10Qs: Isabel Jennings of Student Plus QUB Talks to Jessica Caldwell

WIP Class Intern,  Jessica Caldwell Talks Politics, Leadership and Careers with Isabel Jennings of Student Plus, Queen’s University Belfast

What were you doing when you where my age?

I was actually on of a ‘guinea pig’ group for a new course option at Queen’s; a five year Business with Spanish course which offered me the opportunity to spend a year living in Madrid. At that time students didn’t have much money so I tutored Spanish to help fund university. I was also treasurer of the Hispanic Society and Business Club as well as being heavily involved with the university charity work through RAG. The students union was the only safe socialising place in Belfast at the time and so I spend all of my free time there, and loved every minute.

How did you get to where you are today?

1987 was a bad time economically and not a safe time to be graduate and look for work. I was extremely lucky to be offered a scholarship to study a Business Masters again at Queen’s . I remember feeling ‘rich’ to have extra money to spend on socialising. I also tutored undergrads in the QUB Business school. Once graduated I was advised to apply for a job with a company called Munster Sims. I was lucky to be offered a job in their International Sales and Marketing department and from there my career grew quickly as I had to learn from scratch how to work in this fast paced engineering industry. As a result of this I was offered the opportunity to study for my PHD in Logistics in Cranfield which greatly prepared me for my next job as Sales and Marketing Director at Tyrone Crystal. Still being in my twenties I was full of confidence until outside the interview an employee of the company told me they were looking for a man to take the position. This pushed me to come across as professional and qualified as possible and I was delighted to take the position and grow in my career. During this time I also got married and had my first child. Over the next ten years I was fortunate enough to travel the world and live in both Azerbaijan and Sweden and also have my second child. I came to the decision to move home permanently and take up my current position as I wanted to be closer o my home and young family. I was so grateful to have had the family support I did to allow me to travel and excel in my career but I felt it was time to be closer to my children and wider family.

Who was the most influential person in your life and why?

I was one of six children growing up in Castlewellen and was very fortunate to have been supported greatly by my parents. They always encouraged me to experience travel and education and enjoy the opportunities that they were not offered themselves. They instilled in me a strong ethical framework and principles, encouraging me to always be myself and follow my dreams, whatever they were.

Throughout my personal career I have been lucky to have worked with may fantastic and influential people across my six places of work.  Mo Mowlam especially stands out together with other individuals, especially from my time working with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board during the Good Friday Agreement . These people have helped shape my career and personal self.

What advice would you give to a young university graduate from NI?

Don’t limit your vision. Always know your strengths and play to them by understanding what it is you want to do and who you want to be both in your career and in your life.  Traveling and living in other countries greatly helped me develop a sense of the bigger picture and where I belonged within my industry. It is vital that you can take responsibility for your actions, use your initiative and always aim to have something productive or positive to contribute. Also use tools that are at your disposal such as the internet as it has the possibility to create more and more opportunities over the next few years.

If there was one thing you could change about the N.I political system, what would it be and why?

The political system here could become more aligned, especially regarding education. If all the political parties came together and created a more streamlined approach to education, at all levels, it would result in a much more efficient system in which no young person would be at a disadvantage. Also NI has a continued problem with being an insular society. If both politicians and society as a whole could wake up to the many great possibilities and opportunities for our young people if we were a more open society.  NI has come far over the last ten years but we need to mature further in order to continue this progress and grow from it.

What advice would you offer to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Have a respect for people. If you have been privileged enough to be placed in such a position you must respect that responsibility and approach it with an emotional intelligence. To be a productive leader you must be clear on what your own and the group vision is and be able to inspire your team and nurture their individual strengths. Having clarity on the direction you want to take inspires confidence in your team.  Being a great leader in any field requires you to create a safe environment in which successes are celebrated and problems dealt with humility. Always be open about what you want to achieve even if it feels far away. Learn through different cultures and excite people to want to feel involved and useful. Also never be afraid to ask for help as it allows you to improve as a leader and as a member of the team.

What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to leadership which are unique to women? If any?

Often women over think, a detail that comes with the female psyche. Women can be so hard on themselves when something is wrong but never jump to be proud of something they have achieved. I was in a position where my family could support me and my childcare needs whilst I was working which the majority of women sadly don’t have. There are good and bad woman in the workplace and women just need to have more self confidence and courage to push ourselves to the best of our abilities in both our careers and private lives. Life is all about compromise I believe and its about having the right balance for you and growing in the direction you feels most comfortable.

What has been one of your proudest moments at work?

Whilst working for Tyrone Crystal I was given the opportunity to create and distribute a collection of Irish crafts to be made here by talented local women and sold in Asia and America. The thirst for this type of good was huge in those countries so it was a huge undertaking. The project was called the ‘Spirit of Ireland’ and was themed on local history such as the Titanic for example. Being able to make the talent of 149 local crafts women a global marketing, sales and distribution success was a great achievement for both myself and the ladies themselves. With an online turnover of over 14million it was one of the biggest success the company had seen in a few years and my feeling of pride and professionalism grew as I felt I was really valued within the company but also that I allowed others to have the opportunity to showcase their natural talent in a way they would never have before.

If you where not in your current position, what job would you like to be doing?/ What did you want to be growing up?

As a young girl all I wanted to do was travel and learn different languages and about different cultures. Through the work I have done this dream has been made a reality and it is one I am truly grateful for and have thoroughly enjoyed on both a work and personal level.  Now in my current stage of life I would love to foster children. I have always enjoyed working with young people and that has only grown as a result of my position at Queen’s. I hope some time in the future when my work schedule isn’t as hectic I will get the opportunity to foster and deepen my work with young people.

What would be your one piece of advice to me on taking my next step into the world?

Grab every opportunity that comes before you. Use networking to create those opportunities yourself and learn from those around you, both peers and superiors. It is vital to be yourself and don’t be afraid to follow the path laid down before you, even if it looks different to what you had planned. You should enjoy your life as its short and you only get one shot at it. Take it one step at a time and have the wisdom to enjoy your day in the sun, but never be afraid to get down to hard work.