Networking queen


Vanessa Vallely talks to about her networking site and her portfolio career.

Vanessa Vallely has been dubbed “one of the best-connected woman in the Square Mile” by the Evening Standard.

She is also the consummate portfolio careerwoman. Not only is she Head of Business Management at Aviva Investors, but she set up the women ‘s networking website, is a mentor to 15 people around the world, is on the boards of two charities as well as being a school governor and a pearly queen.

Even when I met her and she mentioned that she was off for a much needed mini-break on her own in Spain, she was due to meet up with a Spanish women’s networking group.

Vanessa, who has two children aged eight and 11, had already had an extensive career in the City when she decided to set up in 2008.

“I was a frustrated working mum,” she says. “I wanted to try new things. I wanted the information I needed about networking with other similar women, but when I did a Google search there were pages of results. How would I know which one to go to? I didn’t want to give up an evening going to an event and meeting people I didn’t need to meet. I wanted a website which showed me which networks were good ones for me.”

While on her annual weekend away without the children, she talked to her husband about the idea of setting up such a website and then spent £300 in phone bills conducting market research with other City mums. She also drew up on two sheets of A5 paper what she wanted it to look like.

Soon after returning from holiday her husband bought her the website domain name. “I had no idea how to set up a website,” she said. The couple knocked up something simple in two months. The original site gave information on good women’s networking groups, where to eat and drink in the City and what to do with the kids in the City. Vanessa launched it in style with a champagne catwalk reception for 250 women at the House of Fraser.

In the first three years the site operated as a not for profit and it now earns a small revenue from advertising. Vanessa has built content, membership and network contacts and the site has evolved to include women entrepreneurs who want a platform to sell their products to like-minded women and a link to charities which City women might get involved in or fund raise for.

Vanessa has also set up a network of networks with 45 heads of diversity of FTSE firms to share what they are doing. She is keen to target young women – the pipeline for future female leaders – and to help them map out a long-term career journey and to give them the skills they need, such as contacts. She is a firm believer in the power of mentors or "champions".

"I believe you need multiple mentors and you need to change them as you advance in your career. I think you need them for life," she says.

Vanessa herself is mentor to 15 people around the world, including a tailor, a cake maker and a chief executive. She only mentors someone who is a mentor themselves so that she creates a mentoring chain. Once a year she and her mentees get together to work on a charity project abroad, for instance, They spent a week working in an orphanage in Africa. For Vanessa, all her work is about leaving a legacy and her long-term goal is a position as CEO of a charity dealing with women or development.

Until then she is focusing on her portfolio career. The site now gets 1.5 million hits a month and has 10,000 signed up members as well as partnerships with over 20% of London business networks. Content, which covers everything from professional development to lifestyle issues, is provided for free by around 200 people, including coaches and fitness experts. The site now also boasts a centralised calendar of events and is working on a sub portal, MemberCity, which will launch soon and target particular members with offers and information. In October, the site will also launch a jobs board.

To cater for all these new developments, in the last two months has set up a team of 13 part-time staff, six of whom are mums who have worked in the City. Most are based in London, but there is a small group in Portsmouth as a result of Vanessa meeting "an inspirational woman" at a bootcamp.

Working mum
Vanessa works four days a week in her job at Aviva Investors and devotes one day a week to "everything else". This includes roles as a non-executive director of a prostate cancer charity and the National Youth Music Theatre, a pearly queen and a school governor. She may cut down a bit on some of her commitments in the next few months, she says, because she is trying to write a book about her career journey in the City, giving tips and advice to other women. "I don’t do the day to day work on the website though," she says. This is left to her husband who works in IT for a financial firm in Canary Wharf. "He’s a frustrated creative," she laughs.

However, she does get up at 5am on a Saturday to clear her Wearethecity emails before her children are awake. On weekdays, a childminder comes round to her house at 6.30am. If she is at Aviva, it is usually just before 8am and she gets home by around 7pm, although she goes to a networking event at least one evening a week. It seems an exhausting schedule as she also packs in the usual round of activities with her children at the weekend. However, it’s one she seems to thrive on. "I’m constantly building my network," she says.

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