5 career stories from women that define success on their own terms

When approaching an ocean passage, you know where you will start and where you are going, but nature is out of your control. Much like in life: everyone begins somewhere and usually has an idea of where they want to end up, however the gap in the middle always remains uncertain despite any amount of organisation. According to five successful women, for this very reason it can be best not to have a plan at all.

Accidents seemed to be the resounding confession echoing through Surrey Business School’s International Women’s Day 2021 panel. Each speaker agreed with those before her, admitting that making mistakes and taking chances helped her get to where she is now.

Not having a plan should not be confused with not having a strategy, however. Defining and practicing your own personal mission helps you stay true to yourself and can be key to prepare for unexpected opportunities, as well as validating that you are exactly where you need to be.

While these women’s achievements vary greatly in terms of scope, they are connected through the definitive sense of work ethic it took to reach them. Each story shares a courageous narrative that sees a heroine going against the tide to seize her future.

One thing is for certain: these women aren’t lacking in ambition. These women don’t drift along with the current and let possibilities pass them by. These women catch the waves.

Nikki Henderson was destined for the rhumb line. In other words, the straight, easy path in sailing that takes you from A to B. This route is reliable and perfectly acceptable, although if you keep your focus in the narrow tunnel you won’t see any other opportunities start to arise. When her private school education, complete with straight As, propelled her towards a prestigious university degree at Oxford or Cambridge and a probable academic career in the city to follow, something stopped Nikki in her tracks. It didn’t feel right, and her mum was instrumental in instigating this realisation.

“What makes your heart go wow, that’s what I want to do? What’s that burning, tickling feeling inside when you know that it’s the right thing and nothing can pull you away from that? I found that and it was sailing, so I jumped in.” Nikki has now been a professional sailor for over 10 years, with her many accolades including second place as skipper in the 2018 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and delivering Greta Thunburg to the 2019 Climate Conference in Madrid.

Nikki compares life to being at sea, which she argues has accelerated her personal journey and, “provided me that platform to grow all my other skills.” Decisions are visualised through waypoints, while the transition between shore and water reflects the ability to look at the world from a different angle.

“When you go to sea and you’re in the first stage of the leg, you really feel that first decision is massive. You really feel that first waypoint you make is going to affect everything, and as time goes on you realise there’s waypoints every single day of your life.” These represent the typically dominating topics such as career and education but are also reflective of other important factors, such as relationships, illnesses, family issues, money problems and mental health.

The significance of these waypoints? Don’t overthink them, as even if you make a wrong turn, another will crop up soon enough. This positive mentality highlights Nikki’s advice to take the pressure off yourself and leave your ego aside in order to discover your true passions. Her motto is: “To be a leader or to follow your dreams or find your motivations, first you must lead yourself.”

As fierce as she appears, Nikki is also humble, attributing much of her success to learning from others. For example, when attesting to being the best sailor in the Clipper race, she acknowledges the impact that absorbing knowledge from 60 fellow crew members on the boat had on the outcome: “Listening to other people and learning from them definitely helped me navigate through some of those way points.”

As we’ve learned, a crucial piece of the puzzle that is Nikki’s life is her mother, who just so happens to be the Right Honourable Anne Milton.

“If you spend too much time worried, concerned, cross, that life isn’t fair, it just holds you back. The one person it impacts more than anybody is yourself.” Anne Milton’s path is one of many twists and turns, however the skills she gained along the way helped inform the role she would later play in politics. In fact, Anne has just started a new career at the age of 65, emphasising how it’s never too late to change your mind.

One of few people – especially women – to go to university in her era, Anne was faced with limited options: train as a teacher, executive PA or a nurse. She picked the latter, although had no “burning ambition” to do so, as it meant she could be paid to live in London. Anne remained in the health service for 25 years.

Proof that all you need to succeed is determination, Anne became an accidental politician after having a change of heart and reading a lifestyle magazine article from 1992 entitled ‘How to become an MP’, which became her bible.

“I looked at the House of Commons and I thought ‘there are very few people that represent people like me.’” Unlike her daughter, who could have easily attended a prestigious university, Anne didn’t have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, but instead learned how to get it right by watching others do it wrong – particularly those whose public speaking was very poorly executed, “you learn as much from the bad as you do from the good.”

The ability to overcome obstacles and play the system aided her triumph in the field, and she advises that no matter the industry you’re breaking into, you must “use what you’ve got as a woman to succeed.”

