workingmums.co.uk speaks to Helen Cannon, winner of this year’s everywoman Woman of the Year award.
For Helen Cannon being named Woman of the Year at the everywoman awards last week was “a bit of a dream” and she is still in a state of “utter disbelief”. She says she wants to use the award as a springboard to do more to promote women in business, but she has already done quite a bit on that front.
Helen is the Founder and CEO of ISON Travel and was described by judges as “a force to be reckoned with”. ISON Travel delivers corporate travel management and, despite Covid, has grown by 300% since 2019, from a £9.7 million turnover to £40 million in 2023. Helen now employs over 80 people worldwide, including in Dubai, the Philippines and India – many are, like her, mums.
Helen, from Surrey, started the business in 2013. She had worked in brand development and event management until her second child was born. Her company had agreed to part-time hours on her return as she knew the long hours and travel would be difficult with children. However, they went back on this at the end of her maternity leave and said she had to work full time. She left to focus on her children. Over the next decade, Helen had three more children and became chair of the local National Childbirth Trust branch, was a leading light in the Parent-Teacher Association and took on other roles in her children’s school. She spent a lot of her time helping other mums who had moved out of London to feel connected and welcome. But after her youngest was born she decided it was time to do something for herself and get back to work, which she had always loved.
She knew she couldn’t work for a company and do the commute as well as be there for her children so she was looking for alternatives. She had a chance encounter with a friend who worked in the travel industry. Helen had always loved to travel. The two spoke about the industry and she realised it wasn’t so different from her old job in terms of the focus on clients. They decided to set up a travel management company. “We never had a grand plan,” says Helen. “I was initially just looking for something for me that I could do around the children. But I started to really enjoy it.”
A large part of her enjoyment has come through seeing her employees progress. You can sense the enthusiasm when she talks about them. Many are mums who have been overlooked simply because they want to work flexibly. Despite being female heavy, Helen says the travel industry tends to lose women at the higher echelons, like many other sectors. “I was really determined that my company was going to be female heavy at all levels and super flexible within the constraints of the business,” she says. She has achieved her goal.
Helen’s first part-time hire had worked in the travel industry for many years and had been made redundant. She was looking for school hours, but could not find anything and was thinking of leaving the industry. Helen [pictured left with the other everywoman winners] recruited her. She is now the company’s chief of staff and works full time because her children are a bit older. “As her children have grown and her confidence has grown, we have grown. It’s amazing to see,” says Helen.
Another recruit was made redundant by a travel management company. She was training to be a midwife, but wanted to keep one foot in the travel world. Helen hired her on two days a week. One year in she had to take around eight weeks off to do a midwifery placement. She came back and is still on the team, balancing travel and midwifery.
Simone Buckley, strategic advisor at ISON Travel, says she gives the company and her midwifery team a different and refreshing viewpoint. She has the maturity and working life experience that many midwifery students may lack and also the ability to put work crises at ISON Travel into perspective, given they are not the kind of life and death situations she is confronting as a midwife.
Other members of staff have flexible schedules to deal with childcare, including a grandmother who can flex her weeks according to her grandparent duties. Helen says it’s not about presenteeism, but about trust and respect, as long as the customers are happy.
Simone recalls being surprised when she first joined that in the senior managers’ meeting Helen alerted one member of staff that it was school run time and she had better get going. “She really walks the walk,” says Simone, who recalls doing the school run at a previous job, but feeling a sense of guilt even though she was told it was ok.
For Helen [pictured below right], flexible working is about treating employees like grown-ups and this ensures her employees are motivated. That requires planning ahead within teams, but the pay-off is more than worth it for both employees and the company. ISON Travel has other family-friendly practices too, including an Employee Assistance Programme with face-to-face counselling as a possibility, virtual pilates sessions, volunteer days, private medical health, the chance to buy and sell holidays and volunteering days. Employees are surveyed annually and can add suggestions for other benefits.
Everyone can work remotely, although the company has offices in Woking, London and Southampton as well as overseas. There are regular meetings too, including three company-wide events in the UK. They have also just taken on interns and apprentices, who Helen says give the company a multigenerational perspective.
Surprisingly, Covid has helped them to grow. They were working with many businesses in frontline sectors such as energy and their workers needed to keep travelling. Helen also saw a massive opportunity to hire people who had been made redundant as a result of the pandemic. That included their Business Development Manager, who works four days a week and, Helen says, was undervalued and underpaid in her previous role. At ISON Travel she has become “a superstar” and developed her management skills.
Having offices in other parts of the world means the company can respond to the demand for 24/7 cover without people having to work very late hours. Helen is keen to develop her global coverage further and to expand the business. The company has already moved into new areas, such as managing school trips and running events and they offer a full concierge service. “As travel has become more complex [vaccine requirements during Covid, for instance] we add an extra level of support. People don’t have to worry about cancellations or strikes or anything. We can get the best value for companies and deal with their carbon budget too. There are lots of layers we can support with these days,” says Helen. “I am excited to see where we will go next.”
She adds that having the everywoman award makes her feel that all the team’s hard work is recognised. She states: “I hope we can give back to women coming up in business. I am really excited to be involved with everywoman. It’s an amazing organisation. Listening to all the shortlisted women’s stories they were so diverse. Since Covid, women have shown their versatility and ability to pivot quickly.”