Category Archives: Jana’s Blog

My thoughts, inspirations, questions and contemplations

Immigrants beyond headlines

I’ve got the campaigning bug: whilst British parliamentarians are gathering votes for the upcoming General Elections, I’ve decided to share my view on a hot potato that is immigration.

Fear not, I am not lobbying political interests and if I were, I would only urge all British women to go to the polls and have their say in May. What I am, however, personally interested in is how the word “immigrant” (not unlike the word “feminist”) has acquired a negative connotation. Whilst I too feel frustrated about such problems as the pressure on the healthcare system or people in customer service roles who don’t speak very coherent English, it feels that there are plenty of headlines but not enough substance attached to the immigration debate.

I am an immigrant myself; I am proud of my Russian roots as much as I’m grateful for what Britain has offered me over the past 15 years: education and job opportunities, comfort and certainty, culture and intellectual stimulation. I refer to myself as a Londoner, and I love this city for its cosmopolitanism. Let’s be honest, its food and cultural diversity, career and entrepreneurial opportunities are rivalled by very few other places in the world. Like many other immigrants, who adopted London as their home, I treasure my cultural identity at the same time as considering myself a responsible citizen of the country I live in.

Below is the article I wrote for Huffington Post, which was published on 12 February 2015.

Amidst campaigns and debates ahead of the General Election in Britain, I cannot help but get a feeling that the word “immigrant” has acquired a derogatory meaning. In the face of public services in the UK struggling to cope with the influx of low-skilled workers from abroad, the government must address the pressures on the healthcare system, housing and education. At the same time, immigrants seem to have conveniently become the scapegoats, being blamed for crime, government deficit and unemployment, with objectivity often missed out of the equation.

Often external pressures work to highlight the problems on the inside. Professor Sir David Metcalf, Chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee, was quoted in The Telegraph last year, saying that “employers are hiring immigrants because their literacy and numeracy is better than young British candidates, while many firms believe native workers are less good at “getting out of bed in the morning” for shift work and dealing with customers politely.”

According to Professor Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini of the University College London (UCL), immigrants who arrived in Britain since 2000 were 43% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits. They were also 7% less likely to live in social housing.

Alex Depledge (one of the stars of the April 2014 celebration, Confidence), writing for the Guardian sustainable business hub put it succinctly: “Too much of the current debate is being played out in soundbites and headlines. Migration plays a hugely positive role in the UK workforce, but there is a disconnect between perception and reality.”

European immigrants who arrived in the UK since 2000 have contributed more than £20bn to UK public finances between 2001 and 2011. European immigrants from the EU-15 countries contributed 64% more in taxes than they received in benefits. Immigrants from the Central and East European ‘accession’ countries contributed 12% more than they received, according to the research, published by the UCL Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration. Moreover, they have endowed the country with productive human capital that would have cost the UK £6.8bn in spending on education.

I have arrived in the UK in 1999 on a student visa. I studied Economics & Management at the University of Oxford, paying full tuition fees as an overseas student. I received a small grant from my College and a £8,000 loan, which I have repaid within a year. I have been living and working in London since 2002, paying taxes, but more importantly, enjoying economic opportunities and British culture. Last year I listened to a debate on BBC Radio 4 on whether naturalised Brits think of themselves as immigrants. I must say that I don’t wake up in the morning contemplating my social status. I am a woman, a writer, a broadcaster, a travel junkie and a foodie, I love listening to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour and The Bottom Line. I am proud of being well integrated in Britain, and up until now I have not felt the burden of being labelled as an immigrant.

Inspired by the nationwide poster campaign by the Movement Against Xenophobia, aiming to celebrate not vilify immigrants, I’d like to make a contribution of my own and showcase a few women, who have immigrated to the UK and made an impressive contribution to the British economy, culture and environment.

Aija Dāve, who came to Britain from Latvia, started her raw bakery Pura Vida Foods in 2010, creating gluten-free and yeast-free flat bread products from dehydrated nutritious ingredients, addressing health-conscious consumers.

Susan Ma, born in Shanghai, came to Britain at the age of thirteen. Two years later she started making skincare products from plant-based ingredients and sell them at the Greenwich market to help her mother with household bills. Ma studied Philosophy and Economics at UCL at the same time as running her natural cosmetics business Tropic. In 2010 she took part in the BBC’s The Apprentice series but lost in the final. Impressed by Susan’s vision and products, Lord Sugar invested in Tropic in 2012. The company turned over £3 million in 2013 and is helping Britain’s women supplement their income through social selling.

