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Sally Duckworth is firm proof that a portfolio career is enriching both from a personal and professional perspective.
With a background in finance and an entrepreneurial mindset, she has taken on a variety of roles, including helping to start several businesses, making investments as a venture capitalist and providing support and advice through numerous non executive roles. She is currently CEO of employee benefits company You at Work as well as holding two Non Executive Chairman roles.
It makes for a varied professional life, but it is one, which she thrives on. “I can leverage experiences from one business and apply them to another,” she says. “One business may come up against a challenge, which is new to it, but which I have experienced previously in another business and so can contribute far more effectively to resolving. That happens time and time again.”
Sally says she has always been open to new ideas and challenges and that this has fuelled her passion for helping to start businesses and taking risks. “I have a very high natural tolerance of risk and stress,” she says. “I find the unknown challenging and stimulating and that’s the key thing about start-ups. The risks are high and there’s never a right answer because typically whatever they are devising as a product or service has not been done before and so it is almost by definition the unknown.”
She recalls a training course she went on in her early days working for a venture capital company. Her group was given some valuation questions about businesses. When it came to the larger private equity type deal everyone bashed away at their calculators doing the maths. However, when it came to the smaller venture deal some of the other people in her group found it daunting to estimate how much the business might be worth because there were no financial metrics that could be relied on. “I realised that one of the things I liked about venture capitalism and valuing early stage deals was that there is no right answer and no-one to go to for the right answer,” she says.
From financial services to starting businesses
Sally began her career as an accountant for PwC after graduating from Oxford University, working first in the audit department and then moving to the corporate finance and insolvency department. After four years she moved to JP Morgan preferring a more forward-looking approach to finance and rose to the level of Vice President on the Fixed Income Syndicate Desk. In 1999, she left that job to start up her consultancy business, Xanthic Ltd, which specialised in providing strategic and financial services to early stage companies, and to pursue a Masters in Environmental Technology due to her passion for the environment and her sense that this would become an ever more important growth area. Sally says setting up Xanthic was a natural move, taking her initial training in finance and using it to advise companies on strategy, business development, sales and marketing, financial reporting and planning.
In 2000 Sally was approached by technology venture capital company Quester who appointed her as an Investment Manager. She really enjoyed the job of poacher turned gamekeeper, relishing the opportunity to witness first hand the new ideas and technologies that, if successful, might come to market. Being involved in the firm’s investments allowed her to gain an insight into how boardrooms really work. After leaving Quester she helped set up other businesses, including Endeavour Ventures in 2005, which provided unquoted investments for sophisticated and high net worth clients and various other technology related businesses.
In 2008 she got married and gave birth to a child, but the marriage didn’t last and resulted in a difficult divorce process, culminating in the High Court last summer. With a husband who lives offshore and who does not provide any financial support, Sally is the sole breadwinner. She has been forced to remain ruthlessly focused on rebuilding her career whilst simultaneously making a life for her daughter and herself. “I am effectively my daughter’s father and my nanny is effectively her mother,” she says. She doesn’t feel guilty about this because she says she is not able to choose whether she works full time or not due to the looming requirements of covering the rent and bills.
In early 2012 Sally was appointed Director and COFO of Redkite Financial Markets Limited a financial services start-up that developed real-time market abuse surveillance solutions for global financial institutions, for whom she had been acting as a strategic consultant. She played a key role in positioning, documenting, negotiating and selling the business to the US NASDAQ listed company NICE later that year.
In March this year she was appointed CEO of You at Work, a full service employee benefits provider that aims to help employers create more satisfied employees through providing a broad range of benefits choices, exclusive retail discounts and employee support tools.
She is interested to see how technology can be applied to bring a more personalised and relevant experience to employee benefits.
“Part of the joy of being human is our uniqueness. It’s the same with employee benefits. One size fits none. We all want solutions that are meaningful to us as individuals. Employers want their employees to feel valued and engaged. These motivate employees to work harder, perform better and stay with the company for longer. Employees don’t feel valued or engaged if their benefits plans are not relevant to them,” says Sally, who plans to start implementing her vision over the next six months, with a product roadmap to enable You at Work to deliver that vision.
Although her You at Work role is the job she “lives and breathes” on a daily basis, she also has two Non Executive Chairman roles for technology businesses and is an occasional workshop presenter for Women on Boards which provides women with the information on how to find and position themselves for board roles. She is passionate about encouraging other women to have the confidence, awareness and network to enable them to find their first board seats.
Sally, who is also a mentor, says being on boards gives her the opportunity to challenge management teams as they look to expand their businesses without being drawn into the day to day issues that can sometimes make it difficult to stand back and think strategically.
But she is not just interested in boardroom diversity. She is keen to encourage greater diversity at all levels in organisations and believes returner initiatives are an important contribution and that non-linear career trajectories can be very enriching professionally. She doesn’t, however, believe that women need to behave differently to get to the top. “I think women should embrace the fact that they are different from men, and will therefore make a different contribution as part of their role and should always be true to themselves,” she says.