Simone Roche is managing director at event curation company Events 1st and co-founder / licensee for TEDxWhitehallWomen, developing a specialist network of members and a portfolio of events, including the Women 1st Conference and the Shine Awards. She joined the Royal Navy at 17 as a radio operator, scaling the ranks up to Lieutenant, before roles including looking after sponsors for London 2012 as a client services manager, events and sales management roles at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Aintree Racecourse, eventually becoming deputy general manager of operations for the build of the new Echo Arena in Liverpool. Simone is passionate about talent and stepped into gender diversity at People 1st, the workforce development charity for skills in the visitor economy.
Simone is spearheading the #NorthernPowerWomen campaign and part of this is curating a one day conference taking place on 12th March 2015, focusing on gender diversity and the North of England as a force for change.
My career journey
I found my way into the world of work via the armed forces after a careers fair in the college gymnasium – after passing the tests for the RAF I tried my hand at the Royal Navy too – here I found my soul mates – work hard play hard and an amazing eight years.
The thing with the forces is to throw yourself in, there is so much you can get involved in which of course I did – potholing, yacht sailing, cox of the rowing team, flying lessons and random karaoke sessions in the middle of the sea dressed in a bin bag!
Too ‘old’ at 25?
The Navy was the best thing I could ever have done at the age of 17 /18 was join the forces. Equally when I was 25 I thought I wanted to do something else before I was too ‘old’, which I suppose back in those days was a bit of the challenge to find a different career at 25. If I hadn’t left the Navy at 25 I would have had to sign up until I was 30. That was important because I thought I’d never get another career at 30.
After eight years and having subspecialised to air traffic control after ‘driving’ the ships I decided I wanted to have another career.
I’d loved the putting things together, the logistics side , the events side , the connecting side. That was always my passion. That was how I got to Aintree. I started at the home of one of the global top 20 sporting events the Grand National and loved it.
I spent a happy five years there heading up the conference and banqueting activity where I managed to build the business up from nothing. It was my own franchise model. I learnt about building something and about understanding what the customer expects from the experience.
One of my greatest achievements here was taking a wonderful young woman called Stephanie at 16 on an apprenticeship – I loved seeing her blossom and develop into a National Sales Manager and new mum, I’m so proud to still be friends with her and family.
From managing one person, to 40, to 80
I went over to work at the at the Clear Channel theatres in Southport. I was in charge of the corporate side and sales business, then I was appointed Head of Sales at Pleasure Beach Blackpool which was a massive job with multiple remits from call centre, group sales, corporate and travel trade. I went from having one person to a team of 40 in low season and 80 in the high season.
Making friends with the city
Blackpool was the last job I ever applied for. I got approached to go and be the Deputy General Manager operations of the Liverpool Arena and Convention Centre. That was during the build phase and very exciting working with so many stakeholders both on site and in the wider city community. The arena has been part of the changing landscape of the historic waterfront and was great to be a part of this phase in the run up to the European Capital of Culture celebrations for Liverpool.
That was a big thing. I’d always wanted to work in Liverpool. I was only there for 11 months and then again I got headhunted to go and work for People 1st working out of London promoting and supporting the the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industries as a great place to work and develop. During that career I was working from home and working down in London.
Born out of those big, scary statistics
During my time there was when People 1st published its research into women in the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industry. It was because of this research and passion for skills and talent that Women 1st was created. The scary fact was that, while 59% of the hospitality and tourism workforce was female, only 6% of board level directors were women. 310,000 women were leaving the industry each year, costing businesses £2.8bn to recruit and train talent to replace them.
This key research found five key barriers to women’s development in the industry. As well as challenges with childcare and other caring responsibilities as a result of the ageing population, there were issues with unconscious bias, lack of confidence, lack of positive female role models. This research laid the foundations for Women 1st.
I then had the opportunity to be part of the Olympics and when I came back I was asked to head up Women 1st in a new era of trying to take it into a sustainable entity that would really support women, grow the talent pipeline and showcase positive female role models.
Sustainability and ability to help
My chief executive said he wanted the research to gather momentum and have that sustainability. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it well. The whole remit of my new role was to give it that sustainability and ability to be able to help and support women in industry, as well as to showcase positive female role models.
So we curated the first Women 1st Conference which was, and still is, about learning from all industries about best practice, guidance and tactics to make businesses more balanced.
We also created the Women 1st Shine Awards and Top 100 Club. One of the big things from the research was that women weren’t seeing enough positive female role models. We wanted to shine a light on the women who are out there making a difference and make them visible so that more women in more junior roles can see it can be done.
In addition to our Shine Awards, which recognise outstanding female achievers in the visitor economy , we created ‘The Top 100 Club’, a network of the most influential women in our industries who are nominated by their peers and act as role models to future female leaders.
Aside from the conference, we have created a year-round programme of smaller networking events, so women (and men) could come to find that camaraderie, friendship and collaborative business support, which I think becomes really addictive.
