Baking star Nadiya Hussain, politician Sophie Walker and entrepreneur Kathryn Parsons share what they’ve learned on the way up
Words: Corinne Redfern Photography: Gemma Day
You know you’re on to a good thing when an audience laughs, cries and collectively gasps, all in the space of just 10 minutes. At Stylist’s sixth Life Lessons event last month, there were all of those emotions and, well, a lot more besides. Sharing the stage were Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Great British Bake Off champion Nadiya Hussain, and tech entrepreneur Kathryn Parsons, who each rose to our challenge to share the one inspiring lesson they believe every woman should know.
Of course, ‘inspiring’ ended up being something of an understatement. Kathryn Parsons revealed how despite no back-up plan (“beyond credit card loans – this is not a ‘how to do it’ by any means!”), she doggedly pursued her entrepreneurial dreams. Her admission that “we don’t always know what we’re doing, but that’s OK”, had the audience nodding so emphatically, one woman even spilled her drink.
Next, political firebrand Sophie Walker implored us all to “be the change you want to see in the world”. Just days after the vote for Brexit, her challenge clearly struck a chord, with a hush falling over the room during her rousing talk.
And with sticking to your guns becoming a key theme of the night, baking extraordinaire Nadiya Hussain shared her long road to self-acceptance after being shamed for being a full-time mum. Like the night itself, it was moving, honest and real. So for those who couldn’t make it, you’ll find the most motivating advice right here.
Sophie Walker: “Be the change you want to see in the world”
Sophie Walker, 45, is leader of the Women’s Equality Party and a former journalist. She attracted 45,000 members to the party when it launched last year and has brought issues such as domestic violence and free childcare to the forefront of British politics
"Prepare for the unexpected"
“The most enormous and fulfilling and challenging part of your life might be the one thing you haven’t even considered yet. I never planned to be a politician. When I heard that a new political party for equality was forming, I volunteered but honestly thought I’d just put the chairs out for meetings. But I soon found I really wanted to make it work. Really wanting to make something work is your gut telling you to focus your energy on making it happen. It’s so easy to ignore this impulse. But every time you do, you’re making the decision not to care. And every time you make a decision not to care, you’re disempowering yourself. Trying not to care is no way to live.”
"Recognise your power"
“You have more power than you think you do. After all, change always comes from the outside. I was brought up by working class parents, my toys were all second hand and we had no television. My parents wanted a better life, so they marched. They protested, and they made their voices heard. I was often taken along, and it was often wet. That’s when I learned we can all help each other. Together, we have a lot of influence – and it’s important to work together to use it, too.”
"Don't give in to Imposter Syndrome"
“I worked as a journalist for nearly 20 years, and I fought Imposter Syndrome every single day. I felt like an outsider all the time. I reported on the economy and interviewed traders and bank managers and investors. And then I went home and read books called How The Stock Markets Work and The Little Book Of Economics. I worked on diplomatic affairs for parliament, and I travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan. I rode in Black Hawk helicopters, which took off in formation and wheeled across the enormous shattered city of Baghdad, while snipers with big guns sat in front of me for protection. There’s a photo of me from that time. I thought I looked like a steely war correspondent. Turns out I was grinning so hard from nerves, I actually looked like Bridget Jones. That job frightened the life out of me, but I know now that every day I managed not to fall out of the helicopter was a success. As women, we’re told that we don’t deserve to be where we are. But that means we just have to prove everyone else wrong.”
"Be resilient - whatever it means"
“Resilience is a big thing for women – you can even take courses in it – ‘How To Make Your Staff Bear Up Better’. I’m more about changing the environment. After all, we’re not all born resilient. Most of us have to work at it. I have to work at it, every single day. And we all have very different ideas of what resilience actually is. For some, it’s the capacity not to care, or the capacity not to hear. For others, it’s the capacity to grow a thicker skin. That’s often said in the same line as being ‘a strong woman’ – as if being a woman is not enough, and we have to be fierce and armour plated. For me, resilience is about never losing sight of the thing that’s real and true to you, and being able to keep going every day under any circumstances – no matter how bashed about you might feel. It can be very hard to stand up in the midst of that and say I believe that this idea of mine has value. But you just have to go for it. Because eventually, you’ll see somebody nodding along with you – and that’s the best feeling.”
