by Contagious

Your biggest lessons learnt from being a female founder 

Be clear on your proposition from the start and where you sit in the market. If it’s going to take longer to build your business be clear on whether you need more funding and where that will come from. If you can keep one step ahead, you can grow more quickly – but that may require investment.  

Keep it simple – if you can’t explain it in one sentence then go again, until you can. 

Test and learn – don’t be tempted to hone and hone, that will just bog you down. Get it out there and consumer test and craft as you go. Your customers will pressure test more quickly than you can.

And finally, as a female founder, trust your gut. Often women will ignore that voice inside and listen to the many ‘splainers’ who are more than willing to offer their advice and opinion. You know your business, your product and your customers better than anyone, so trust yourself.

Any opportunities / challenges you have faced 

Talent is both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge to any business – whether you’re five or 500 years old. Your people are your business, so my advice is to invest in it, nurture it and grow it. We’ve never regretted paying for stellar talent in the long run and have often regretted not investing when times were tough. Your business lives or dies on its talent.

To support and nurture talent today, as leaders we all need to look at how we approach management.

 

The world is changing and what people want from work is changing. There are huge opportunities available to companies who can quickly adapt the way they support their team and coaching as a management approach is a trend we will see more in the industry. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people want more than just a good remuneration package. They want open door policies, workplace support and coaching through on-the-job challenges. 

What led you to start an agency? 

We started The Brooklyn Brothers because we saw an opportunity to create an agency that would offer clients something they couldn’t get anywhere else.  We devised an offering that combined the craft of advertising with the reach of PR and a structure that borrowed more from Hollywood than Madison Avenue.   We spent time trying to encourage the companies we worked for to restructure and one day thought, why are we trying this hard to turn a super-tanker, we should just do it ourselves!   

What does IWD mean to you?

A moment to celebrate all we’ve achieved while also shining a light on everything that still needs to be done. We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction. 

WeAreBreakingTheBias

Meet our 100 incredible leaders breaking the bias & calling for societal change this International Women’s Day

As part of our #WeAreBreakingTheBias campaign, we will be sharing the thoughts of over 100 leaders who are calling for societal change for women. We hope you will join us so we can amplify why we should all #BreakTheBias for gender equity.

About the author

Alison is the Digital Content Editor for WeAreTheCity. She has a BA Honours degree in Journalism and History from the University of Portsmouth. She has previously worked in the marketing sector and in a copywriting role. Alison’s other passions and hobbies include writing, blogging and travelling.

Related Posts

X