There are three things that have helped me and my company to flourish over the past 20 years, and survive the awful economic downturns of 2013 and now the global pandemic.

On Tuesday, I was honoured to share these lessons with female leaders at the launch of the Rose Review Female Entrepreneurs Mentoring Programme led by Be the Business and supported by NatWest. The online launch event provided some fascinating facts that show why the UK desperately needs more women to succeed in business. 

As the founder and leader of a Queen’s Award-winning company that trades internationally and has developed advanced software worth big bucks, it may come as a surprise to learn that I am a shy person at heart. Since first trading at the market aged just six, I knew I had to learn to be confident; after all, I was a brilliant little hawker that customers trusted and wanted to buy from.

Being the youngest child in the family with two bullish brothers who would later join the army, I picked up on a few of their tricks, such as the way boys play differently to girls. These were ingrained in me and helped me understand how the business mind of a man operates compared to a woman. This proved priceless and in my first trade visit to Dubai after the collapse of the Soviet Union, my 17-year-old business mind combined with my female savvy taught me some lifelong lessons about trading.

Fast forward 18 years to being the CEO of a successful private business, self-taught software coder and the first Lithuanian-born woman to be honoured with an MBE by Her Majesty the Queen, and I still lacked confidence.

Enter stage left, Sir Charlie Mayfield’s Be the Business movement and their entrepreneur mentoring scheme. Like many self-starter leaders, I was sceptical about being mentored – after all, I’d built a business already, what could I learn?

However, the opportunity to receive mentoring from a senior leader in the John Lewis Partnership was irresistible, not least because I admire the brand’s values and want to give my colleagues a stake in my company.

I enrolled and was mentored by Rory Campbell, then Head of Partnerships. What can I say? My scepticism turned to enlightenment. It was invaluable to be able to talk and question and listen to someone who was completely outside my business but was in a space where he could share the insights I needed. The frankness of discussions quickly built trust and we have grown to be good friends.

It was invaluable to be able to talk and question and listen to someone who was completely outside my business but was in a space where he could share the insights I needed.

What Rory taught me might sound quite glib or cliché but it is far from it; he helped me to face up to the trivia that affected my self-confidence and let me smile as I tore it up. He helped me see who I am, how I operate, and most of all what I’m capable of in business. I know why I think like a businessman and how that helps me succeed but I also know that a man could not do my job, not in the successful way I as a female entrepreneur do it.                 

That’s all nice for me but what the mentoring has meant for my company is we are stronger as a team and an organisation. That resilience has even played a vital role in seeing us through the devastating impact of the economic crisis caused by Covid-19.

Guildhawk was hit hard as clients’ projects across the globe were put on hold. At one point, sales dropped by 50% and we were paying rent, service charges and rates on five offices that were vacant for 6 months; and were ineligible for any grant funding or discounts. My new-found confidence and knowledge and the expertise of my beautifully talented team gave us the edge, the resilience to act fast and as one force.

The complexities of moving the entire workforce to remote working, relocating servers from London to the primary data centre,  and the legal and logistical process of surrendering office leases was a Herculean (or should I say an Elizabethan) task. The speed and efficiency of our actions starting in January, when we saw the first signs that the virus was spreading fast, were central to our survival.

We were blessed that, in September, our work for clients reached a new high and our productivity increased. I cannot thank my teams enough for their stoicism and devotion to duty during seven months of lockdown. They have had to carry a burden that few people experience in their lives, the responsibility for the survival of your company and your CEO.

I am especially touched by their espirit de corp and high morale during this dark time. The teams are working so hard but always make the time to connect with each other, checking on each other’s welfare and joining our weekly social gathering in Zoomland. Even this event has turned into a fun, original event that sums up so much of the Guildhawk character.

Humans come together in times of serious crisis; I saw this first hand when the USSR collapsed and knew we would see it again when Brexit occurred. However, I never imagined I’d see us fighting for survival against an invisible enemy.

My original scepticism about being mentored brings a smile to my face as I write this. Small wonder that, after my Be the Business experience, I went on to arrange mentoring for my key managers, all of whom are also reaping the rewards. Since the crisis hit, we have invested further into our staff by turning the dead money paid in office rent into investment in training for our Guildhawks.

…after my Be the Business experience, I went on to arrange mentoring for my key managers, all of whom are also reaping the rewards.

We are a women-owned, women-led business that employs and trains a lot of women. We also provide regular employment for our global network of consultants, many of whom are self-employed women leaders in their communities.

To that end, I am enormously privileged to be able to say Guildhawk has grown to become a factory for fabulously talented female entrepreneurs. These are vital ingredients that make us ready for growth and will feed our success in the future.  

Now, before I miff off all the fabulously talented entrepreneurial men, including my Yorkshire-born husband David, I’d just like to add that whether it’s a female leader understanding her male side or vice versa, it all comes down to one thing: confidence in yourself. The Be the Business mentoring was excellent because it helped me see the role model that is in me and every other woman and man, if we let it out.

The new mentoring programme launched by the inspirational leader Alison Rose, the first female CEO of a major bank, is so timely and much needed. I strongly encourage every female entrepreneur, whether they run a start-up or a multi-million turnover company, to follow Alison’s lead and get involved.

You’ll find it so refreshing and it will give you and your teams the much needed resilience to grow and to face whatever challenges are around the corner next.