Did you know that only 1 in 10 statues in the UK are of women? And, surprise, surprise, most of these are of Queen Victoria.
With such figures you’d be forgiven for thinking that, unless born to be queen, women have played little more than a bit part in British history. But put simply, it’s all about airbrushing – concealing our contributions in the annals.
My Page 1 Woman has been involved in an Appeal to recognize a woman contemporary of Florence Nightingale. She made as big a contribution, but didn’t receive as big an honour. That she was black, and outside the establishment may bear some connection. But for many years a movement to honour her has gathered momentum.
If you’re not familiar with the name ‘Mary Seacole’, you soon will be. Her statue was unveiled with suitable fanfare, in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital earlier this year. Clearly a woman on purpose, Mary Seacole, sold up, travelled alone from Jamaica and offered her assistance as a nurse in the Crimea war. Snubbed by “the establishment”, she went under her own steam anyway and nursed wounded British soldiers and saved lives.
So who is my Page 1 Woman? Meet Roxanne St Clair, Accountant, Freelance Finance Manager and life-time member of the Mary Seacole fan club. Her chance meeting with the then Vice-Chair of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal became an unexpected life changer.
It got her the pivotal roles of Treasurer and later, of Project Manager. ‘I tend to get myself involved in big projects that I feel passionate about’, she said. Capitalizing on her well-honed skills and knowledge, enabled trustees to steer the project over obstacles to a successful conclusion.
You might say that Mary Seacole and Roxanne share qualities in common - determined, fearless risk taking self-leaders, up for a challenge and unfazed by the enormity of it. Let’s hear more from Roxanne in her own words.
Describe your work.
Roxanne: I’m the treasurer of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal and I project managed the statue’s completion and installation at St Thomas's hospital in London.
When offered the treasurers role, my initial intention was to manage the finances and ensure that the statue got erected. But, following a meeting with the artist and the foundry, I was asked, out of the blue, if I would manage the project too. Clearly, something I said made our Chair realise that I had the capacity to manage it. It helps that I come from a line of strong women who would set their objectives and overcome obstacles to success.
I now work as a Freelance Finance Manager with entrepreneurs. But my passion for women leaders has led me to develop a programme incorporating finance and leadership combined that I’ll share with women through speaking engagements. I want to remove women’s fears around numbers and share the fact that they can be effective with finance.
What essential steps got you to successfully deliver the project?
Roxanne: I stayed committed to achieving the goal of erecting the statue. My desire for women to be all they’re capable of being, like Mary Seacole, was my main reason for getting involved. When I heard about the Appeal it immediately brought to mind women, like Mary, whose qualities I admire - leadership, tenacity, working to achieve their vision. I like to think that I have some of those qualities, hence it resonating with me.
I also wanted to be part of creating the legacy. Knowing that the statue, the first of a named black woman, will outlive me is humbling. My children will be able to take their children to see it and not only share Mary’s story, but inform them that their grandmother was instrumental in bringing the statue into existence.
And young people will have a physical representation of a historic black woman role model in Central London. It's priceless. It represents qualities that young people can feel good about - self-leading, making a difference, being so true to your goal and vision that you’re prepared to make sacrifices to beat any obstacles.
What was most significant thing you did that got you the project manager role?
Roxanne: Attending the meeting at the foundry that day, because of my interest in seeing the process of casting the statue in bronze. We discussed the time scale, how it would happen, what input would be required from us, etc , and I ended up becoming Project Manager. I guess I got myself into the right place at the right time.
What was the greatest challenge on that journey?
Roxanne: This came near the end of the project. We were ready to meet the installation date. We learned that we needed another £240,000 which hadn’t been previously disclosed. What a shock! We didn’t know where we would get the funds and started a fund raising campaign.
