Sixty-six percent of Britons support gender equality, but only seven percent call themselves feminists. When feminists are stereotyped as man-hating, bra-burning, angry, hairy and dull it’s hardly surprising that so many people shy away from identifying as feminists. So, what’s the relevance to my Page 1 Woman? She’s a big supporter of gender equality and her business is about women’s empowerment but.... ‘I don’t call myself a feminist although I whole heartedly believe in equality,’ she said. ‘I just don’t do name tags’.
She’s Marsha Powell, leader of BelEve UK; the woman who, as a girl, dreamt about working in Canary Wharf and got there. The woman who joined the Financial Services Authority (FSA), aged 19, with a handful of GCSEs and broke the mold by jumping from administrator to HR business partner, when other people were saying – ‘administrator to HR business partner? Too big a leap!’ The woman who responded with, ‘Watch me!’ and then collected a handful of qualifications along the way - HND in business, a degree and then a masters, while simultaneously working full time, and raising 2 kids. ‘People were like, "How did you do that?" It was about achieving something for me and my children. And showing them that anything is possible, even as a black girl from South East London’, she said.
But her trailblazing didn’t stop there. She set up the first BME network at the FSA. ‘It meant everything is possible, when you’re aligned to your higher being’. She’s clearly a spiritual woman, brought up in the church. And whilst it’s not ‘in’ to be a God aficionada, Marsha has thrived, because of her faith. She’s bold, enthusiastic and positive and inspired by her mom. She’s a self-leading free-spirit, able to achieve anything she puts her mind to. And her business is her purpose, her way of serving and paying it forward.
Describe your work.
Marsha: My family-run business, BelEve UK, supports girls and young women, aged 8 to 24 to gain the capabilities to increase their life chances and career prospects.
BelEve UK aims to inspire, empower, build confidence and the moral compass of young girls, before they are fully influenced by the world. Nowadays, social media tells you what's right and wrong and that may not be aligned to the best values. That’s why we work with 8 year olds because at that age, we can instil some great values that align with what the world of work actually wants. That's not about building robots. That's about enabling girls who don't have the classical music in the background every day, to understand, that to be successful you need to have core capabilities - communication, teamwork, self-leading and relationship building. So it's about ensuring that we support girls in building their dreams by giving them new experiences and opportunities.
We work in schools and in 3 centres across Lewisham. And we run events for moms and families, which gives us contact with these girls. We create a fun, non-threatening, non-judgemental environment with clear boundaries, like a mini-world.
What essential steps did you take to get to where you are now?
Marsha: First, I studied people whom I saw as successful. If they inspired me I would speak to them and role model them.
At the FSA, I realized that education and putting learning into action, was everything. People say it's not, but it is. And I thought, "If I'm going to get on in this organization I need to get myself educated, because they respect education here." And when I did and got to HR Business partner, people were asking, "Who’s that girl?"
In 15 years at the FSA I always had a plan that ensured that as much as I gave, I got. And when I realised that I was no longer getting what I needed, I left.
What was the most significant thing that got you into your current position?
Marsha: The most significant thing was the death of my mom. She was diagnosed with cancer. I watched her, with grace, manage her journey courageously, still giving, loving, knowing that she was going to another place. She said, ‘Marsha you're tough. I need you to be tough and make things happen. Everything I taught you Marsha, I want you to show people exactly who I’ve created." And I was like, "Okay, put on my big drawers and let's make this party happen."
The day my mom died, was the first day me and my sisters left the house (to get our hair done). We were called home. She died before we arrived and willed herself back because she wasn’t going to die without us present. Within half an hour of us getting back, my mom died in my arms. That experience was surreal, my turning point. It made me understand how important life is and how quickly it can go.
I decided to live with "I did" rather than "I wish". And within a year of my mom dying I gave up my job. My ‘big drawers’ continue to give me confidence to do absolutely anything.
What was the greatest challenge on your journey?
