Kicking off our March campaign Conversation Changers - which shines a spotlight on women who are helping to change the conversation to include women in it, as well as creating debate around women in industry - HuffPost UK Lifestyle interviewed Pinky Lilani, the founder of several women's awards.
She can be credited with creating the Asian Women of Achievement Awards, Women of the Future and the First Women awards, working tirelessly to connect women and help them get ahead. In 2007, she was honoured with an OBE for her efforts to celebrate women's achievements.
In person, she is both a whirlwind of energy and the calm, fixed point in the room - articulate, inspiring and utterly humble.
So, we were dying to ask, what makes a woman of worth? Read on...
You started off with the Asian Women of Achievement awards, having worked in business and food. What gave you the idea of founding an event that celebrated women?
I think at the time, I thought there were too many stereotypes about Asian women in public domain. It was to get away from the idea that Asian women spent their time frying onion bhajis at home.
I had an intrinsic belief that these women who achieved wonderful things were there, but there were so many more than I envisaged. I think that’s important for other women to see and the minute you read about what others are doing, it makes you feel like you can do achieve something great.
Women are naturally retentive when it comes to shouting about their achievements though – did you find that?
I don’t think it comes naturally and I’ve encouraged women to come forward, but I think that applies to men too. When it comes to the nominations for awards, I think people love others putting them forward. But women need it much, much more.
Some women aren’t - there is around 10% that are far too pushy and they aren’t the kind of people I want to put forward. They talk in a different way about their achievements – you hear the word ‘I’ a lot - and I feel women need to build champion circles and mentor circles around them.
Do you find it easy to talk about what you’ve achieved? (Which is a lot!)
No! When I approach or talk to a new company – I don’t want to tell someone about all my achievements. But we have to learn how to talk about it, and it is an art. It takes practice, and one way of getting better at it is watching others do it. You don’t want to undersell yourself because if you don’t value yourself who will?
The most valuable thing is to learn how to disarm people and make them believe in you. It’s not Nescafe, an instant solution – it can take years to perfect. I never used to be able to speak in public 10 years and now my biggest role is speaking everywhere around all kinds of subjects.
I know it sounds old-fashioned but modesty is a very important virtue – nobody likes someone who is arrogant.
What has changed for women, in terms of confidence of their own abilities?
A lot has changed – we have many more women in the corporate sector than before.
This year – I’ve discovered that the head of Superdrug is a woman, and the right-hand executive of the head of Monsoon is a woman. What I loved about all of them, is that they are senior and they are modest, but also see themselves as doing a great job.
All of them have the sense of humility and modesty.
What needs to change?
Women always say that they would like more mentors, but in the City, women are saying they are so stretched and are asked to be mentors but can’t do it all. The real challenge for young people is to find a mentor who is willing to give them time.
You’ve been called one of Britain’s most entrepreneurial women – what does that mean to you?
I never see myself as being entrepreneurial but I love doing something new – I get bored very easily. I love the idea of being creative and I try to do things differently.
I think some of it is around challenging the stereotype – so when I started doing cooking classes and people said: “How can you do a team building day in your own kitchen?” I thought, well why not? However, there are times when I give up on something when I know it’s not going to work.
Do women have to work harder than men to succeed?
We have different challenges to men – women have maternity leave and that leads to a loss of confidence in the work place because you’ve missed out on office gossip and where the power lies.
Whatever we say, the responsibilities of domestic life and childcare much more falls on most women – and they have less time to do everything. A man goes off to work while a woman has to plan their day.
Another thing I have noticed is that around eight or nine women in senior positions have told me they have a huge issue with guilt – this is an issue that keeps coming up.
What are some of the key characteristics you admire in women?
Clarity of thinking, people who are warm and have a passion for what they do. Women who are enthusiastic and who are collaborators, and who are also kind.
Being kind is the biggest strength any woman can have – it isn’t spoken about enough and being nice to people is what ultimately brings business. Women are reluctant to take up softer qualities but that’s where they need mentors and champions because it’s much more effective than being hard and inflexible.
In your opinion, what are the conversations we need to have to help women get ahead?
I don’t like the term ‘network’ – I prefer the idead of building relationships – to let anything grow, you need to keep watering it.
Networking events don’t work like that or help you to be creative. You need to be challenged if you are going to get somewhere and women have a lot of comfort zones. Women tend to stay in their own circles.
Sometimes it isn’t comfortable and we need women to build more in-depth and wider relationships. Men tend to have superficial, wide, relationships with a lot of people.
And – we have to get rid of our guilt and find a champion – not a mentor – to help us. Champions are much more useful than mentors.