Inspirational conference for schoolgirls, entrepreneurial women in business and fantastic speakers

This year, to celebrate International Women’s Day, I was invited, along with several other members of LeanIn Belfast, to attend a half day conference in the grand setting of the ballroom of Titanic Belfast. There were quite a lot of photos taken on ‘that staircase’….

The aim of the day was to inspire local schoolgirls to Step Up. To believe they could achieve anything. To hear excellent speakers, including the amazing Sue Willis, Director of Santander UK. Apparently this was Sue’s second time speaking at a conference — I would love to attend her next one — you could just hear the whole room lift when she was talking. Sue talked about her rise to the top of Santander UK, her completely different path to most of the bankers in the City of London (no private school for her..)

This was my first day out representing LeanIn, and I found it really motivating. I was partnered with seven sixth-formers from Ashfield Girls High School in Belfast. They were a great bunch — we had the chance to talk about what stops people from speaking up in public forums, about the importance of seeing other women at the top of their game — the phrase You Cannot Be What You Cannot See springs to mind.

One of the girls talked about considering applying to the Merchant Navy after school,and how there weren’t that many other women on the weekend trial she attended. I suggested she try to find a woman already in the Merchant Navy to have a chat to, so she could find out the reality of life in that role, and to try and get a mentor for herself. When I think back to my time at school, my careers advice was really non-existent. It was brilliant to see all these girls in a room hearing (and talking) about how they could be, or do, anything.

Another member at my table has already set up her own social enterprise, East Broadway — a local theatre company in East Belfast, with her friend. I was able to give her a connection to the current Director of Social Enterprise in NI — I am hoping she has been in touch with him. I have followed this one up as I think its important to follow through with these connections. After all, working for myself for the past few years has taught me that networking is everything.

After all the speakers, we got the chance to go on a walk with our table — to get to know the girls a little more, and to see if they had any questions for me. We walked around the Titanic area and I found that I was asking more questions from the girls than the other way round. My three kids are all at primary school, and I don’t come into contact with teenage girls that often — so it was really fascinating to hear all about their lives, their school experiences, what they hoped to do in the future. Really articulate, interesting young women. We (the school account) and I now follow each other on Instagram (turns out these girls dropped Twitter when they were about 14… it’s all about Instagram and Snapchat for them.) I really hope I get to go back again next year…

#VitalVoices walk with the girls from Ashfield Girls High School, Belfast.

Originally published at