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One woman’s journey towards empowerment - and business ownership

Becky Jay - london

Founder of climbing travel business, Chalk Up Travel

March 8th 2019

Every International Women’s Day, a plethora of events and promotions pop up all over my social media streams and in the media. My urban and forward-thinking community have given a platform to inspiring women and to encourage others - effectively this is my bubble of society saying “yes, it’s ok to be a woman and to be a leader”. There have always been strong female role models and successful women to inspire others, but as they have generally been in the minority, they are dispersed among the males who generally seem to possess more of the leadership attributes. Or so society would have us think. In this era of smartphones and digital communication, social media is a massive levelling field and, more crucially, a medium for uniting those women who are determined and driven to become leaders.

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My story - from academia to the tourism industry

In my story of female business ownership however, I would say that it takes more than a digital connection or a one-off talk to create the sense of empowerment needed to take the plunge and start a business. Entering the sphere of entrepreneurship had never crossed my mind, not for a split second, until 13 months ago. Coming from an academic family, I was lead to believe that gaining qualifications and certificates would lead me on a route to happiness: to give me stability and an income that would see me through maternity leave and child-rearing and out the other side.

After graduating disillusioned with this idea, I fell into the tourism industry, and into a 100% female-owned and female-directed company called OneStage. I found the two directors to be incredibly normal and down-to-earth. They were constantly juggling work with school-age children, yet managed to be everywhere and on top of things all the time. They had created a business that was successful, sustainable, and suited to their lifestyle. They didn’t start the business because they were women, they simply happened to be women who started a business. I was in awe of them. Somehow in my surburban, sheltered upbringing, I hadn’t come across this before. Up until that point, the only images and role models that I had for professional leadership were men.

Taking inspiration from female hostel owners

After two fantastic years of working at Onestage, I attended the Stay WYSE conference in Amsterdam, which is focused on youth hostels and their impact on travel. Many of these hostels are created from the ground up by young entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s, often women. They reminded me of a Canadian friend, Megan, who had also created and run her own hostel. All these women were proof that starting a business or enterprise doesn’t take a hero or a genius or a man - it takes someone who is dedicated, smart, and has a great plan. Someone like you or me. By this point, working for a female-owned business had become part of my psyche and no longer seemed strange or unusual. Through these relations and interactions, my mentality had changed, and suddenly starting and running a business in tourism had become something attainable, achievable, and even normal.

Perceptions of women and their role in society and in a professional context vary greatly across countries, religions, cultures, professions, and places. My experience in tourism is that the skills needed to manage a hotel or tourist board are equally distributed between the attributes that have typically been associated with men and women. A degree of leadership, management and drive (traditionally associated with men); but also attention to detail, organisation and artistic judgement (traditionally associated with women) are needed in these roles. I take great pleasure in knowing that the owner or leader of any given accommodation, tour or activity provider, could equally be male or female, and there is no judgement whatsoever on the skill of that myself or the other person based on their gender.

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My climbing business, Chalk Up Travel

Interestingly, my business straddles the worlds of tourism and of climbing, which has seen a huge surge in popularity. What was previously seen as a macho, male-dominated sport has been turned around by some hugely successful female British climbers such as Hazel Findlay and Shauna Coxsey. In London, there are reports that the male to female climber ratio is broadly 50:50 which is a staggering change from 20 years ago. Even 6 years ago when I joined my university’s climbing club, girls were outnumbered and certainly outvoiced. Outwardly the sport’s public figures seem to shout about a huge success in climbing for equality, modernity and empowerment; but if we delve into the depths of the finance and look at who is making money out of the indoor climbing centre boom, I have yet to discover a climbing centre which is female-owned. In the realms of the climbing world, therefore, Chalk Up Travel is in a stark minority.

In deciding to take the leap to start my own business in the travel and tourism industry, I can confidently say that I was lucky to be in a place where actually, being a woman wasn’t even a consideration. Because in tourism, there are so many women in the industry - at least on the lower and medium levels. I was treated with respect by suppliers, peers, partners and clients alike. Because I had all these role models around me, people that I knew personally and could relate to - including female directors and female business-owners - it became normalised for me. The barriers in my own mind that had existed previously had completely gone. I had become empowered.

Harnessing support from other women

On the journey to starting a business, I have received words of support and encouragement from all sides, probably on a par with announcing that I would be having a baby. However, the most meaningful words have come from close female friends who are brilliant and clever and successful,  yet they have told me that they see me as an inspiration, and some have even found the news has given them courage to make changes in their own lives. On one hand, this “mini-movement” among just those in my social circle gives me great pride and makes me dream about what we could achieve if more women did this. On the other hand, the fact that starting a business is seen by these friends as so unusual and out of the ordinary gives an idea of the huge shift in mentality that has not yet been achieved in our society, even amongst the educated and progressive community from which the majority of my friends come from.

The most meaningful moment on my journey came from a conversation with my mother about my plan. Upon telling her the news, she looked at me and said “I could never have done that.” She is incredibly sharp, clever and business-minded. What she meant was “I never felt like I could have done that”. Although there are many prominent and successful women in business of her age, the key point is that my mother’s circumstances, surroundings and the culture in which she was brought up never led her to believe that she was capable of such a thing.

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Paying that encouragement forward

Starting a business still takes a huge amount of bravery and determination, and there are many barriers to success, but I believe that we can remove the barrier that still exists for many women by actively networking, encouraging each other, by proactively looking out for anyone who might need some encouragement. The WITH network is an amazing example how we can do this. In doing so we are creating a more balanced society that has a higher percentage of entrepreneurs all round. If more women are encouraged to take leadership roles, whether that be creating or directing a business, there will be a snowball effect, as these women become prominent and in turn their network and their employees realise that they too could create a business that works for them. Eventually female business ownership could reach 50%. At that point, we will have achieved equality for women within this sector.

There are many challenges faced by women around the world. In the UK, which regards itself as one of the most democratic and free-thinking societies in the world, I would say that our minimum objective has to be to remove the mental and cultural barriers that up until now have existed in discourse of the media and of the educational system. By changing perceptions and expectations, we can make a better future for everyone, men and women alike.