Waiting anxiously for a meeting which will make or break her business, Heather Jackson ponders what she’s risked to get to this point.
She’s walked out on a £100,000-plus salary by shelving her flourishing consultancy and jeopardised the accompanying comfortable life for her and her two young children.
She’s put her house on the line, having remortgaged it to fund this latest foray as an entrepreneur. Then there’s her reputation.
“They thought I was a sandwich short of a picnic,” she says of the derision she faced from sceptical peers in the Yorkshire business community. In the bank is just enough money to pay her only employee one month’s wages. Beyond that failure looks almost certain for a business that’s leaking money on a daily basis.
“He didn’t know I was a month away from packing it in and getting back to the real world,” she says.
‘He’ was the chief executive of corporate banking at RBS and he was about to change her life.
“I walked out of that meeting with a three-year sponsorship deal that enabled me to grow the team very quickly and within seven months we had 29 global companies working for us, representing 4,000 women.”
Jackson is the founder of An Inspirational Journey, a Leeds-based national organisation now backed by RBS which aims to redress the gender balance in boardrooms without enforced quotas.
Its pioneering approach steers clear of giving women a head start in business or putting men at a disadvantage and has, in a short space of time, won it the support of some of the UK’s biggest corporations.
It has also propelled Jackson into the national spotlight as the go-to girl within media and political quarters on equality in business issues. She even has the Prime Minister on her side – with a letter to prove it.
Her argument is based on simple principals: businesses with a gender balanced boardroom have been proven to perform better than those without. Also, many of the perceived barriers to women in climbing the corporate ladder no longer exist.
There is, it recognises, a pressing need to educate women that there is no glass ceiling and that they can and should apply for executive level roles.
“We need to accept that women and men are different and we shouldn’t expect women to act like men. The world economy needs women to be women and men to be men,” Jackson says.
Her rise to prominence in recent years has been rapid to say the least, with international expansion now beckoning for her firm.
But if risk taking, stubbornness and a very strong male role model hadn’t played their part in her own journey, the corporate equality debate might never have made the meaningful progress it has of late. As a teenager, Jackson looked to have a future as an eminent musician.
At 13 she won a place at music school thanks to her prowess in classical guitar and even performed in front of leading lights like composer John Williams and Spanish virtuoso Segovia.
“I was technically good but my passion and enthusiasm weren’t there. It was a good time but I was doing something that I was making myself good at rather than being naturally good at.”
Jackson’s father is the hugely successful watercolour artist Ashley Jackson whose works are synonymous with Yorkshire and have been exhibited worldwide, adorning the walls of the rich, famous, royal and even a certain Mr Clinton.
“I always put my father on a pedestal and believed if I became a famous guitarist he’d have more respect for me as a person because of his art but actually I realised he’d love and respect me whatever I did. I had been chasing the wrong dream.” Her father’s success did, however, give her the opportunity to grow up in an environment rich in creativity, colour and light.
“His mentor was LS Lowry so I was brought up in the art world and had a fabulous life where I was meeting unique, talented people.
“We weren’t wealthy but I was very wealthy in terms of the experience and the people I met; the entrepreneurs, the artists, musician, actors and business people.”
She recalls how Lowry, just after selling a painting for what was a vast sum at the time, despondently told her father that he felt like a racehorse that had just won its race.
And this notion of being out of control of one’s own success seems to have been something she has strived to avoid throughout her career.
“My father never had an agent, he was always master of his own ship and he brought me up on that idea.” By the time Jackson’s father called her up unexpectedly to ask her to work for him, her ship had spent several years sailing through the retail sector, before following the coast north to Newcastle to study retail marketing.
It had also charted the farthest reaches of the globe to New Zealand where a backpacking Jackson was picked up by a fashion designer who enlisted the Holmfirth lass to assist with a number of store launches for 18 months.
“My father called me up and said: ‘If you can do it for some bugger else, you can do it for me,’ so I did,” she says.
“My father had a gallery anyway but we then built a print company, wrote books – with me writing them and him doing the painting – and then we made TV programmes which taught art.”
Anyone who remembers watching Pebble Mill at One in the 1980s may recall seeing A Brush with Ashley, which ran nationally for three years, with the artist making various other appearances on Yorkshire Television.
As with so many family businesses though, there was an impending conflict which came to a head after 13 years of father and daughter working together.
“One day I decided my dad had everything he wanted in life and had reached his aspirations. He had his family around him, his grandchildren, his Aston Martin and children.
“I realised I hadn’t fulfilled myself. I had taken my dad where he wanted to go but I couldn’t go any further. Instead of looking at him as a father I was looking at him as a product and that was the wrong way to do it so I needed to go out and start my own business.
