Reaching the summit

To celebrate this year's International Women's Day, M&IT speaks to the women who have ascended the career ladder and reign at the top of their professional game. The question is, how did they get there?

International Women's Day is about celebrating the achievements of women, raising awareness against bias and taking action for equality.

Under the 2022 International Women's Day theme, #BreakTheBias, we've asked female leaders from across the business events industry, how they got to the top of the career ladder, what challenges they've had to overcome along the way, their career regrets and their professional highlights...

"My biggest challenge, early on in my career, was challenging the status quo in an organisation and being told I was too young to have that kind of thinking."

- Felicia Asiedu

Felicia Asiedu is the senior marketing manager for Europe at Cvent and co-founder of Diverse Speaker Bureau.

How did you get into a senior leadership position?

A little bit of growing up and then going sideways. I studied music production at university and part of the course was business and marketing, and I always loved the marketing part.

They got us to find an artist and market them and I absolutely loved putting together the labels and the “this is why you should buy this, this is why they're really good” part of the module.  When I left uni, I knew I loved marketing and knew that I would have probably struggled to do something that I didn't believe in or I wasn't passionate about. And so, I always chased that marketing dream. I was constantly keeping that little fire burning of something I was interested in. I think that is what has helped to propel my career because then I went after it with quite some seriousness.

What’s a constant challenge you’ve had to overcome on your career journey?

My biggest challenge, early on in my career, was challenging the status quo in an organisation and being told I was too young to have that kind of thinking.

Bosses would specifically say, “You're too young”. I remember going for a more senior position and they said I was an ideal candidate, but too young. They went with somebody who was, as they said, “older and a bit more established in their career”. So, I left that job and took my skills elsewhere.

I’ve also had managers who are like, “Stay in your lane, don’t come up with any other ideas, don’t talk to the CMO. I’m your manager and you will report to me.”

One challenge that I’ve often faced is tokenism. I have sometimes felt like people may have approached me for things in part because I'm a black woman, and looking diverse is really popular at the moment.

Now, whether that's real or not, I think the challenge is knowing that half that way of thinking is the chip on my own shoulder, and half of that is going to be true, but which half that is at any given time, we’ll never know. So I roll with it, because being of the moment opens opportunities for you that you wouldn’t necessarily have had in the first place. But then you also start to question: “Am I really as good as I think I am?” Because if they’re just rolling me out because I’m a black woman, that gives me self-doubt.  

Climbing the career ladder: Is it about having the right skills or the right energy?

I do think energy helps to drive skills, so you need both fundamentally. I think having energy for what you're doing means that you suck in information about it, probably better. You feed off that information, you try to prove yourself because you are driven that way, and that helps you to build your skillset. I think you become good at what you're doing because you're interested. 

How do you pave a way for women to progress?

I do notice that simply being a woman, hiring in this position, I, rightly or wrongly, will female interviewees on, as in “I want to give you a chance”. 

I think anyone who says they don’t have biases towards people that are like them, are not being truthful to themselves. It comes down to how do you recognise and work against those biases to make sure you're not blind to them and acting on them?

Ultimately though, we have such a rigorous hiring process at Cvent, that my willing on of candidates doesn’t affect who gets hired.

We also have an absolutely wonderful employee community group for women called Empower. We get them mentoring, we get female speakers that have either gone through adversity or who are just successful; we absolutely champion women that work at Cvent.

"I believe people thrive in a collaborative environment, not a competitive one."

- Caroline Lumgair Wiseman

Caroline Lumgair Wiseman is the founder and managing director of Eventful Limited.

How did you get into a senior leadership position? 

I was working in luxury hotels as an events sales and marketing manager, building relationships with corporate clients when I realised that many event planners shared similar challenges with booking and organising events, either directly or via the agencies their organisations had in place. 

That insight helped me to identify a niche in the market and I decided to launch Eventful, an agency which provides a personalised consultancy for venues and events. 

I founded Eventful in 2002 in my early twenties and we are celebrating our 20th anniversary in business this year - a milestone that I’m proud to have achieved. 

 In your experience, do women have to be hungrier for the promotion, do they have to be more confident and show more commitment? 

I’ve not experienced being held back by men, but rather by other women. While this has been disappointing and challenging at times, it’s also one of the reasons I made the decision not to work in a competitive environment but to take the initiative and to start my own agency at a young age. 

