Blog 08.03.23

Interview with our European MD for International Women's Day

This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating Helen Fisher, our Managing Director at Context Europe. “The worst career advice I ever got was to not take too many risks,” Helen says. Last year, she took the risk to shift from freelancing for Context Europe to become one third of the all-female management team. Read on to learn about her journey so far.

Helen is interviewed by Helen Brown.

HB: What did you want to be when you were little?

HF: I wanted to be a doctor or a vet as various points, and definitely a musician, but it was my love for the natural world that won out. I remember learning the word naturalist at a young age and finding it funny that it sounded like naturist. I watched every David Attenborough programme to learn more about what the word meant and decided I wanted to be just like him, starting with studying the same course he did — Natural Sciences.

HB: Did you spend a lot of time in nature?

HF: I grew up mostly in London, but between the ages of one and four we lived in a very rural area in the north of England. That fuelled my love of nature, and particularly of animals. We used to go on walks and collect all kinds of bones and other objects and I just found the way the natural world worked fascinating. When we moved back to London, I started our primary school green club and announced I was going to become a vegetarian, and it went from there.

HB: Becoming a doctor or a naturalist are quite classically male-dominated roles. Did you grow up in an environment where you were encouraged to be whatever you wanted to be?

HF: There have been quite a few strong women in my life, including my grandma. She had wanted to be an engineer, but this hadn’t been an option for her. I think that had always frustrated her, and she really encouraged us to explore our passions and pursue what we really wanted to do and be. There wasn’t ever much talk about gender or gender roles. I grew up playing football with my brother and my mum was often seen with a power tool in hand. It wasn’t until secondary school and university that some social norms and expectations around gender became more obvious. The books and research we read at Cambridge were dominated by white men, which I think lit a bit of a fire for me.

HB: Did you enjoy your university experience?

HF: Yes. I was a shy teenager — quite uncomfortable in my own skin and unconfident about expressing myself in any way that wasn’t through academia or music. But at university I met some amazing people and started to relax into being more comfortable with myself and more confident about who I am and what I stand for.

HB: What was your journey to get to your current role?

HF: After graduating I got a job opening and running a tutoring centre. It was a crash course in how to run a business — everything from recruiting and managing people and finances, to working directly with kids and their parents. But it wasn’t my passion, so I applied for every job with the word environment in the title until I got a job with a charity that was at the forefront of stakeholder dialogue around contentious environmental issues. I ended up moving into the corporate partners team, where I started to learn about corporate reporting on sustainability issues and the range of approaches companies take (or don’t take!) to understanding and addressing their impacts.

HB: How did you first start working for Context?

HF: A couple of years into that job, I became a freelancer to make more space to record and perform with the band I was in, and Context gave me my first job! Becoming self-employed at 25 really helped me grow in confidence and I learned from some incredible mentors. I freelanced for Context for 16 years, until a discussion with co-founder Peter Knight about him stepping back from the day-to-day running of the business.

HB: Did running your own one person business help with becoming Managing Director?

HF: Yes, I think so. It helped me get used to constantly learning and working out how to do new things, and taught me to really value feedback. I’ve brought that mindset into Context Europe — it’s just a lot bigger, with 25 years of heritage to uphold! Thankfully our Client Director Charlotte and our Operations Director Sonya are brilliant partners, and the three of us run the business equally through a collaborative approach. One of the first things we said when we took on our new roles was that we would always be open and direct with each other, and always give and receive feedback with assumed positive intent, and that’s set us off in a great direction.

HB: What do you love the most about your current role?

HF: I love working with our amazing team and I love the variety of challenges and topics we’re exposed to every day. There’s always so much to learn, and our role is all about absorbing a lot of information fast and finding solutions, which I find constantly exciting. Working in sustainability can sometimes feel overwhelming when you think about how much still needs to change, and how quickly. Stepping back and seeing how passionate our clients are about making a difference and being able to support them in that is the biggest reward.

HB: How do you balance your love of music with your love for sustainability work?

HF: It’s ebbed and flowed over my life, but even when I have less time to spend on music, I’ve never really worried about it going away. It’s how I express myself and my emotions, so it’s a language I’ll always carry around and come back to.

HB: What kind of leader are you?

HF: The leaders I’ve always resonated the most with are those who I see firstly as humans, who aren’t putting on a front or a mask but are leading as a whole person, with humour, empathy and openness. That’s something I try to emulate. I don’t really know how to lead other than to be myself.

HB: Do you have moments of imposter syndrome?

HF: Absolutely, I still feel a little socially awkward and like a bit of an impostor in a lot of situations. But I’ve discovered over the years that pretty much everybody does. Over time I’ve learned to remember that those insecurities generally don’t tend to be based on any external evidence and to find perspective relatively quickly. It helps to think will I be worrying about any of those little things 25 years from now – almost certainly not.

← Back to Fresh Thinking
Charlotte Smith

Executive Director


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