OG Louisa Church (Strutt) was our guest speaker at Speech Day 2018. We are so grateful to Louisa for giving such a wonderful, funny and enlightening speech and for the advice you gave to our whole school audience.
I remember when I was sat where you are. Most of you are getting hungry, some of you are recovering from post-exam partying and general merriment, and there are Picnics, air conditioning and Champagne outside - but you can’t escape or resume tweeting, texting or twerking, until I have finished, so listen up.
When I was asked to make this speech, my immediate response was yes – it was the only time I was likely going to get up on this stage given my school achievements were mediocre at best and I suspect my parents were disappointed I never won prizes, given all the effort they had put in. It has only taken 18 years, being fired from a few jobs, being held hostage, questionable boyfriends, breast cancer, broken bones and defying the odds as a woman in finance to do it but Mum and Dad….I have finally made it up here.
My name is Louisa, I was in Methuen and then School house, and I had a rabbit called Snuffles in pet’s corner.
Maybe, like some of you, when I had finished school and later university, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. The 18 years since leaving school have been eventful. Some of the best and worst times - and I have learnt, often the hard way, a few things, that may be useful to you, as you get closer to sailing off into the sunset whilst omitting the most obvious Clichés like “hard work pays.”
I fully expect you to forget or ignore most of what I say, but if just one or two of these lessons resonate with you, that’s enough for me.
Before leaving school, my assumption was that once I could legally drink, drive, have sex and vote, I would have succeeded in becoming an independent adult. I thought pointless rules would no longer apply and life would be mine for the taking.
In reality it’s pretty simple, when someone else is paying your bills, the rules count, and they have the majority vote on pretty much everything.
One of the best decisions I unconsciously made was to get a job as a chef while at Edinburgh University studying History of Art. I call this phase of my life “Cooking for Independence.”
It was more profitable and rewarding than waitressing, bar tending, being a drinks rep or running the guest list at night clubs (which I did as well) and I could then afford to do responsible, grown up and independent things like:
Most importantly these cooking skills gave me the ability to stay in London after being fired from my first two jobs. I was fired once because I wouldn’t have a romantic relationship with my then boss and second because I was utterly hopeless at the job.
I was as broke as it was possible to be, without being homeless, and I cooked in London, state run primary schools to pay my rent whilst having career/life dilemmas with a large helping of confidence crisis and self-doubt. The cooking jobs meant that, towards the end of every month I might have only had the money to choose between Tesco chicken pasta or pea and ham soup, but I was still in the game and within spitting distance of a career, I hoped.
So, get a job, part time, full time, quarter-time – if you are lucky enough not to have to, it’s almost more important. You don’t have to have finished school to do it and trust me, it will be tough and it won’t be glamourous. It will however, teach you greater self-esteem, confidence, respect for others, the value of money and might just be the thing that saves you when the chips are down.
If like me, you end up with no clear idea about what to do with your life or career, annoyingly lack a trust fund and have to get a job, don’t worry if plan A fails.
While cooking school dinners I concluded my plan A was to work at Conde Nast, the Vogue & Tatler magazine publisher. Surely, working for a glamorous magazine, or at the very worst House and Gardens, was the answer to my career dilemma.
This idea was possibly because it couldn’t be further away from school dinners, and I was convinced these magazine girls spent their time in far flung corners of the world and attended awesome parties while I spent my evenings washing fish finger and chicken nugget debris out of my hair.
While waiting for my magazine dream job to reply to my job applications, I interviewed for the role of a Personal Assistant to the CEO of a Hedge Fund. The interview went well, he talked a lot about his love of the countryside, shooting, fishing and conservation. By the end of the interview I cleverly concluded that a hedge fund must be a spin off from the Countryside Alliance or managed government funding to improve the state of the UK’s hedges.
The Hedge Fund CEO called me the next week. To my complete shock and horror he offered me the job. Since my interview, I had done a bit of research on these Hedge Funds and realised they were similar to investment banks, which I felt sure I would be allergic to given banking and finance appeared SO. INCREDIBLY. BORING. I apologised profusely and politely told him my career aspirations were really more Conde Nast flavoured.
I confessed that I was actually a terrible personal assistant given issues such as my two finger typing ability, total disorganisation and that I thought power point was a gym class. Ultimately I suggested he could do much, much better.
When he learnt I had yet to have a single interview for Conde Nast he made me the following offer – commit to a year or two of being my personal assistant and in return we will teach you finance and give you the opportunity to build a proper career. Sleep on it.
How annoying! I really wanted to wait for the magazine dream, but my rational brain told me I should probably consider a Plan B. I accepted the job, concluding that at least I could get paid while waiting for the call up to be a Vogue editor. Who knew finance would end up being my thing but with luck and the universe throwing me a bone, today, 14 years later I am a European CEO at a $22bn business.
Be open to different possibilities and know that despite the power of Google, you probably don’t know what all your options, and more importantly skills are, until you are out there trying.
If you parents give you hassle about this you can tell them that a recent study carried out by Dell suggests that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.
I should have put this first, as this is the most important advice I can give you.
Without some incredible friends, a long suffering family and husband I absolutely don’t deserve, I am pretty sure life would be dramatically different. Be nicer to your parents, they can be challenging but should be handled with care. I am pretty sure they will have made and will keep making enormous sacrifices to give you a start in life that most people can only dream of. In around 20 years’ time when you realise I am right, you will regret there isn’t more time to thank them. So thank them. A bit.