I have, of course, been subject to chauvinism in our industry, however, I’ve always been able to avoid working with those people or I’ve cut ties as soon as I’ve realised that I was being patronised. It’s always spurred me on to succeed without any assistance from those characters.

I’ve always considered it a priority to keep our team filled with generous and secure individuals, and I continue to do so in order to protect everyone’s mental wellbeing. I believe people thrive in a collaborative environment, not a competitive one. There is room for us all to utilise our talents and to play to our strengths.

Do you have any career regrets? 

I think it’s essential to be reflective in life, to consider past actions and mistakes or missteps, as this allows for learning to occur. I’m highly analytical so I do think things through but being someone who is strategic in my thinking, I tend to look for the lesson when things don’t go according to plan, believing that there is usually a reason and that something better will come about as a result. 

I do regret delaying having a family until the age of 39. We have extremely busy roles in the events industry and unfortunately many roles within event management are not conducive to having a young family. Many of us get swept up in building our career and travelling the world and the years race by faster than you predict! 

How do you pave a way for women to progress? 

To pave a way forward, we need to adopt an abundance mindset as opposed to a scarcity one. Other women’s successes do not somehow detract from our own. There is room for us all at the table. 

We truly need to understand this, to allow the achievements of others to inspire us, and to view each other’s wins as our own. Only in this way, can we link arms and move forward on the journey of progress together.

"I feel I have ‘arrived’ at a place that affords me the autonomy to use my skills, developed over decades, and boundless energy for the greater good of an industry I love..."

- Kerrin MacPhie

Kerrin MacPhie is the CEO of the Meetings Industry Association.

How did you get into a senior leadership position?

My 25-year plus career proves that you can start at any level in the hospitality and meetings industry. My first role was in a hotel, working evenings and weekends while continuing to study. I went on to do a five-year management course, then moved to accountancy in the hospitality industry as I loved seeing the business through a different lens. My last role in hotels was revenue manager where I was responsible for making the numbers work at the top of the profit and loss funnel and knowing what was needed to ensure a good outcome at the bottom. A rewarding task that aided my development.

My next step was destination management, supporting member venues, advising buyers and developing an Ambassador Programme. This role led me to venue management, developing new business in the meetings destination of Liverpool in a new convention centre called ACC Liverpool. I took the role two years before it opened knowing I was walking into a challenge but fully ready to get stuck in. Year one smashed all expectations and the years that followed were similar.

What’s been your career highlight to date?

Two career highlights immediately come to mind. Having successfully established Liverpool as an events destination, I moved into a national role as head of business events at VisitBritain and was responsible for promoting our great nations, and all that they have for business meetings and events, to a truly global audience. Being given the role I knew so many destinations and they knew that I was up for the challenge of making a difference. I remained there for four years and was as proud and as enthusiastic as when I first arrived. I loved promoting our fantastic UK destinations, venues and suppliers and supporting the most amazing destination in the world.

I am now chief executive of the Meetings Industry Association (mia) which I have held in high regard throughout my time in the business meetings and events industry. I feel I have ‘arrived’ at a place that affords me the autonomy to use my skills, developed over decades, and boundless energy for the greater good of an industry I love and the people within it. I am truly excited at the possibilities this role with the mia brings.

How do you deal with difficult colleagues?

I realised quite early on that relationships – both with customers and colleagues – are key and to this day relationship management is a vital part of everything I do.

How do you pave a way for women to progress?

I have learned so much in my career and want to pass on my knowledge to support our future leaders. I have mentored on the Fast Forward 15 programme and offer my support and guidance whenever I can. I am often in a situation where a conversation leads to me giving guidance – it’s good to talk!

"I find myself talking about these incredible people at networking opportunities and giving them opportunities to shine in rooms they wouldn’t normally be in."

- Danielle Bounds

Danielle Bounds is sales director for ICC Wales. She is responsible for driving the UK and international sales strategy for ICC Wales.

How did you get into a senior leadership position?

Throughout my 10-year career at the Celtic Manor Resort, I have worked with a really strong, inspiring leader, Jill Manley who is group commercial director of The Celtic Collection and ICC Wales. Jill encouraged me to apply for my first management position, which was head of department. She obviously saw something in me, and I haven’t looked back since and have gone on to secure various leadership positions personally and professionally.

