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Vanessa Vallely is the founder of We Are the City, a networking website for women working in London that has more than 10,000 members. In 2014, she extended this to India to promote networking and collaboration among local women. She is also the co-founder of The Network of Networks, a diversity forum where corporate diversity and inclusion heads and directors of women’s networks can discuss best practice.

Ms Vallely has worked at nine different financial institutions, most of which were investment banks. She has attended the Accelerated Leadership programme at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and is a regular speaker at City University Cass Business School. In 2013, she published Heels of Steel: Surviving and Thriving in the Corporate World.

1. Who inspires you?

From a celebrity perspective, I deeply admire Karren Brady CBE, the English sporting executive, Hilary Devey CBE, the entrepreneur and Michelle Mone OBE, the Scottish entrepreneur. In terms of those around me, there is an endless list of corporate women and men who I class as heroes for a number of different reasons. For example, Tamara Box, a corporate lawyer at Reed Smith, Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management, Chris Sullivan, chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays.

2. Why did you decide to attend business school?

I always had a chip on my shoulder about not going to university when I was younger. I felt that by not having attended university, I would not be given the same opportunities as my peers. It transpired that the issue was more mine than anyone else’s. At the age of 38, I decided to go back to academic study and complete an accelerated development programme at Chicago Booth’s London campus, which was in line with a part-time MBA in terms of the subjects covered. There was such a mix of personalities from different parts of the world, brainstorming problems always had a fun and original aspect to it.

3. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

I was told, aged 14, that if I didn’t pull my socks up all I would be good for is canning sardines in a factory. It was the kick I needed at an age when it most mattered. Another piece of memorable advice was given to me by a professor during my first class at Chicago Booth. I sat at the back of the auditorium and he made his way up the stairs and whispered to me: ‘Are you always going to sit at the back while others lead from the front?’ I have never sat at the back of a room since.

4. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

Not to take the opinions of others to heart. Throughout my career and even in my school years I was regularly told that I would never achieve or become ‘anyone’. I could have listened, absorbed and eventually believed this negativity and not even tried to succeed. However, I didn’t. Even today, from time to time, when I say I am going to do something, I know there are raised eyebrows of doubt from some people. However I love it when individuals doubt me, because it fuels my fire to prove that if you put your mind to something, anything can be achieved by anyone.

5. What is the worst job you have ever had?

I worked in a pie and mash shop from the ages of 12 to 15. After a day of washing plates and cleaning, I had to clean the stand where they had chopped up the eels. It wasn’t at all nice dealing with heads and tails of eels. I almost cut off my finger when I dropped a large eel knife and attempted to catch it. I still have the scar on my wedding finger to prove it!

6. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

If you see barriers then they will stop you getting ahead. I never let the fact that I am a woman hold me back in terms of what I could achieve. I came across instances where it was apparent that the consensus was a woman shouldn’t have been doing my job, but I chose to ignore it. I spent the first half of my career working mostly with men and there was a point early on in my career where I thought I had to act like a man to get ahead. Thankfully, I came to my senses and realised that to emulate others, be it their leadership styles or attitudes, is pointless. You are who you are and if you try to be the best you can be then that is good enough.

7. What is the last book you read?

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It came out while I was in the middle of writing my own book and when you write a book, the advice is not to read any similar books in case you subconsciously plagiarise. It was driving me mad as everyone was talking about a book I wasn’t able to read. My favourite business book is More Balls than Most: Juggle your way to success with proven company shortcuts by Lara Morgan and I also enjoyed Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland.

8. How do you deal with pressure?

Believe it or not, I actually take time out to think. A coach once made me go to a café and just sit there and think. No notepads, no phone, just me and my thoughts. My first reaction was to think he was nuts, an hour to think when I could be working, but it actually helped to prioritise my thoughts. I still use this practice to this day. When the going gets tough, I go for a coffee.

9. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

I would have gone to college and then university straight from school, but from a financial perspective this was not an option at the time.

10. What are your top tips for networking?

Building a network of contacts is key to developing your career. There are 800 women’s networks across London and they are just the ones that I have come into contact with. There is no excuse in terms of not meeting new people or continuing to learn new skills – there are plenty of opportunities you just need to grab them!

My biggest piece of advice when networking is to give first and not expect anything in return: the world has a funny way of paying back good deeds. I would also encourage individuals to become ‘connectprenuers’ – opening your network to others, for example. Six years ago, mid-career, I didn’t necessarily see the benefits [of this]: how blinkered was I? I thought my network would come to me!

I would also encourage individuals to think about their opening statement when they meet people so they include the key facts about themselves and make a great first impression. Body language is key, be engaged in the conversation. Don’t forget your business cards and remember that the follow-up and maintenance of the relationship is equally important. Connect within 48 hours using tools such as LinkedIn or Twitter.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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