Your friends are crucial, not only do they celebrate life’s great moments with you, but they also serve important functions like: scraping you off the floor post breakups, job failures, disappointing exam results or bad life choices. Good friends will come with a well-timed handkerchief when you are sad, a slap in the face when you need it and a bottle of vodka when you really need it. Your family also does a good job of doing those things too, but generally without the vodka.
The Urban Dictionary defines Grit as “courage, guts and spirit.” Grit is a common characteristic across most successful people I have met. It is also most obvious when people are doing something they enjoy.
My brilliant art teacher had the ability to identify the early signs of “Grit” in Godolphin girls. When I was 13 he wrote in my school report “if you could win prizes for determination, enthusiasm and drive, Louisa would win a Gold medal.” Frustratingly there were no A-Level’s in Grit.
As a very junior member of my current firm I lobbied to build our business in the Middle East. I knew if successful, it would help my career, if I failed I would need a solid Plan C. Eight years ago, it was near impossible to get a visa, as an unmarried woman travelling alone in Saudi Arabia, one of the countries I wanted to visit, but after two years of applications my visa finally came through.
I merrily ordered my Hijab and an Abaya (something like a Burka) and boarded British airways flight 263 to Riyadh. At the time, travelling as a single woman in Saudi mean staying in hotels on a women’s only floor, being escorted by an approved chaperon and eating in separate sections of restaurants to men. At the time women were not allowed to drive and ones with jobs were an absolute minority.
As the plane took off I mulled all these things over and it dawned on me that being a woman might prevent me from succeeding, that some cultural differences would be insurmountable and my conviction and courage might have suffered from a serious error in judgment.
Despite cultural differences, the individuals I work with in Saudi Arabia have always been charming, interesting, incredibly welcoming and have become close friends over the years. We now laugh, that during the first three years of my visits, there was not a single women’s loo in any of their offices. The Middle East risk paid off, it took three years, hard work and wildly improved my pelvic floor muscles.
Knowing when to use the having “guts” part of Grit can be a work in progress. A year into joining my firm as a junior associate I called the global CEO “Absolutely Mental.”
Unfortunately, the sizable management committee and other senior members of the firm were also in the room. My boss called me after the meeting and gave me the following advice: on this occasion your use of language was fair, however, calling your CEO “absolutely mental” on a regular basis is not ideal and I would advise you to only use it very selectively, in fact, possibly never again.
Apply Grit and take ownership about whether you are being given a fair and equal chance of success. Unfortunately there are businesses that make it incredibly difficult to thrive if you are a woman. I resigned from a job almost immediately after joining, as I was told by senior management, that an individual, who would meaningfully influence my success, didn’t like women with a backbone and was regularly prone to inappropriate behaviour towards women.
Resigning was a difficult decision. I was junior and desperately wanted the job, thinking it was my “Big Break.” Self-respect and self-preservation made me put my big girl pants on and wave goodbye.
My Big Break would come later at, BlueMountain, who are essentially gender blind. They are enormously supportive of enabling women to have long term careers and importantly supporting women to have a successful career and a family. While they are incredibly special in that respect, I believe that are other firms who share that philosophy and I encourage you to be wise and seek them out when looking for a job.
Companies and professionals that don’t value men and women equally are archaic. They show poor judgement given women make up more than 50% of the world’s population and that means they fish in a talent pool half the size of others. Anyone can work out the stupidity in that.
I am going to plagiarise this piece of advice from Chris Pratt, who put it much more eloquently than I could.
“ If you are strong, be a protector. If you are smart, be a humble influencer. Strength and intelligence can be weapons, so do not wield them against the weak. That makes you a bully. Be bigger than that. ”
Life at school and life after school can be rife with anxiety inducing issues and regular trips to “Down in the Dumps.” My favourite venue for down in the dumps at work is the disabled loo on the 3rd floor, no one can hear me sobbing and I can then pretend its hay fever.
Relationships, jobs, exams, health, family and friends, even really terrible haircuts are the most usual reasons for these episodes. My antidote has been to find and pursue something that is yours, is just for fun or is a real passion (partying and festivals do not count, unless you are a DJ). For example: I love riding, specifically show jumping and have not wavered from my goal of achieving Olympic success before I die, while knowing I am more likely to die whilst trying.
My nickname at our yard is Tumble-lina and over the last two years I have broken my neck, ribs, collar bone and got a fancy brain haemorrhage. Like with my job, I am banking on Grit and determination winning out over talent and remain optimistic that someday you will see me participating as part of team GB!
For want of a better phrase, riding is my “happy place” and delivers a healthy dose of perspective, irrespective of if the world around me has gone mad.
My advice on romance is thankfully short and very simple. Aim to become the Prime Minister, United Nations Secretary-General, CEO, Chef, Editor, Film Director or Surgeon your parents want you to marry, and then marry someone you actually like.
When I was leaving Godolphin I was pretty sure I knew who I was, that some part of the world was mine for the taking and I would make vaguely sensible life choices like marrying Enrique Iglesias or Brad Pitt, if Leonardo di Caprio said no. I hoped to live an extraordinary life, move as far away from Hampshire and parental oversight as possible and never date another public-school boy. However: we recently moved to a house in Hampshire, I married a public school boy and I see my parents every weekend.
As I said, anything can happen.
Baz Luhrmann wrote “Don't worry about the future. Or worry. But know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
Don’t panic and importantly go and enjoy life. Life after school can be heat-breaking and overwhelmingly amazing but ultimately it will be what you make of it.