Susan Ma

Susan Ma, image courtesy of Tropic

Canadian-born Kresse Westling studied Politics and Chinese and worked in venture capital in Hong Kong before coming to Britain. In 2005 Westling attended a course on sustainability where she came across the London Fire Brigade. She learned that after 25 years of service, fire hoses were scrapped, rather than recycled. Together with her fiancé James Henrit, Westling came up with an idea to ‘upcycle’ discarded fire hoses into high-end lifestyle accessories. Their social enterprise Elvis & Kresse gives fifty per cent of profits to the Fire Fighters Charity. In 2013 the multi-award winning entrepreneur, Westling, was awarded a MBE for services to corporate social responsibility.

Kresse Westling

Kresse Westling, image courtesy of Elvis & Kresse

Kristjana S Williams was brought up in Iceland. She came to London to study graphic design and illustration at Central St Martins. In 2012 Williams opened her own studio, creating fine art, prints and furniture for Heal’s, Liberty, Paul Smith and Cole & Son. Williams exhibited her work at London’s V&A, Design Shanghai, created art work for the Connaught Hotel and is an inspiration as a commercially successful artist.

Kristjana Williams. Image courtesy of Kristjana S Williams studio

#NoMorePage3

I have been so disappointed and saddened by the news that our delight over the achievement of #NoMorePage3 campaign had been premature, that I was not in a mood to write a Ladies Who Impress story today. Brave and inspiring women of No More Page 3 project have fought a relentless campaign since 2012, collecting over 200,000 signatures in a petition to convince The Sun to take the boobs off a ‘family newspaper’, and on Monday it seemed like their tenacity had finally paid off: the paper came out without its degrading trademark of objectification of women.

Today, it was business as usual with a topless model, labelled as “Nicole, 22, from Bournemouth”. Indeed, in the voice of Metro, “today The Sun has told all of those women that their appearance and sex appeal will always be more important than their voice.”

Back when I signed the petition a couple of years ago, I imagined my goddaughter, who turned five last week, growing up, coming across The Sun one day and wondering why a mainstream newspaper would display a photo like that. I wondered what I would say if she asked me to explain. I thought about her pretending to be ‘one of the lads’ when her male colleagues might flick the paper during a lunch break. I feared her worrying about her own body image and the development of her values. Would she bother aspiring to become good at her chosen vocation, develop a creative streak, if only for fulfilment, play football or rugby at school, which may be fun, but isn’t in line with what society deems to be worth displaying, not on page 3 anyway?

It’s not that I am prudish or against anyone showing off their assets and getting paid for it, like some some angry women on Twitter hastened to argue, but there are plenty of specialist publications and websites catering for the audience, which I am not going to judge. For me page 3 is a bit like a “Entrepreneur Barbie” – the only one in the “career” section on Barbie website, dressed in pink and, despite her gadgets, representing very little of what it might be like to start up a business. We want women to go into science and business, represent shareholder interests on boards, share domestic chores with their male partners, be offered equal opporunities and be judged by merit, yet here in 2015 we are staring at the pink elephant we inherited from the 1970s, which stinks of patriarchy.

And yet over the last couple of years we have achieved so much in the most unlikely fields: Irish Steph Roche was nominated for the FIFA’s goal of the year awardOxford and Cambridge women will compete on the same Thames course as men in the annual Boat Race in 2015 and there are no all-male boards in FTSE100 companies as of July 2014. There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful and inspiration to spur us all on.

Once I got over my dismay, I realised that skipping a newsletter, celebrating women for their talents and achievements, creativity and fearlessness would be losing a battle and a war. If I only could, I’d put together a story to counterbalance every topless photo just to put a passionate businesswoman or a discerning correspondent into the spotlight. I will keep finding inspiring stories to put over cringeworthy images, and perhaps give Lucy-Anne Holmes a nod of encouragement to keep campaigning and empowering all of us to stay resilient against any setbacks.

It only takes a couple of minutes to sign a petition. You will not receive any newsletters or junk mail, but your time and voice will contribute to a worthy cause. Click here to sign a petition for #NoMorePage3.

Lucy-Anne Holmes

 

This article was first published on Huffington Post

My own ‘Mission Impossible’

Two years ago the theme of the very first Ladies Who Impress celebration was Mission Impossible. I brought some post-it notes and encouraged everyone to write down a ‘mission impossible’, a mountain they aspire to climb. We are all different, so for someone running a 5,000m race is equivalent to climbing a 5,000m peak for another person. Of course, one’s mission doesn’t need to be a physical challenge at all. Keen to lead by example, I wrote down my own ‘mission impossible’. I’ve kept the post-it note.

Write and Publish a book

The emotional whirlwind of that first event was followed by a snowfall of ‘things to do’, ambitions, aspirations, daily routine, ideas and projects. There was Ladies Who Impress to grow and nurture; there was a job to do to pay the bills; there were thousands if not millions of tiny snowflakes slowly and steadily piling on top of that post-it note, until it disappeared from view.

