The third time’s the charm!
We’re always looking for inspirational women who lead by example, and this month’s profile of Jennifer Woollford is no exception. She has a ‘sweet’ career (she worked for Mars, the American confectionery company!) and wasn’t swayed by motherhood, but knew other women might be. She founded (and now directs) Neon Marketing, and now inspires and coaches other women to get what they want out of their careers, as well as move up the corporate ladder. Now that’s a goal we can totally get behind!
Tell us about yourself.
I moved to Hong Kong almost two years ago with my husband, Stuart, and our two daughters. We had always wanted to live and work abroad together, but we struggled to find the right opportunity that worked well for both of our careers. Before we moved, I was working as a Marketing Director in the UK, and I was finding being the best of who I wanted to be for my young family and my team and colleagues at work an increasing struggle. So, when Stuart was offered a role in Hong Kong it seemed like the perfect time for all of us to re-set as a family. It was a huge adjustment for me coming here without a job (moving continents was easy, transitioning to full-time motherhood was the big challenge!), but I took the opportunity to think about how I wanted to work moving forward, and decided that consulting would enable me to build my work around my family, whilst experiencing new challenges and growing my network. I set up my company, Neon Marketing, and haven’t looked back! It’s also enabled me to give more time to things I care passionately about, in particular advancing female leadership through mentoring for The Women’s Foundation. A friend and I also recently started a project to develop the brand and marketing for the Unsung Heroes, a choir for domestic helpers, which provides the opportunity to come together and sing every Sunday with a professional music teacher, and perform at high profile events throughout Hong Kong.
Tell us about The Women’s Foundation Mentoring Programme and why you have decided to mentor some of the women there.
One of the goals of The Women’s Foundation is to advance women leaders in Hong Kong, increasing the number of women in policy- and decision-making roles across sectors. A successful initiative it runs annually is the mentoring programme, matching 100 female mentors and protégés and supporting them through a fantastic programme of events over the course of the year. After leaving the corporate life, I found I really missed the opportunities to mentor those who are at an earlier stage of their career, and I could help by providing a sounding board for how they develop their career and deal with issues they might be tackling. Mentoring also creates space in the week for personal reflection, and I always come away from a mentoring conversation feeling like I’ve had the chance to take stock myself, whilst helping someone else. That’s incredibly important when life is moving so quickly, to step back and think about the progress you are making against your bigger goals.
What are the biggest challenges these women are facing?
Everyone is different, and challenges may range from how to get the next promotion, to wanting to change their career, to how to be more confident in themselves at work. I have found that everyone has very high expectations of themselves, which is fantastic but needs to be channelled in the right way. Several of the women I’ve spent time with have talked to me about developing their identity as a career woman and a mother. What I hear is a lot of company cultures make women feel they need to be single-minded about their careers, and if they don’t they’ll “fall behind”, and they grapple with how to reconcile their ambitions with being true to their values as a parent (this is not by the way, an issue that only affects women). What’s exciting is this next generation of leaders have an opportunity to become role models in demonstrating different ways to build careers. This will bring greater diversity into leadership teams, and will set a fantastic example to our children as they enter the workplace. I see my role as trying to help women find the right way to approach this that works for them and can work in their companies – so they can lead rather than conform to what has gone before.
What advice do you have for mums who want to continue working but also keep a balanced family life?
I’m so glad you used the word balanced. “Work Life Balance” sometimes feel like it has become outdated, or is seen as a negative expression. I don’t shy away from it. My view is that if you look at your day, your week or your year, you only have 100% to give – and it’s a choice how you give that time. You can give it to work, you can give it to your family, you can give it to your community, and you can give it yourself (whether it’s by exercising, going for dinner with friends, or reading a book). Where I struggled was thinking I could still invest as much in my work and my career, exercise, spend time with my friends, and then add children in on top. These unrealistic expectations lead us to feel like we’re failing all the time, and it’s hard therefore to feel fulfilled and enjoy life. I truly believe in the saying “you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once”. Everyone will make different choices, and no one is right or wrong.
My first piece of advice is take the time to reflect and make the choice – unless you’re one of the lucky few who can survive on four hours sleep a night, choices will have to be made! My second piece of advice is to be mindful that things are always changing, and the right choice one year might not be the right choice for you the next year. You might decide one year is the year to really go for it at work and get that promotion, whilst the next year is time to keep delivering and being good at your job, but give yourself more time to volunteer at your child’s school, or train for a sporting event you’ve been wanting to do. I have found once you make the choice and you communicate it to those around you, both your family and your employer can be incredibly supportive. You then feel empowered to deliver on your priorities, rather than feeling constantly that you’re not doing anything well enough.
Got any tips and tricks you wish other mums told you before you became a mum?
It’s OK not to spend all your free time with your children. I always felt that if I wasn’t working, I should be with them whilst they were awake. Hence exercise had to happen at 6am or 8pm (and therefore often didn’t!) or I’d find myself being with them physically but being distracted by other things I had to do. Make the most of whatever support network you have, and say yes when people offer to help. This is a real privilege of living in Hong Kong for those of us who have fantastic help at home. Someone once said to me that our ultimate job as parents is to teach our children to be independent from us, which often comes to mind when they are giving me a hard time about not being back for bedtime that day!
What advice do you have for mums who don’t have the luxury of leaving work or working part time?
Many women either need to work, or choose to work, full-time whilst having a family. I come back to my earlier point, which is to not set unrealistic expectations of yourself, as you’ll only feel like you are constantly failing. Make choices about how much of yourself you need or you want to give to your work, be clear on those choices with those around you, and then set yourself up for success. Especially as children grow older, they can be a part of that discussion and transparency about what you are doing and why it’s important to you, and can feel proud of you for it.
How hard is it to find part time jobs in Hong Kong? What should other mums know when looking for that kind of work?
Companies in Hong Kong have a reputation for not being very flexible when it comes to part-time working, but there are some positive signs that that is changing. Kimberly and Lauren at Pivot (Lauren was previously featured in The Bump) are doing a fantastic job of helping to match talented women who want to work flexibly with companies who can benefit from short-term or part-time employees. There are also lots of start-ups in Hong Kong who need to access talented people who are willing to work freelance or part-time, to access their skills and experience at a lower cost.
Of course, this approach doesn’t always offer job security. Permanent part-time work in bigger companies can offer a real win-win. The company saves on cost, whilst getting someone who is likely to be dedicated and highly engaged because the company supports them to work in the way they want to work. The employee beyond getting the part-time hours they are looking for, can still access the benefits that comes from employment such as sick leave, holiday pay and training and development. Attitudes to part-time, or flexible, working will only change as more and more people demonstrate that it works – so I strongly encourage people to seek out those in their existing company who will support them to make a case for part-time working, or to look for advocates in their network if they are looking for a new role, and try to make it happen if it’s what is right for you.
The common trap of part-time work many people fall into is working beyond their contracted hours, doing a five day a week job in four days, for example. This is always going to happen within reason – not many people in career roles only work eight hours a day – but do make sure you feel that the content of the job has been adjusted to fit the adjusted hours, otherwise you’re setting yourself up to feel like you’re never doing enough.
This is your third baby. What have you learned with the other two pregnancies? Is this one any different?
That’s the hardest question! I think every pregnancy is different because it depends on what else is going on in your life. Naturally with each pregnancy I think I’ve become more relaxed and “just got on with it”! That said, I’m mindful to listen to my body and I do think it’s more important than ever in pregnancy to know when to give yourself a break. I’m lucky this time around I’ve been able to make the time to exercise more, so I feel much fitter and that will hopefully pay off once the baby arrives!