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How to launch a business that becomes an overnight success

... Spoiler alert: it takes about 70 years or so

“Recently, the Reignite Academy has come to the fore as a leader in City law firm returnships in the UK”

That line appeared in the “Full Disclosure” piece in the Financial Times last week – a column dedicated to what’s going on in the legal world. Can’t tell you how proud we all were.

In one sense, “recently” is about right. We first kicked around the idea for the Reignite Academy in March 2018. It was an exciting prospect – a new venture that would encourage City law firms to collaborate in order to create a returnship style programme to help women get their careers back on track after a break of any kind.

The problem was, we were all too busy. Melinda had a full time job and was a partner in a successful search firm, I had a book to finish and promote, Stephanie was about to launch a new returners programme for Shell. On top of which we are all mums to two children, some of whom would be sitting important exams and all of whom would need lots of attention over the summer holidays, just when we’d be launching this new venture. None of us had the time.

So of course we went ahead anyway (you know what they say … if you need something doing, find a busy working mother).

We set to work and by September 2018 we’d signed up six City law firms, by January 2019 we launched our pilot programme and by March 2019, nine months later, we had further nine member firms, a pilot programme going from strength to strength and, we realised, the makings of a business.

An overnight success.

Except that it wasn’t, of course. Look at us. Do we look like millennials to you? Thought not. Between us, we probably have around seventy years of professional experience and have spent a collective twenty years or more working to improve the position of women in the workplace. Researching, networking, organising, speaking, writing, campaigning, connecting, learning, tweeting, marching , doing whatever we could to shine a light on what’s going wrong and – more importantly – to explore practical ways of changing things.

All of those years of experience and effort went into what might look from the outside to be an overnight success. They were the foundation but there were five further building blocks:

Purpose

Our purpose is to enable women to get their careers back on track after a break.

That’s why we exist. Yes, of course, we will help men too, we’re not exclusive but our raison d’etre, our motivation, is to see women who have ambition and drive but lack the opportunity find the opportunities they deserve. Women like Mehrnaz, who’d taken time out to build a small business and Kristin who relocated with her family to China and returned a divorced single mum. Women who are being shut out and disregarded simply because their careers didn’t follow nice straight lines.

Clarity

What is the problem you’re trying to solve?

When I worked as a management consultant, my father would regularly ask “Exactly what is it that you do? ” Of course, I could never really explain, at least not in plain English and certainly not in one sentence.

With Reignite it’s different. It’s so easy to explain the problem we’re trying to solve. Law firms lose too many women and so, whilst they often are over 50% female at entry point , the gender balance becomes 80% men at the top. Women step off career ladders, often because of young children, and then find it impossible to get back.

Yes, there are complexities, nuances, other dimensions but few people argue with the basic premise.

Trust

The three of us had never worked together before. Melinda and Steph hadn’t even met. In our first four months we probably had three face to face meetings, relying on Skype, Facetime and Google hangouts to connect.

And yet it worked. It not only worked, it went off like a rocket. We all had complementary skills sets and we trusted each other. Whatever the question, it was clear who had the answer: an opening to the senior partner at a law firm? Melinda. The right process to recruit a returner? Steph. Branding or communication? Me.

We put ego to one side, we didn’t question how many hours each of us was committing, we respected what each of us was bringing to the table.

Collaboration

Our ethos from the start was one of partnership, teaming and collaboration. That problem described above: no City firm had it cracked. So why not collaborate to find solutions?

So we set up the Reignite Academy as a membership organisation, and launched with a team meeting to mobilise the pilot programme and kick around questions that we couldn’t resolve alone: what title should the returners have? Should they have targets for billable hours? How should they be introduced to clients? How would they get back up to speed, technically? And so on.

Yes, we had a lot of ideas and suggestions, and we brought our own experience to the table, but the solutions became so much richer when our clients added their own thoughts, and shared ideas with each other.

Getting the right people on the bus

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, was absolutely right. It’s not about vision and strategy. You have to have the right people on the bus.

When we realised we had the makings of a business, we also quickly realised that building that business could not be done by the three of us alone. We needed a team. And that the most important criteria for being on that team were sharing our passion, understanding the problem we are trying to solve and having the motivation to go the extra mile to solve it.

Sharon left a secure job as a legal recruiter to join the team, frustrated at seeing so many women being rejected because of a gap on their CV and excited about what we’re doing. Tanja swapped a nice flexible role close to home to take one that involves a commute back up to London two or three days a week to get involved. Alice joined us on secondment from a client, stepping off her own partner track in order to make a difference to more women in the profession.

Recognition in the FT was great, but the most satisfying thing of all? Seeing the members of our pilot programme complete their six months and step into permanent offers. Now that really does make us proud.

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