What’s a constant challenge you’ve had to overcome on your career journey?

Overcoming the stigma of salespeople. There is a huge misconception of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Some people seem to think we have a jet-set lifestyle and swan around to lots of glamourous events, others think we over promise and underdeliver.

 Relationships are at the heart of everything we do, so as sales director I have tried to build a thoughtful and friendly team for ICC Wales. Naturally, as a salesperson you want to retain your clients and welcome them back regularly but, it’s about adding the extra value and expertise to that offering. We don’t over-promise; we are solution providers.

 Climbing the career ladder: Is it about having the right skills or the right energy?

It’s a mix of both. In the early stages of your career, it is important to have the right energy and invest it into learning new skills as the further you progress, the more skills you are expected to have. I always say if you have the right attitude, you can learn everything else.

How do you deal with difficult colleagues?

It is vital that you understand how to work with your colleagues, what motivates them, how they work best, and how they like to be approached.

It often means when someone has difficulty with a colleague, it may be some miscommunication, or they have been caught off guard. Understanding a colleague’s pressures and goals also really helps with creating a balanced approach.

If there are still challenges, perhaps it is best to sit and have an open and honest conversation with each other, that way you can come to a mutual agreement on the best way to proceed and work together.

What’s been your career highlight to date?

 Opening the ICC Wales back in 2019 was a huge career highlight. The venue was 10 years in the planning, and it just filled me with such pride seeing this realisation come to life.

Our first event, the Association of Stoma Care Nurses (ASCN) UK Annual Conference, took place a few weeks after we opened our doors for the first time. Seeing the delegates walk through the venue and the event being staged was a real pinch-me moment. The event had such a great buzz; the organisers and delegates loved it and I was so proud of what we had achieved as a business.

How do you / ICC Wales pave a way for women to progress?

The global business events industry is led by some very strong and driven women and that is no different to the team at ICC Wales. I love to encourage the team by highlighting opportunities to grow their career and experience and give them the support they need to progress.

There is nothing more satisfying than watching your colleagues grow and achieve their goals, personally and professionally. I always make myself available for my team to talk through their goals and will happily discuss my experience and learnings.

 Outside of work, I have a great network of friends who are all superstars in their own right. I find myself talking about these incredible people at various networking opportunities and giving them opportunities to shine in rooms they wouldn’t normally be in. I always try and shout out the people I think deserve it.

"We know that women have to try that bit harder to make themselves heard, I want to play my part in making sure that’s not still the case by the time my daughter enters the workplace."

- Fiona Thompson

Fiona Thompson is the director at incentive travel agency, Ulterior Events.

What was your path into a senior leadership position?

I was lucky enough to travel with family around the world from an early age, experiencing different cultures, and soon got that ‘travel bug’ that everyone talks about! A two-week school internship aged 17 brought me into Teamwork Travel Management, an incentive agency where I started to learn the ropes of what makes a great group incentive. Little did I know that the company would become Ulterior Events, where I am now, a director with more than 22 years of experience.

I became the right-hand woman to managing director Graham Alderman not long after he took the business over from his father, the founder and we've made a great team ever since.

Climbing the career ladder: Is it about having the right skills or the right energy?

Skills can be taught but attitude can’t. I put 110 per cent into everything I do which I know isn’t always necessary but it makes you stand out. I love finding and working with other ‘extra-milers’ too.

I find the transferable skills and knowledge I picked up working in a resort hotel for three years useful on a daily basis, first-hand knowledge of how our suppliers and partners work means I know when I can push boundaries and when I can’t.

What’s been your career highlight to date?

From meeting the gorillas in Rwanda to managing 140 people on a bike tour through the rice fields in Vietnam, I’ve taken some fascinating groups to some mind-blowing destinations but the career highlights for me are definitely the adrenaline-fuelled situations that I’ve managed to navigate smoothly without the group noticing.

One particular event that could very easily have become a disaster began as an incentive to Mauritius for a group of 160 people - as I sat with them on the runway ready for takeoff the pilot announced that the flight had been cancelled - every event planner's worst nightmare. Armed with my knowledge of the way cancellations, airlines and hotels work and with my brilliant team on the case in the UK and in Mauritius I had a hotel for the whole group sorted within the hour, complete with takeout pizzas, drinks and a whole new knock-out itinerary ready for the group when they finally arrived at their destination a day late. As event planners and managers we don’t come up with plan B but plan C and D too - and that’s what keeps the show on the road and our clients returning!

