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On Friday, a group of my peers gave me an award for Sussex Business Woman of the Year at the Business Women Excellence Awards. I was both delighted and surprised. I have never really thought of myself as a business woman – my stereotypes of business women aren’t good, in fact I’m not sure I have any other than Karren Brady from The Apprentice, was she the Bravissimo lady? I’m not sure. “Business” meant money, meant transactions, meant something dull. As a leader in a not-for-profit social enterprise, the notion of business has always been a bit alien. So being recognised for being Sussex Business Woman of the Year is a strange and curious title to wear…

As a young female leader in health and social care, my role models were some formidable women. One such woman was Kate Money, who mentored me in my mid 20s and early 30s, and taught me most of what I know about organisational life. Kate is an intellectual and a consummate politician, who stuck to her guns, played hard and worked hard. She was unmarried with no children and her life was her work, until her early retirement about 15 years ago. In my 20s she challenged me to be my very best self, to be smart, to plan, to be nimble in a dialogue, to stretch what was possible, play by the rules and sometimes break them.

I was reflecting over the weekend (getting used to my new curious title of Business Woman of the Year), that now in my early 50s, I am the same age as Kate was when we moved apart to different roles. That for the last 10 years it has been my turn to create the conditions for other leaders – men and women alike – to be their best selves and do their best work. Since co-creating Here (then BICS) with my dear friends and co-founders Peter Devlin and Jonathan Serjeant, we have created an organisation that I am truly proud of. It is only in the last few years that I even identify it with being a “business”, which of course we are. We transact with money, employ people to do useful and meaningful work, play a part in the economy… adding social value along the way.

It is frankly amazing that a group of my peers consider that my work has “made a significant individual contribution to deliver superior performance” and this is down to many things… My shaping by people like Kate Money, learning with my co-founders, the experience of working with the women and men at Here, and those I work most closely with in our national service, Practice Unbound. I stand on their shoulders, their experience – and I truly felt the exhilaration of team work on Friday night. That it wasn’t just my win but it was all of ours.

As we were celebrating so many amazing women and their achievements on Friday night at the Women in Business Excellence Awards, it was poignant to remember that 100 years ago women over 30 who owned property, were married, rented over £5 annually or were graduates got the right to vote. All year I have been struck by the thought that this is actually a very limited pool, and this was a watershed moment where women came into public life as people whose voices could be heard in our democracy. It continued to mark a change for women, one that we still need to work on today – where we still need to address the gender pay gap, where we still need to protect women’s rights and we still need to create spaces where women can be their best selves.

As I get used to my new title, I realised that this woman also stands on the shoulders of all those who lived and died for the suffrage we gained in 1918 and I stand beside all those who create environments and teach others be their best selves. Thank you Women Business Excellence for helping me to reclaim the right to stand on those shoulders with pride and I offer my shoulders for others to stand on.

 

Find out more about the innovative work Zoe and her Practice Unbound team are doing.

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