We’ve had three really successful conferences with some massively high profile speakers: The Vice President of Coca-Cola flew in for the second one; we’ve had the Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post host and speak; we’ve had partners from Ernst and Young, PwC and directors from Tesco. We’ve had Margaret Hodge MP and Jacqueline Gold, CEO of Ann Summers.
Challenge for gender is everywhere
We wanted the conference to appeal not only to women from the visitor economy but to every industry, to demonstrate that the challenge for gender is everywhere. It’s not just specific to one sector and we can learn and share from others.
We’ve gone from 130 delegates in the first year to over 200 last year and our third year. That’s a good number for me so our delegates can get “up close and personal” with our speakers, really engage and benefit from the interaction they have on the day. We also have the networking that goes on all year round. I love that because it creates that natural mentoring relationship.
We have our Shine Awards this year recognising ‘Rising Stars’, ‘Stepping Up’ and ‘Mentors of the Year’, and then we have our bigger awards for ‘Large Businesses’ and ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and Woman of the Year.
Everyone who was shortlisted in our ‘Rising Star’ and ‘Stepping Up’ categories also receives a mentor from the bursary we created from the awards.
“It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life”
For me it’s not about creating a one night event. This is my, “It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life,” thing. It enables that person to have the support all year round.
In 2012 I co-founded TEDxWhitehallWomen out of meeting all these amazing people alongside a great friend of mine with an equal passion for collaborating and making a difference. That was because I come across so many amazing women and men who have such great stuff to say and I felt that the TED talks gave me a great opportunity to share what those people had to say. That’s been a labour of love. It’s a different way of sharing great ideas.
Last year I created an event up in Liverpool during the International Festival for Business, called ‘Women Inspiring the Economy’. We had the President of MasterCard, Vice Chair of KPMG, and the MP Jenny Willott. It was all about, “What are you doing to inspire the economy?” “What are you doing to make change?”
You don’t have to be in London to have the answers
It was about inspiring and educating and making available all the resources, intelligence and data because we did lots of research face to face around that event to show people that there was so much out there that you can do. You don’t have to be in London to have the answers.
That’s been my foundation for why I’ve now created the ‘Northern Power Women’ event. You don’t have to leave your county, or even your road to be a Power Woman and do well in business. It’s here. It’s available.
To me it’s about bringing that critical mass of people together who will be able to drive that cause from the North, where the stage is less crowded in the diversity agenda. This isn’t just a conference; it’s a cause and a campaign we can drive from the North that will make a difference nationally and that will make a massive impact, so we do not have to wait 80 years for gender parity as the discussion was around [the World Economic Forum meeting] in Davos this week.
We’re starting to make that change today, not even from 12th March when the conference is taking place. We’re starting to make that change now. I reached out to an awful lot of organisations: you; Forward Ladies; Inspirational Journey’s Heather Jackson; Charlotte Sweeney, Claire Young.
More than just a conference
I’ve reached out to everybody I know is really passionate about the wider diversity agenda. I’m doing this for everybody. I can try to drive this myself, but everyone driving that change forward together is better, so it’s more than just a conference. It becomes something we can use to drive change from the North.
So for the format of the day, I always like to give quite a mix. Unless we’ve all been at school last week it’s very difficult to sit in a formal environment. We’ve got a minister speaking. It’s great we’ve got that support and also that access to Government to be able to make our points and put out messages across.
Choose your corner
I am very passionate and will have some great talks and then panels. I love the panel debates. Nobody’s going to like what everybody has to say, but on a panel discussion you can really choose your corner.
We’ve also got six workshops and then I’ve tried to sneak in a couple of masterclasses. I love the fact that you can get “up close and personal” with all the speakers and you have the opportunity to network with like-minded people who are there for similar reasons. I love that you can have those conversations you may not normally have in the workplace.
You’ve also got some learning. You’ve got something thought provoking from listening to the speakers or by taking something that you may have picked up from the workshops, notwithstanding the wider conversation that goes on now and post the event via the thought leadership, the social media, the Twitter, the Facebook – all that kind of thing, which I think is really important to make those conversations easy to have.
Have a voice heard outside the crowd
I live up North but I’ve been operating and working up and down the West Coast Main Line for the past few years. With all the talk about the Northern Powerhouse and devolved powers I think there’s a real opportunity to have a voice heard from outside the crowd.
By putting a really substantial campaign together, as Northern Power Women, I feel there’s a real opportunity for Government to be able to listen to what we want and need for the North of England. I wanted to stimulate debate outside London and I feel if we can bring our ministers to the table, we can create that discussion and bring about change.
What I’m also trying to do is to get our businesses to the table – businesses that maybe hadn’t thought of this as an issue or a challenge – and to say that’s what we want. We want to take this forward. We want to make this change and support our future talent pool by for example looking at what the gender pay gap is.
No “one size fits all” when it comes to politics
There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to politics. There’s an element of what the politicians can do to listen more. I don’t think this is just a Northern thing. I think there are issues such shared parental responsibilities, there’s flexible working and there’s the pay gap. A key driver will be our future talent and looking at out Gen Y Millennials and the youth coming through and how they want to work.
Let’s create noise here with the ministers present at the event and involved in the campaign.