Marsha: Not having my mom. And leaving my job was the boldest decision I’ve ever made. I had a family and two mortgages and a big car. And when I resigned, people were, "How are you going to make money?" and I said, "Faith will guide me, lead me, and provide for me." And at that point I went, "Okay she's not here but spiritually she'll always be with me. So let's take this step in faith and do it’. And four years on I'm still able to pay my mortgage. I just let my prayers determine the decision.
I set up BelEve UK, which put me totally outside my comfort zone. But I knew my purpose and my vision and I used all my transferable skills to make it happen.
What was your greatest lightbulb moment?
Marsha: It happened at my mom’s funeral when I stood to do the eulogy. I saw about 1,000 people, packed in a church for 500. I was facing this sea of people there to celebrate her life. They confirmed my belief that she was an angel. She wasn’t a celebrity, but a good person who touched many people’s lives.
I learned that I've got purpose and a responsibility to myself, my children and the world. And fast forward five years, I realized I'm on my journey to grace, that state of truth, happiness, forgiveness, peace.
What one key resource was crucial to your success?
Marsha: My faith and spirituality have been essential to my success. I remember going to church at Easter and my pastor said, "Faith has no sense. You can't touch, feel or see it, but you just know it." So I use my intuition a lot and when I don't use my intuition that's when things go wrong. So I listen to my ‘her’, my spirit and I allow it to guide me. Things go wrong when I don’t listen."
Tuning into my faith and spirituality has enabled me to see things for what they are. For example, I said to a friend, "I've got tickets, we're going out." He replied, "I'm busy." I was so upset but I had to tell myself, "You’re transferring negative energy into the atmosphere." And I had to get myself out of it, because I'm in control of my feelings and my state - mentally spiritually, physically. When people realize they can self control we won't have a world of confusion.
What do you understand by leadership?
Marsha: Leadership is about leading yourself and others authentically towards a vision and a purpose, conscious of what and who I put out there. Leadership is about bringing people along with you and listening to their views. So sometimes your vision isn't the one that's going to get you where you want to be. But you’ll never know everything. So a leader has to be open to learning from others. Sometimes, my children teach me things that make me a better person and lead myself better.
How is that connected to being a woman leader?
Marsha: Men are very bottom line driven whereas women leaders often consider the people and then the numbers, and how we did and not what we did. So men and women look at things from different perspectives. We may get to the same place, but in different ways.
I think of myself more as a leader rather than a woman leader. What makes me who I am is my spirit and being human. I focus on why I'm here, rather than the label and restrictions that have been put on me because I’m a woman. Let me live a free spirited life as Marsha Powell, a human being, here to support women to realize their dreams.
I chose to work with girls and young women as I’m a fantastic human being, because my mom was my cheerleader. Loads of girls don’t have that. I wanted to recreate some of the gems my mom gave me and give back. As women we’re powerful. The world tells us we're secondary, that men rule, make the big decisions, are successful, and have more money. So we feed into that and don't realize our power. Women are the world’s creators. No babies, no world. But we can't do it without men.
What 3 top tips would you give women who want to be leaders in their field?
Marsha: I'm reading ‘The Conscious Leader’ by Labek Watson. So my first tip is to consciously lead yourself and others towards a vision. You get to live in and enjoy the moment with the people who matter.
Second, be your authentic self and you’ll get what you want in abundance.
Finally, always serve - pay it forward. Always consider who you’re empowering and inspiring. You’ll get self-fulfilment, confirmation that you’re doing what you set out to do and that you’re passing it on. And that’s about serving, leading with excellence, and being the best person you can be in this position.
I went to church once and a rabbi came and said, "Jews are so successful because their first principle is to serve. So we get back in abundance." If every day you think “what am I going to give to the world and those around me?” you’ll receive back.
Since paying it forward with BelEve UK, I’ve got peace, happiness, truth and love. I wake up each morning and determine my day. At the centres, I have 35 girls, happy to see me because of what we’ve given them. So paying it forward enables another individual to understand love, truth, forgiveness, peace - all the things we adults seek.
To find out more about BelEve UK, click here.
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