At the very beginning of this year I read the childhood’s memoirs of Clare Balding, My Animals and Other Family. I loved the book, in fact, I cannot recommend it highly enough. In the Acknowledgements section, she wrote: “I have never written a book before, partly because I was scared and partly because I kept telling myself I didn’t have time.” This was my light bulb moment.

It is so very easy to get caught up in things, label yourself as “busy” and flick one day after another just like pages of a Kindle book. This summer I went on an annual pilgrimage to Russia to see my family, and I decided that I will carve out time to write a few stories I have been visualising in my head for the last two years. I also gave myself permission to write, in other words, I packed the bags for my ‘inner critic’ and sent it away.

Last Friday Babushka and Me: Memories from a Soviet Childhood has been published on Amazon. The stories took two months to write; they were edited by the brilliant Joy Tibbs and illustrated by an amazing artist – Alexandra Burda.

Babushka and Me is a collection of memories from my Soviet childhood. I grew up in a country in which bananas were like gold dust; circus was endorsed by the Communist Party as ‘the people’s art form’; sport was practised as a discipline, rather than as a recreational activity. Soviet children learned to read by absorbing stories about ‘Grandpa Lenin’ and joined the ranks of the young ‘pioneers’, who proudly wore their red neckerchiefs to school.

Babushka and Me is a journey back in time and a tribute to the unconditional love of my grandmother.

Babushka and Me

Babushka and Me is also very much a ‘Ladies Who Impress‘ story: I am convinced that with a dash of talent, a pinch of confidence, a dollop of courage, a spoonful of perseverance and a ladle of hard work, any ‘mission impossible’ is possible for women of the Ladies Who Impress community, i.e. YOU and ME!

The book is available on Amazon. If you are not based in the UK, simply go to your local version of Amazon and type in “Babushka and Me” or my name (Jana Bakunina) in the search box.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app from the same page on Amazon and read the stories on your tablet, phone or on your laptop / desktop screen.

I sincerely hope that you enjoy the stories. Feel free to email me and let me know what you think!

What happened at the Groucho Club

Two years ago I hosted my very first Ladies Who Impress event at the Groucho Club. I was fretting over so many things. Will the mic work? Will my interviewees arrive on time? Will I actually pull it off? I kept making mental notes and writing lists, I bombarded the Groucho Club with emails, I prepared and rehearsed my speech. There was just one thing I have not thought of: chairs.

It was a cosy room, and I thought chairs would just take up the space and make it all too formal. Of course, it was a huge mistake: just who would want to stand through the show after a long day at work?

And then something magical happened: women in the audience simply sat down on the floor as soon as I started my first interview. Sarah Hyndman, a super creative graphic designer, would not mind me saying that she was a bit nervous. So was I. But we got the nod. It was such a simple but an empowering gesture.

Who was in the audience that night? Only about a third of women who joined that very first celebration were my friends. My wonderful friends helped to spread the word, and tickets were soon sold out.

Every single woman in that room was bright, talented and inspiring in her own right. She was curious, of course. And an ace at multi-tasking. She might have lacked confidence or felt a bit bored at her job. She certainly aspired for more, be it in terms of career, creative fulfilment or just wanting to feel and act more authentic, rather than be constantly juggling hats. Every woman in that room was a Lady Who Impresses.

If you were in that audience, you know exactly how it felt: the room was full of warmth, empathy and support. All of a sudden, everything seemed possible. It’s as if we gave each other permission to dream, to make the most audacious plans, to try new things and lose the fear of failure. It was mind-blowing.

Yesterday Stylist featured the upcoming Ladies Who Impress event in their ‘Outgoing’ section. It’s a bit of a coup since it’s the first time we appeared in the press, and Stylist cannot be a better platform for Ladies Who Impress.StylistHowever, it’s not because of Stylist that Ladies Who Impress has been growing from strength to strength. Everything we have achieved in the past two years is a testament to our audience – you.

It’s you – reading our weekly newsletters, sharing stories of inspiring women, published on the website, coming to events and creating that special atmosphere every single time is what makes Ladies Who Impress what it is: a community of like-minded women, who aren’t defined by clichés of the day.

Here are some of my ‘favourite’ clichés women (and men) tend to be labelled with:

“If you are successful, you must be a b*tch.”

“If you are a freelancer or an entrepreneur, you don’t have a life. You certainly aren’t interested in anything, other than your business.”

“Every woman will get broody at some point.”

“If you are a young mother, you must say good-bye to socialising in the evenings.”

