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Bold Risks and a Bit of Luck from Inspiring Females


Julie Underwood and Paula Gascoigne share their knowledge

Two women business leaders shared their career paths and the key decisions that had shaped their careers at the North East Expo Chamber Showcase, Inspiring Females session.

Julie Underwood, Chamber international trade director and Paula Gascoigne, chief executive, Smile for Life Children’s Charity set out their very different career paths.

For Julie, one of her first her risks came early in her life when she took the opportunity to travel to Russia for three months as part of her foreign languages degree. Going back 20 years, Russia was a different prospect to nowadays, with no chance for her to contact anyone at home.

Her career started within manufacturing businesses in the North East, leading on business development and developing sales overseas. During this time Julie gained a wealth of experience in sales and profitability strategies, plus more line management responsibilities and increasing her leadership skills. She also learnt a lot from working in high pressured environments where meeting targets and bottom line impact were the main focus.

She then managed a County Durham based enterprise agency supporting local businesses to grow, which enabled Julie to use her skills and experience in a different way This role also suited her personal circumstances at the time. One of the key attractions of this role was meeting and working with a variety of business.

Moving to the Chamber was the perfect role in harnessing previous international trade experience and utilising the knowledge gained from working with the smaller businesses, it has also led to the most significant challenges and opportunities in her career to date.

As International Trade Director, Julie overseas the international services at the Chamber, plus the delivery of the Department  for International Trade contract. She has a team of over 40 people who help companies trade all over the world and attends trade missions globally including most recently in Atlanta.

Paula Gascoigne’s bold risk came later in her career with a dramatic switch. She began in the financial sector, working for Barclays Bank for 18 years. After having her two boys Paula then made a decision to leave the safety of the Barclays banking world to become an independent investment advisor, getting back a work/life balance while the children were small. It was through her role at AYP Financial some 4 years later that she met the founding trustees of Smile For Life.

Her role as CEO requires many skills which she gained throughout her career; providing leadership in administration and financial management, developing a long term strategy, budget and business plan and ensuring the charity complies with the law and statutory regulations.

Paula explained her bold risk was not just to move from the banking sector to run a charity from scratch but to then open a café, then another café with additional capital expenditure, and now plans more premises. She said: “Breaking out of your comfort zones is very scary but I decided to do it, it was sink or swim. I found strength and wanted to make my kids proud of me. I also have a positive attitude to whatever happens whenever I can.”

Julie Underwood said: “Moving from manufacturing industry to an enterprise agency was quite a challenge, with it being a totally different working environment and sector. Then I took on the Chamber role, a few months after having a baby. After starting we then decided to go for the Department for International Trade contract and ended up winning it. Developing this work stream and managing people from very different backgrounds and cultures has been interesting.

“I think the important point to remember is that you can’t change who you are and need to be your own type of leader, rather than trying to be someone else.”

Takeaway tips from the session included, from Paula, “the Iron Man Attitude book on how to build your stamina for working life, made me really focused. This resulted in me realising getting freelance support to get talent into the business in a cost-effective way was a perfect solution to finding help”

From Julie, she recommended a book by Viv Groskop on How to Own a Room, with different podcasts by women who give their advice eg Mary Portas, Nigella Lawson.

The session was chaired by Alison Cowie, editor, North East Times.