“This is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. The worst thing because it shattered the relationship with my father but the best thing in the sense that I went from having a very privileged life to doing the things I wanted to achieve. It was actually sh*t or bust.”
They say the first year in business is always the toughest. But Jackson faced far more pressures than the usual cash flow issues which blight start ups, having split from her husband of eight years at around the same time as the rift with her father caused by her career change. Her ship, it seems, was ready for a new voyage of discovery.
“If I think back, I had lived in a life full of gambles. My father had risked the house on a better life and always taken risks for our future but it could have gone either way.
“At that time I was leading a very staid life but when you’ve been on a rollercoaster or in a Ferrari it’s very hard to then get in Skoda and drive it along at 20mph.
“It was very hard at the time but I had to prove that I could do it. My family and my ex-husband’s family thought I was being a very selfish woman and having a midlife crisis but there was something driving me forward. I was on my own, there’s no doubt about that.”
Hungry for success and eager to make her mark in business, Jackson launched Believe Corporate Relations in 2004.
The company quickly blossomed and before long Jackson was flying solo with a sizeable income and numerous blue-chip clients like Barclays Wealth, Vidal Sassoon and Northern Rail on her books.
The firm was built around its ability to solve problems, but despite its success, there was an underlying problem of its own that needed addressing.
“An executive from National Australia Group told me he didn’t know how to introduce me to people. He said: ‘I know when you come into a company you make a difference, but I don’t know what you do,’ and it was then that I realised I still hadn’t found what I was meant to do.” At this time a 2009 BDO Stoy Hayward report showed that Yorkshire had 16% less women on boards than any other English region.
“Yorkshire was low in the league table because Yorkshire was a law unto itself – it has been run by some very successful men and even now we still have what we call the Yorkshire mafia.”
Jackson often cites the report as her calling as a champion of harmonious, mixed boardrooms. But there were personal reasons too which fired her up for an onslaught on the old ways of tackling corporate equality.
“Everyone believed there was a glass ceiling but there really wasn’t. It’s like the Berlin Wall – it came down a long time ago but it mentally took a while to come down. Women had to accept there was no ceiling.
“I also looked at my children who were 10 and 9 at the time and thought how could I ensure they would have the choice and control to do what they wanted. Giving my children the ability to know I was making changes that would benefit them in the long term was the fire in my belly. In 10 years I want to think that no man or woman thinks they can’t get to the top of the corporate tree.”
She initially launched an initiative called The Two Percent Club, which aimed to bring together women in Yorkshire already operating at the senior corporate level to encourage collaboration, profile raising and new cross sector opportunities.
“Yorkshire was very cynical with what I was doing, really cynical. If I could bring leading women together, firstly they wouldn’t want to network together and secondly, what would it achieve anyway. What it’s achieved is to set women on a drive forward to build something that’s going to be a global model. That came out of cynicism in Yorkshire.”
Then came the launch of the Women’s Business Forum. At this stage, with Believe now on the backburner, Jackson set about raising what little funds were available to her and within six months of jotting down her idea on a sheet of A4, she had created a nationally significant forum. It had even attracted the attention of David Cameron, Jackson explains proudly.
“I received a message of support from the Prime Minister and had 500 women come from all over the UK. I wanted to show women that this was a business issue and was no longer about equality or diversity. I was nearly broke by the time I did the first forum but managed to break even on it.
“I was still doing the corporate relations company but it was coming time to do one or the other.
“I was seriously starting to run out of money but I knew it needed to happen.” The majority of revenue was being driven by the Pearls programme – a membership scheme for women working below the senior level identified within an organisation as having the potential to become a future leader.
It was RBS’s decision to get involved with Jackson’s organisations by supporting it with a three-year sponsorship deal that not only saved it from the brink of being wound down but, less than a year down the line, has helped it to become a national player with global potential.
Today Jackson’s business has 10 members of staff and four strands – the Women’s Business Forum, Two Percent Club, The Pearls programme and a mentoring scheme known as The 150 Programme.
Women from Germany, Spain, France and Italy are all taking advantage of the organisation’s initiatives while plans for spreading the Yorkshire firm’s global reach have also been talked about.
Utilities giant Northumbrian Water, engineering design consultancy Atkins Global and transport plc Arriva are among the business behemoths to support its programmes.
And so it seems An Inspirational Journey has much unexplored and exciting new ground to cover in the future.
Jackson’s own journey, meanwhile, has gone full circle, taking her back to family life in the small town near the Peak District she grew up in and back into the good books of her hero, biggest influence and inspiration, her dad.
Is balanced better?
Heather Jackson’s belief that gender balanced boardrooms perform better than male dominated ones is not borne out of misplaced idealism but rather is built on very persuasive research. Here BQ looks at some of the evidence behind her tenacious drive to get more women – and the right women – into high places.