Anna Jones: ‘Quite often the only thing holding women back is a belief in themselves’

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  • Female founder Anna Jones is next in our Women Who Win series, giving us some insight into getting to the top and why we should be supporting each other...

    It takes blood, sweat and tears to create a business from scratch, especially as a woman, and you will need a strong sisterhood around you if you want to get to the top.

    No one knows this more than Anna Jones, co-founder of AllBright, former CEO of Hearst and all-round inspiration.

    After identifying a need for professional female networking, Anna and her co-founder serial entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow left their CEO jobs and started at the bottom to create AllBright, a professional community for smart-minded women.

    Their mantra? Sisterhood works. And their aim? To bring smart-minded women together to connect, create and collaborate, whether at their beautiful members’ clubs or via their new digital platform.

    AllBright was one of many businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak this year, but with these two powerhouse women at the helm, it pivoted quickly, launching an accessible and affordable (£100 a year) digital membership, with a free two week trial.

    ‘It’s really important to make sure that women are as upskilled and tooled up as possible,’ Anna explained of the new digital AllBright Academy. ‘Especially now, as they start going back to work to what is going to be an extremely difficult environment.’

    Our Women Who Win interview series celebrates strong and inspirational female trailblazers, shaping the future for us all, and Anna Jones and her determination to give women a platform to network, learn and create is that in a nutshell.

    Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Anna to talk about the importance of a strong female network and what we can achieve if we lift each other up…

    Take me back to the beginning of AllBright…

    My co-founder Debbie and I met at a party, connected immediately and spent the whole night talking to each other. I was the CEO of Hearst, she was the founder of Love Home Swap, a CEO in tech. There were probably 10 or 20 high profile women who had founded tech companies at the time and there was literally me in the magazine and newspaper industry. We were also both working mums living in North/West London with similar aged kids, but we bonded mainly over our shared passion around empowering women. For me, that came off the back of managing a team of 77% women at Hearst and talking at the time to one in three women through our Hearst brands. That gave me a unique insight into what I saw as opportunities for women and a lot of the things that I saw holding them back. And for Debbie, as a serial entrepreneur, she had been raising capital for companies since her early twenties and felt extremely frustrated about the fact that things hadn’t really moved forward. The Rose Review last year revealed a penny in the pound goes to back female founders, and the stats in my world showed that 1 in 6 senior leaders were women and board representation was poor.

    It was a serendipitous meeting – we had a shared passion point, we both had come to a point in our careers where we wanted to try something else, she was an entrepreneur and I had a good experience of building brands for women. Adding to that, our shared passion point had a mission behind it, a full profit business with purpose at its heart. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass by.

    How did the idea come about?

    It was very much born out of a need. This was before the #MeToo time and I could see that there was a big space where we could build a community of women to connect, upskill and ultimately give the confidence to achieve their career ambitions. Quite often the only things holding women back are a belief in themselves and a professional network. I’ve obviously seen first hand how effectively the old boys’ network operates, yet I’ve noticed that while women tend to be amazing at networking with friends and family groups and very capable at getting their heads down, they don’t spend the time focusing on growing their professional relationships. Ultimately who you know is as important as what you know and I think men have cottoned onto that much better than women. We saw a big opportunity to build a community of smart-minded women who want to grab their career by the horns and to deliver them beautiful spaces to do that in, but also a digital network beyond that where they can really accelerate and achieve their career ambitions.

    How did you turn AllBright into a business?

    It takes blood, sweat and tears to make something out of nothing. It’s the most exhilarating part of it but it’s also the most difficult and it shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s a lot of planning that needs to go in – for your business but also for your life. People don’t talk about that enough. You have got to think about your finances, how little you’re prepared to earn, your commitments to your family and what you’ll do if it goes wrong. You’ve got to be very resilient.

