From Tower to Power: How Vanessa Vallely learned to raise her profile


Vanessa Vallely overcame traditional social obstacles to working in The City, driven by her desire to work in finance. But that is only half the story. Once she got the job, she still had work to do on raising her profile and networking.

The beigel shops and the curry houses are still in Brick Lane, but they never used to be surrounded by the urban chic that now fills in the gap between The City and Tower Hamlets. What was there was a wasteland bordered by the prosperity of commerce on the west and residential council tower blocks to the east.

Vanessa Vallely, the guest speaker at the Gender Network's event on Skype on Tuesday 12 May, grew up in a flat on the 18th floor of one of those towers, with a clear view to The NatWest Tower, the first of the modern glass and steel skyscrapers to pepper The City landscape. "I grew up in a very economically challenged area of London, Hoxton, which is very trendy now; the big dream was to work in the City," said Vanessa.

"Growing up in East London gave me a real sense of community, which taught me the very valuable trait of appreciating people's differences from a very young age," said Vanessa.

She started work at the age of 11 in a Pie and Mash shop but had big aspirations that included landing a job in finance. "From my window, I could see into the City," said Vanessa. "I knew that financial district, which was just 15 minutes on a bus, was where they made money."

Commercially driven, Vanessa told her career officer that she wanted to work in a bank, only to discover this was unlikely because of her poor academic record, ‘girls do not work in banks', and where she came from. At 16, Vanessa jumped on a bus and visited the banks, asking for application forms.

By luck, one bank was taking a couple of children from the local borough schools and she managed to get a place with their academic intake, although not for long. "I didn't know the rules of work and if I witnessed what I deemed as unacceptable behaviour, I called it out, regardless of who the individual was. In hindsight, there probably was a more tactful way of doing it, but you learn your lesson," said Vanessa. "They didn't sack me, but they did want to relocate me to an office 200 miles away. I had the impression that my career was not going to flourish at that bank, so I left."

A job in a tech company as a receptionist followed, which developed into a role as a training coordinator, after watching and learning from her manager, she secured a position running the training department at Readers' Digest and then, after filling in for a trainer who was off sick, a training role.

Once everyone was trained, she was offered a £5,000 redundancy, which she took and invested in starting a tech training company of her own. By now, she was only 20 years old. "Once things like the tax bill came in, I realised I wasn't grown up enough to run a company," said Vanessa.

"I ran straight back to corporate, where I met Stewart, who had the same job," she said. "Over the next two years, his career accelerated massively, yet we had the same role! This has nothing to do with the fact he was a man, but because of the way that he operated at work: he would find time to go to internal events, I was always too busy; he would have time to stop and have conversations in the corridor, being able to articulate what his aspirations are, what he wanted to do with his career, which department he would like to run; whereas I was still at my desk, being busy."

Thinking that her hard work would be rewarded for the hours spent, Vanessa had ignored the networking that could attract sponsors - people that open doors and opportunities for you when you are not in the room.

Marriage (to Stewart!) and children were followed by a job in an investment bank, advancing by electing for ‘roads less trodden', work that filled people with dread because it was perceived they were going to fail or involved working with difficult individuals. "You learn a hell of a lot from being in a team that actually fails," said Vanessa.

It was now 2008, when gender was on nobody's agenda and diversity was not even a term. "The guys I worked with were great, but my challenges were different: I had two children under five," said Vanessa. "When I looked for stories of aspiration or women's groups, there were very few that I felt would have worked for me and my background, so I launched Wearethecity.com*, a website housing resources to help women own and drive their own careers. In 2015, Vanessa also wrote her first book, Heels of Steel: Surviving and Thriving in the Corporate World.

The story does not stop there. Vanessa had still neither invested in her network nor attended any events. "The thought of networking in a room full of people terrified me," she said. Three aborted attempts to mingle were followed by a single woman walking up to Vanessa, saying she had come to the event alone and asking to talk. Thereafter, the more events she went to, the more comfortable she became, the more questions she asked and the more she listened.

More insights followed, on dressing for and thinking of the characteristics of ‘your' brand, creating a digital footprint, overcoming imposter syndrome and playing to your strengths.

Raising your profile can come with some discomfort as it can come across as bragging or boasting, "but if we do not become comfortable with articulating our successes and aspirations, how is anyone going to know what you are truly capable of?" said Vanessa.

To summarise, Vanessa then shared her top tips for success:

  • Don't be scared to network as it brings great benefits to your career;
  • Do think of how you can raise your profile and create your story online;
  • Don't forget to pay it forward to others, by sharing your experiences and supporting others in their journeys;
  • Make the time to find a mentor, it is important we never stop learning.

* You can find out more about WeAreTheCity.com here.  If you are a woman working in tech, visit WeAreTechWomen. Vanessa and her team have also recently launched a free webinar series to help those working from home to continue learning, see WeAreVirtual here. Vanessa can also be found on Twitter @Watc_girl @Watc_updates.