Anne was elected in 2005 after winning a seat from another party and used her public sector background to instigate change. A self-proclaimed ‘born-again feminist’ and rule-breaker, she particularly enjoyed her stint as Minister for Women, with gender pay gap reporting introduced during this time, and even made history by becoming the first female Deputy Chief Whip in the entirety of parliament’s existence since 1500. On losing the whip Anne decided to stand as an independent, which she recalls as one of her bravest ever actions.

When asked about the most practical skills needed throughout her employment, Anne credits her innate sense of curiosity and friendliness. Empathy and the ability to listen well come naturally to her, therefore assisting when meeting new people and hearing their stories, which all of her roles required.

Perhaps Anne’s nerve is aligned with her bold notion that you do not need a plan and that ditching this idea is in itself an act of bravery, with which you will be rewarded the receptiveness to grab whatever comes your way. “Somebody once defined luck to me as ‘when preparation meets opportunity.’”

An insight learned from a series of unexpected successes is Anne’s recommendation to pause with gratitude and appreciate your situation, rather than constantly orchestrating what comes next. Pondering her biggest influences in life, Anne credits her four children, saying “I wanted to prove to them that you can do whatever you want.” After hearing from Nikki, I’d say she’s done a pretty amazing job.

In another testimonial that supports tackling the world in a more nomadic method rather than with a traditional structure, Cath Bishop suggests that if you want to plan something, plan how. “We come looking for an answer, for a right answer – be liberated from that. There isn’t a right answer.”

The athlete come author and motivational speaker reinforces that success comes in all shapes and sizes, and as soon as women start to define it on their own terms it generates the energy and space for greatness to happen.

Cath diminishes the theory infiltrating society that recipients of a gold medal will be fulfilled for life, stating how “in the world of Olympic sport there are winners that feel empty on the podium”. As a talented rower who earned herself a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, Cath knows more than most it’s not these external gains that stay with you, but the people you meet and stories you create on the journey to get there. Of course, it’s advantageous to set goals and achieve milestones, but contrary to popular opinion there’s more to it than that. “This sense of win and loss is what we need to get away from.”

Cath’s entrance into her sporting career was also one of luck. Having never been particularly gifted at P.E in school she classes herself as an ‘unlikely Olympian’, categorised in conventional terms as unsuitable due to her height, and lacking in confidence. At university, however, her new friends were accepting and encouraging, as well as desperate for a replacement when a member of their rowing team had to drop out due to injury. Cath was initially cautious, with two voices arguing in her head: one discouraging her and announcing she’d be useless; the other coaxing her to give it a go, it looks fun and what’s the worst that could happen?

Thankfully Cath decided to put her fears aside and take a chance, only to fall in love with the magic of being on the water. “It opened up a whole world to me of sport as a place to explore alongside other people.” The unpredictability provided a space to stay present and focus on getting the best out of yourself, particularly in such a team-dependent environment. This comradery especially appealed to her, explaining the high regard she has for forging connections, which mean far more than ticking items off a to-do list.

In fact, according to Cath, people are the most accurate measure of success. “It’s about the connections you make along the way. They stay with you. They outlast all the medals, all the salaries, all those things the external world tempts us with.” The challenge, support and learning offered by a diverse network enriches your life, so Cath promotes being ambitious with who you associate with. Rather than counting trophies on a mantelpiece, she reflects on the conversations had in a day and takes pride in how she turns up. In short, ‘winning’ is staying true to who you are.

The instinctive curiosity Cath harbours is inherited from her father, who didn’t have the opportunities to explore it like she’s been privileged enough to. This valuable tool was imperative for her role working in the Foreign Office, where negotiations were painful, long and diplomatic. The job “opened my horizons to follow curiosity and keep learning about other perspectives, other cultures, other ways of doing things.”

Ruth Gill loves her job but 30 years ago she had no idea it even existed, and if she hadn’t taken a career break after having her second child, she probably wouldn’t be doing it. In a nutshell, Ruth works at Surrey University making sure everything runs smoothly so that students and academics can achieve their best.

After finishing her Cambridge degree in modern languages Ruth was lost for what to do next, so eventually caved into her mother’s relentless recommendations to apply for the fast stream civil service. Her passion for learning steered the decision to work in the Department for Education, a highlight of which involved putting a bill through parliament.

Ruth made the decision to take advantage of the civil service scheme that offered a return to an equivalent job after five years out, during which time she volunteered in the local community and raised her children. However, towards the end of her absence it didn’t seem like such a good idea and she worried she’d been left behind. Up until a few years ago, Ruth would have told you this was the one act she wished she’d done differently. Now, though, she realises the worthwhile impact that coincidences have had on her life. “If mistakes are part of the pattern that leads you to somewhere you’re happy to be, it’s hard to regret them.”