    We wanted to test the idea out, so we launched a series of events to build the community, we called them FoundHER. We showcased amazing female founders and executives and built the community to get feedback and see whether there was demand. As soon as we realised there was, we started to pedal very fast to find our physical space. We opened our first club in 2018, and then that gave us the confidence to open our second and third in 2019 – another one in London and one in LA. We started to focus on digital membership late last year and and implemented that at the start of lockdown which was very important to us. We wanted to be able to build the community beyond the physical spaces. We absolutely believe that real life encounters are extremely important but you can’t always deliver them and if you want to build a community of kick ass women all around the world, then digital offers that opportunity.

    What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

    Probably leaving my corner office and running away with this entrepreneurial thirst. I spent my executive career getting to the top of a very big organisation, and so having the confidence (or craziness) to walk away from that and start something from scratch is probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

    What was your biggest challenge?

    Lockdown was absolutely bleak. We were hosting our BrightList inaugural AllBright awards honouring incredible women and we were really excited about it. A few days later, I got coronavirus and I was very ill with it, then my co-founder got it a week after. During that time we thought we were done. We had to close the buildings, furlough most of our team and like many companies we were just unsure if we’d survive. It was horrendous. One thing that my co-founder and I are very used to is moving at pace so we went into survival mode. We pulled our very small central team together and we moved the deadline to deliver digital membership in eight months to eight weeks. All we could do was put our heads down and focus. We moved people way out of their comfort zone and had our team doing things that they couldn’t ever have imagined. We launched the digital membership platform at the end of April. In some ways it replicates what we deliver through the clubs but without the physical space, delivering online training, coaching, networking and importantly lots of tailored events for the community. We’re still tweaking it but we’re very proud.

    Have you ever felt discriminated against as a female founder?

    It was very hard to raise capital. I was really surprised about that because with my co-founder’s track record and my track record, I thought it would be relatively easy. It was us and it’s not like we’re unknown, but it was really hard. To quote the stats I’ve used before, one penny of the pound goes to back female co-founders. That is an issue that we feel very strongly about. It’s something that we have continued to shine a light on through our monthly female pitch days at our LA and London clubs. We’re going to keep shouting about it and enable more funding to back female founders because it is really, really hard.

    What is your typical working day?

    Well, no two days are ever the same. I mean, they never were when I was CEO of Hearst but I’m juggling a lot of different things now. During the pandemic there has been a lot of work to keep the community connected which is very important. In order to make sure our members were informed and inspired, we hosted 280 events throughout lockdown – Zooms, IG lives, things on our own platforms – we have done so much and with an unbelievable array of people. We had Gina Miller, Rose McGowan and we even did a Zoom where we grilled Matt Hancock on what he was going to do for women post-pandemic.

    How can you achieve the right work/ personal life balance?

    I mean, it’s really hard. It’s very difficult not to be a workaholic when it’s your own business because if it’s a passion it doesn’t really feel like work, so it’s hard to draw boundaries. For me personally, having children is helpful because you have to at some point have some sort of boundary or balance. I like to see technology as an enabler rather than a cage because it ensures that I am always there when my children need me, whether it’s a doctor’s appointment or sports day. It is also all about constant tweaking. You have to figure out what you need to get done in a day or a week and then how you’re going to do it by tweaking your schedule. So, today my husband has a board call and I have to pick up my son from camp, so I have had to move my day around. That works for me, but I’m very used to change and flexibility. You have to figure out what works for you.

    What is the best advice you’ve received?

    This sounds quite American but to ‘follow your why’. There’s lots of conversation about purpose at the moment and I think it’s really important to do the work on figuring out what you want to do, and most importantly why you want to do it. It makes you feel more grounded and clear on your objectives. At the AllBright academy we encourage people to do a ‘Project You’ module which is basically making you ask those questions of yourself. Everyone has different reasons for doing things – you might want enough money to buy a house or send your kids to college, you might crave flexibility or maybe the money is irrelevant but the mission gets you out of bed every day. Thinking about yourself and your why in a structured way is hard work, but I think it really pays dividends into understanding your motivation.