How do you pave a way for women to progress?

By instilling resilience and confidence in the women I work with, I encourage them to ask questions, no questions are silly questions, and to remember that every opinion is a valid one.

We know that women have to try that bit harder to make themselves heard, I want to play my part in making sure that’s not still the case by the time my daughter enters the workplace. 

"One of my biggest challenges
has been to ensure that events
are given a seat at the table"

- Amanda Whitlock

Amanda Whitlock is the director of global strategic events & experiences at Ernst Young.

How did you get into a senior leadership position?

I worked my way up having a variety of different roles and looking for opportunities. As I always knew that I wanted to do events and there were no courses at universities at that time I started very junior in the corporate world and was fortunate to work with some amazing people and tried to learn as much as I could.

What’s a constant challenge you’ve had to overcome on your career journey?

One of my biggest challenges has been to ensure that events are given a “seat at the table” and are seen as a crucial component of any business plan. I’ve also tried to demonstrate that a career in Events is a serious career and thus deserves recognition.

Climbing the career ladder: Is it about having the right skills or the right energy?

Both! I am truly fortunate to be passionate about events and so the energy comes naturally but it would definitely be impossible to do without the right skills.

What’s been your career highlight to date?

To be honest there are so many it is difficult to single out one. I have delivered some amazing events but the ones I feel most proud of are the ones that I can build creativity into the experience.

How do you pave a way for women to progress?

By being the best that I can be and empowering and encouraging other women. To show that it is OK to fail as long as you have done your best.

"You need the drive to meet your end goals"

- Kelly Frew

Kelly Frew is event director at Carnival UK, founder of Story Maker Events, host of the Events for Breakfast podcast and a Fast Forward 15 mentor.

What’s a constant challenge you’ve had to overcome on your career journey?

Taking the time to stay up to date with event technology, software and current trends. This is needed to be in a position to add value, coach teams and deliver impactful events. 

Climbing the career ladder: Is it about having the right skills or the right energy?

Skills are hugely important, as you need the tools to support you in making the right decisions and to guide and coach teams. Mindset and determination to succeed are equally as important though, you need the drive to meet your end goals. 

How do you deal with difficult colleagues?

Try to understand them and what they need from the situation. Everyone has pressures which might be the reason they are being difficult. 

What’s been your career highlight to date?

Oh wow, it’s difficult to choose one. Working with Sir David Attenborough, putting on an event in the Big Brother House and delivering a huge cruise ship launch during a pandemic! 

 How do you pave a way for women to progress?

By speaking up as a woman and having my voice heard. I’m a mentor on the Fast Forward 15 programme, which is a mentoring programme for women in the events and hospitality industry and it gives me such great pleasure to empower other women to be the best version of themselves every day. 

"In the words of Peaky Blinders' Thomas Shelby, 'Every catastrophe is also an opportunity.'"

- Holly Mills

Holly Mills is head of incentives at Eventful Limited.

How did you get into a senior leadership position?

By accident! I found that my passion for motivational travel whilst being surrounded by incredibly supportive and like-minded people accelerated business growth and presented an opportunity to lead a great team.  

What’s your career goal and have you achieved it?

I have a few career goals which evolve all the time but one of the most important ones for me is to learn something new every year. We are never too experienced to learn from our colleagues, suppliers, clients and experiences. I also often look outside our industry for inspiration and opportunities to strengthen my skill set.

Do you have any career regrets?

In the words of Peaky Blinders' Thomas Shelby, "Every catastrophe is also an opportunity". I try to live by this and look for the lesson in any mistake to avoid regrets. I strongly believe that It’s not about the thing that goes wrong, it's how you show up to fix it.

What’s been your career highlight to date?

I am very lucky to have many ‘pinch me’ moments in my library but a personal highlight would be winning my first pitch – we were up against some big industry players so the stakes were high but our passion came through to make us front runners. It was a great feeling and just the start of something very special to follow.

How do you pave a way for women to progress?

The best piece of advice I would recommend is to find a role that encompasses your passion and brings you purpose so that you will never ‘work’ another day.