Ruth’s contented, retrospective outlook is hard not to be inspired by, and makes a solid case for easing in step by step and taking each hurdle as it comes. “Don’t worry if you haven’t got everything mapped out. Don’t worry too much if you haven’t got a plan. Don’t worry if you have a plan and it all falls apart, because actually life has a way of working out in ways you can’t see and predict.”

Brave and cheerful are two words Ruth uses to describe her idols, although I think they also could be quite fitting to mirror Ruth herself. Born 78 years apart, Ruth’s daughter and grandmother are by no means fearless, but it’s their refusal to let fear stop them from making their mark that she finds admirable. Her granny left school early to look after her mother, followed her army husband around the world, and started her career when much older. Her daughter is studying to be a teacher working in a challenging secondary school, living in a town where she knows no one during a pandemic, and is coping.

Ruth acknowledges that we’re in a difficult climate to be mapping out your future and that being scared is inevitable, but not to let that worry be what holds you back. “We have to salute the women who show us that you need to be brave to live just an ordinary life.” Looks like that career break was worth it after all.

Mehmooda Duke has a lot she would say to her 17-year-old self. These takeaways appropriately summarise the tokens of advice that were intertwined throughout each woman’s story, as well as highlighting some additional ones.

  • It takes 10 years to become an overnight success. A lot of time must be spent breaking through into an industry before anyone knows who you are, so be patient – there’s no such thing as a quick win.
  • Aim high. The higher you aim the further you’ll reach, so don’t set the bar too low.
  • Be afraid. There’s nothing wrong with this. We find fear is crippling but use it in a positive way to propel you.
  • Ask for help. It’s easy not to ask because we see it as a sign of weakness, but there are so many people willing to help you.
  • There’s no such thing as a bad decision. You make hundreds each day, so don’t beat yourself up if one doesn’t go the way you want.
  • Surround yourself with people smarter than you. Don’t be the smartest person in the room as this way you’ll build a good team who become the backbone of your success.
  • Don’t think business is ever easy. Be prepared for the grind, but when you reach your goal there’s nothing sweeter.
  • Do your homework. Gather your data properly.
  • Be resilient. You will meet lots of hurdles.  
  • Have fun. The most important rule!  

Looking at Mehmooda’s incredible accomplishments it’s clear to see that perseverance and willpower is weaved into her DNA: she was a highly successful lawyer, runs her own law firm and has an MBE. However, Mehmooda claims she was not always a strong woman.

“My dream was to own my business from a really young age. I was one of those youngsters who always was looking for an opportunity.” Like most career paths, this did not end up being a straight, simple one. Mehmooda’s claims her mother is both her biggest role model and her biggest hurdle, because she convinced her to initially become a teacher.

After a year of teaching, Mehmooda “followed the yellow brick road” and just like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz she faced junctions, met characters and had to make decisions. Courage came in the form of taking the leap to apply to law school in London; Mehmooda needed to apply her brain to study it; and after 10 years she left to set up her own company, a choice that came straight from the heart. With no business knowledge this was a valiant move, which Mehmooda puts down to wanting total control over her own future.

Her elective mix of heroes include her mother; her grandad, who in the 1960s founded the first all-girls school in Zanzibar, quoting the phrase ‘give a girl an education and you will give her a gift for life’; the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, a hugely successful businesswoman; and Madonna, for her unfaltering work ethic. As Mehmooda says, “You’ve got to work damn hard to be successful.”

Many of the people we idolise appear to have everything under control, fooling us that their success has been carefully scheduled and executed. In reality, as these 5 women have taught us, often it’s accidents that can lead you to where you’re meant to be, and we can be safe in the knowledge that life can’t deviate from the plan if you don’t have one.

When asked about how she deals with the vast remoteness of the ocean, Nikki says: “The thing with being at sea is that there is no choice. You have no choice. You either get over that fear or as I’ve learnt to do, I almost allow it to bypass my vision.”

By applying the parallels Nikki draws from sea to life, we can be freed from our insecurities around where we think we need to go next and instead just enjoy the ride.

Power playlist
At the end of the event each panellist was asked for a song that represents her life. Tune into this selection of songs for a backing track that will keep you motivated when you need it!

Imagine – John Lennon(Cath)
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor (Anne)
Walking on Sunshine – Katrina & The Waves (Nikki)
Follow Your Arrow – Katy Musgrove (Ruth)

Watch the full recording of the event here.

By Lily Rose King, friend of Surrey Business School.