    When were you proudest?

    I suppose I would say opening any of our clubs because it’s a massive effort – I can’t even tell you how hard it is. And then added to that is getting feedback from members. It’s such a joy to be working in a space where you’re with your customer all the time. I get stopped constantly by members and told, ‘This has changed my life’, ‘I’ve met someone here and we now have a business together’, ‘I’ve hired someone I met here’ or ‘I’ve been hired by someone through here’. People tell me they met their best friends here, they have funded or been funded through AllBright or that through hearing our talks they have gained the ability to ask for a pay rise, resign or whatever it may be. That is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s amazing.

    How can we all ask for a pay rise or a promotion?

    Do your homework. You have to think about how to benchmark yourself so look at the industry and try to figure out what’s a fair wage for what you’re doing. It’s also key to pick your moment and the most important thing is to practice the conversation with someone you trust. Then crucially, if it’s a no, don’t take it to heart because it’s a negotiation and it might not always go your way. People are often disheartened and assume that it’s personal but you don’t always understand the bigger picture. So, if it’s a no, ask for more context, and rather than feeling wounded and crawling away from the conversation, take feedback and ask what you can do to get that pay rise or promotion. It ends up being a structured conversation rather than feeling that you’ve been slighted personally. It might not be the perfect moment to get that pay rise but it might be the perfect moment to seed that conversation.

    What is your superpower?

    I think it’s the ability to simplify complex problems. I’m a fixer so I can very quickly simplify. At Hearst, I had 24 businesses that I was running, I was the chairman of a distribution company and I was on various boards. I got really good at going, ‘Hang on, there’s a lot of complexity here, but do we not really just mean X, Y and Z?’ It’s probably quite frustrating but it’s a way of being able to cut through, so that’s probably my super power.

    How do you celebrate success?

    I’m always very focused on moving forward, but during the pandemic it was very important that we celebrated our team, so every week we recognised an individual who had gone over and above. We were in survival mode but it’s still really important to recognise the team and show how grateful we were and still are that they were going on this crazy journey with us.

    What will you never compromise on?

    Value. We think about three values for AllBright. One of them is ‘execution’ which is just getting shit done. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, and do it well. The second is ‘flair’ – every time you do something, try to add something else to it and do it better each time. And then the final value is ‘sisterhood works’ – you have to be a believer in our mission and that is what we won’t compromise on. We expect everyone to live those values – our team, our customers, our stakeholders, our suppliers – that’s very important to us.

    What is the biggest mistake you’ve made?

    Hiring in a hurry. I’ve definitely been there throughout my career when I’m desperate because I needed someone to start yesterday. You just think ‘OK great, they’re smiling, they seem nice, they’re hired’ without actually going through the process of properly interviewing, thinking about it and getting references. It’s not good for them either because you end up hiring people who don’t fit your culture. Now, when I hire people, I am very open about the negatives. I explain all of the downsides – how hard we work, how fast we work, how much we change our minds etc. because I want people to understand the realities. People have these ideas that it’s so lovely to work for a start-up but it’s hard work when you’re in growth mode.

    What is your mantra?

    My mantra is ‘sisterhood works’. If you come right down to purpose – my own purpose, the purpose of the business and of course of our community – it’s ‘sisterhood works’. It’s written in neon in the entrance of our building and if you want some real inspiration, follow our #sisterhoodworks hashtag.

    What would you want to change for women?

    Equal opportunity for all. I would like to keep the stats moving in the right direction, so that’s more funding for female founders, more senior leaders, more board representation and closing the gender pay gap. Just those four small things, please.

    What could we all achieve if we supported each other?

    Again, I come back to my mantra of ‘sisterhood works’. I think our dreams and ambitions will come true if we support each other. If we improve our network, improve our support of one another and share our experiences with each other, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.

    Visit AllBright for more information and to trial the digital membership.

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