I ensured that we kept the construction cost down so that more “hidden” costs wouldn’t materialize. Because the statue had to go up; people had to be paid and the project experience had to be pleasant! Fortunately, we met the criteria of the LIBOR fines and funding was okayed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
My many years’ experience in finance helped. I started with credit control for a large finance house, and went on to work for Pitney Bowes Finance and Visa, travelling around Europe and getting promoted along the way.
I became recognised as the go to person for getting things done. So if I'm in a role, I'm committed to it and to getting results. That's my driver. Some people find me a bit pedantic, because I say, "We need to have systems in place and do things properly.” When it comes to dealing with money this is non-negotiable.
What was your greatest light bulb moment?
Roxanne: One of the ironies was that it felt as though we were facing some of the obstacles that Mary had faced when trying to get to Crimea. Despite moving forward, we encountered nay sayers here and abroad. But history has a way of repeating itself. And I thought, ‘If she could do it, we can do it’. I learned, there are obstacles but you must be clear on the purpose and the desired outcome, and be prepared to put your neck on the line to get it.
What key resource has been crucial to your success?
Roxanne: My persona - wanting to get things done - and definitely my belief in the project. I felt a statement had to be made about Mary, and that this endeavour was worthwhile and bigger than me. So I was prepared to do everything necessary to make things happen. I focused on the end result, and what it would mean for future generations. That statue just had to go up!
I also believed in the importance of teamwork. I’m proud that all the contractors came together and delivered a quality project as one team.
What do you understand by leadership?
Roxanne: Good leadership is about having a vision, sharing it, bringing people on board, to help realise it, and enabling them to recognise their own power.
As a leader, I had to be confident. I was working with men who were well established in their fields, so I had to be clear what I was about and demonstrate that the vision and the intricacies of their roles were understood. I expected the best from everybody involved and related to them at that level.
What difference did it make being a black woman project leader?
Roxanne: Reference was never made to my gender or race in front of me. I would be on site and in team meetings, usually the only woman, but we just got on with business.
When certain remarks about race were made and certain articles were published, some people would ask whether these comments were made because it was a statue of a black woman. I didn't need to ask the question and I wouldn’t let the issue overshadow our aim. Society is what it is. Therefore, these statements weren’t surprising. Whereas for some project members it provided insight into what other people have to deal with.
Being a small, quiet woman, worked to my advantage, because I come across as calm and unassuming. I’m prepared to listen and I process and conceptualize as I’m listening. Therefore, I look at things in stages and how one thing leads to the next. So I ask questions that require the other party to think; plus I don't speak just for speaking sake. By demonstrating the value I can add, people have to listen.
Ironically a white, English man, Lord Clive Soley, our Chair, started the Appeal. He got involved in the 80's. A group of Jamaican women took him to find Mary Seacole’s grave and shared her story and that she wasn’t recognised in the UK. He thought to himself, "I can't do anything now, but when I'm no longer an MP, I’ll see if I can erect a statue for her." He was true to his word. I kept reminding him that that statue was the fulfillment of a thirty-year promise.
What are your top three tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Roxanne: First, know your worth, because if you don't value yourself, how do you expect anybody else to. I used to be the person who'd do everything for everybody, and then realised I was wearing myself out. I had to learn to sometimes say ‘no’, and do the things that are aligned with who I am.
Second, know what you stand for. Some people call it their creed. It keeps life simple. You’ll know immediately if something’s not right for you and you can communicate without ambiguity so that people get you immediately. It removes unnecessary conflict and stress. In this particular project my key value was integrity. Without integrity, I might have done things in a non-beneficial way.
Third, lead by example. You’ll get willingness from others, because they're seeing you involved, demonstrating your belief. For example, the statue was delivered to the site on a Sunday. I stayed until it was in situ, long after I’d planned to leave, because I knew these guys were giving up family time to get this job done.
A bystander automatically assumed that the statue was NHS funded. I told him, "It's all privately funded." He was quite happy, and we had a nice long conversation. But it's something simple like misinformation, which creates bad feelings. So it was worthwhile being there.
Find out more about Roxanne's business here.
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