Nadiya Hussain: “Believe in your choices and stand by your decisions”
Nadiya Hussain, 31, won The Great British Bake Off in 2015. Since then, she has baked the Queen’s 90th birthday cake, written her first cookbook, and will host her own two-part BBC programme, The Chronicles Of Nadiya, this year
"Don't let others define you"
“I remember the day I lost my confidence. Eight months pregnant with two small children next to me at a playgroup. Some women stayed and dropped off their children, others dashed off. Then one woman approached me: ‘You’re here every time I drop my son off, don’t you have an actual job?’ ‘I’m a full-time mum,’ I replied confidently. ‘This is my job.’ ‘Well if you can’t get a real job, you might as well stay at home,’ she declared. I’ll never forget how that moment made me feel. Worthless and unintelligent. Isolated and alone. Now I can see that the time I spent at home with my children taught me every skill I know today. I’m resilient, I work hard, and I never look for praise. I can work long hours and not complain, and I am always the last person standing. I strive to do the best job that I can, and I make everyone around me happy. Do I need to justify anything to anyone? Absolutely not.”
“Be conscious of where you're putting your energy"
“I spent a decade beating myself up after that incident. Now, my only regret is the hard time I gave myself. I expended so much energy on negativity that I should have just ignored. Where you are today may be out of choice or circumstance or a mixture of the two, but where you are can be the happiest place in the world until someone plants a seed of doubt in your mind. That seed took away enjoyment from my family, my children and my marriage. I felt worthless. I am proof that there is a way out. But it’s not determined by a career. It comes from believing in the choices you’ve made, and being proud of the decisions you make.”
"Don't let fear put you off"
“I don’t know anybody who loves public speaking. Until 18 months ago, I never needed to do it and I still find it nerve-racking, even though I now have to do it all the time. But I figure that if something doesn’t frighten you a bit, then it’s probably not worth doing. What have you got to lose from facing your fears? When I was asked to bake the Queen’s birthday cake, I was nervous but imagine if I’d turned down the offer because I was too scared. You’ll still be alive at the end, and the rush you get when it’s over is always worth it.”
"You don't have to prioritise being perfect"
“If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that perfection is overrated – especially when you’re busy. I’m a one-woman machine and I do everything myself, so I just write lists the length of my arm, and get on with ticking things off. The busier you are, the more you have to prioritise – but, believe it or not, you don’t have to prioritise perfection. When time is short, I don’t want to waste an hour organising my shelves. Most of the time, striving for absolute perfection is not worth it.”
Kathryn Parsons: “It takes courage to admit you don’t know”
Kathryn Parsons, 34, is co-founder and CEO of Decoded, the coding company behind the popular programme, ‘Learn To Code In A Day’. After studying Ancient Greek and Latin at Cambridge University – and Japanese at night school – Kathryn is now working with the government to implement coding in the National Curriculum
“Go your own way”
“I didn’t study computer science, technology or engineering. In fact, I was told by my teachers not to do those subjects at all. So instead, I studied Latin and Ancient Greek. But I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. Everyone else at university seemed to have a job waiting for them, but I didn’t. Sure, I could go into management consultancy or banking, or I could listen to my mother and become a doctor. I could have even listened to the careers advisor at school, who told me to become either a midwife or an air traffic controller. But nobody told me that I could be an entrepreneur. When I heard it defined as someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down, it really resonated with me. I think I always knew what I wanted to be – I just didn’t know what it was called.”
"See everything as an opportunity"
“I really struggled to get a job out of university. My first was as a ‘charity street mugger’. It taught me the confidence to go up to someone and just start a conversation. Later, as an intern working for free, I volunteered to help on the company’s first ever website because that meant getting paid. I didn’t know how to do it, but I thought, ‘I’m getting paid for it, so I’d better learn,’ and I got a book. You might not always know what you’re doing, but as long as you’re always evolving, learning, making friends and never burning bridges, then it’s all part of the journey.”
"Ask stupid questions"
“I wouldn’t have a business if I hadn’t asked stupid questions. In fact, one of our company mantras is, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I was fascinated by technology, but could see that so few of us understood what went on behind the screen. So I asked a lot of friends a lot of stupid questions like, ‘How is an app created?’ ‘What is the internet?’ ‘What is code, and why are people giving it away for free?’ And the more that I asked, the more I realised that even CEOs of tech companies didn’t really know either. It turns out that everyone around the world is asking the same stupid questions. A global tech movement is happening and no-one understands it. So I realised the only smart thing to do was learn.”