“If you are a mother of two or three, it’s inconceivable you have interests beyond ballet and tennis classes.”

“And if you are a man, you aren’t supposed to be inspired by female role models.”

This is not what you are about.

What happened at the Groucho Club on that very special night two years ago was magic. You came along and supercharged the atmosphere with passion, ambition, tenacity and genuine sisterhood. You lit up that spotlight that has since shone light on sixty five Ladies Who Impress I have interviewed so far.

It’s time for another celebration. Every so often we all need a bit of a ‘pick-me-up’, a bit of magic, and I, for one, cannot wait. I’ve even got us some chairs. A Dash of Talent with Village England

No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself

 

Marianne Cantwell with her laptopLast summer I left a prestigious job at a large media company, where I’ve been working for 3 years.

 It did not happen on a whim: approximately 6 months earlier I came across Marianne Cantwell (see photo) and Free Range Humans, a lifestyle blog, which grew into a community, and helped many souls escape corporate cages, pursue their passions and still pay the bills. Just a month after I ‘discovered’ Marianne, she published a book, Be a Free Range Human, which has undoubtedly helped me to reassess my life and jump ship.

Marianne’s blog and book made me question the conventional wisdom at school and at work where we’ve been taught to focus on our weaknesses. Remember your last review at work where your boss spent a minute to tell you how brilliant you are before spending the rest of the meeting talking about things you could improve. Perhaps your flaw is that you don’t delegate well or that you carry your heart in your sleeve. Whatever it is, in corporate environment we seem to be obsessed with things we aren’t naturally good at, but we are never encouraged to play to our strengths and make the most of our talents.

Marianne made me think about my priorities. For the first time I contemplated the relative importance of such things as income, flexible working hours, location, freedom and fulfilment. When thinking about how I want to make a living, she advised to think about the sort of clients I’d like to deal with and the environment I’d like to be in. Previously, I never gave myself permission to think in those terms.

In words of Seth Godin, bestselling author and inspiring entrepreneur:

“It’s a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even s blogger saying, “I pick you.” Once you reject that impulse and realise that no one is going to select you – that Prince Charming has chosen another house – then you can actually get to work.

Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realise that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound.

No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.”

After I left my ‘proper job’, I left behind stability and security, and my life now is more akin to a roller-coaster or a small sailing boat in a choppy sea than to Piccadilly line, more or less predictably getting its passengers to their destinations. I’m not even sure of where my sails are ultimately taking me, but so far I’ve been loving the journey: its challenges, its small victories, new opportunities and possibilities.

It had been my dream to interview Marianne Cantwell at a Ladies Who Impress event – Leap of Faith was a very special celebration indeed.

My rant about Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman was first published in 2011, and it amazes me that it took me two years to discover it: two additional years in the Plato’s cave until, finally, this summer I saw the light.

For me How To Be a Woman is one of the best, funniest, most important books I’ve ever read, so I’d just like to go on a bit of a rant about Caitlin Moran and her eye-opening perspective on women, feminism and why it’s important.

“What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay?”

The trouble is, the word “feminism” has somehow acquired a bit of a funny label, a connotation many women today do not want to be associated with. I can say so because until recently I was one of them. For me the word “feminism” used by the media represented shouting, men-hating, unkempt-looking women and I am not one of them. But that’s not what feminism is about so it is time we reclaim its meaning.

“What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.”

I sign up for that. What’s more, Caitlin Moran argues that “it doesn’t need to be a ‘man vs. woman thing”.

“The idea that we’re all, at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along, is the basic alpha and omega of my world view. I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion’.”

The thing is, How To Be A Woman talks about all those things I’ve always wondered about but never really voiced.

Let’s take shopping. Is it really the case that all women are obsessed with it? Do we really need £600 handbags, as Grazia tells us?

What about pornography? It’s been there since cavemen days but today’s pornography makes me cringe.

Motherhood is another interesting subject. The moment a woman gets married, it’s polite to ask whether she is trying for children, but is it?

What’s your view on cosmetic procedures? Is it OK to have a “tidy up”?

How To Be a Woman expresses strong, well-argued opinions of an intelligent woman who is not afraid to ask questions and makes you laugh out loud (a lot). It even makes me wonder why hasn’t one thought of writing such an honest, thought-provoking piece a decade ago.

Ladies Who Impress guess who

Happy Birthday, Ladies Who Impress!

Well, Happy Birthday, Ladies Who Impress! You are 1 year old – isn’t it something? Your mummy is proud of you 🙂

Exactly one year ago I was at a gig listening to an awesome Icelandic indie Of Monsters & Men. It was that night that the idea of Ladies Who Impress was born. And then … three fabulous celebrations later, we are growing a fan base, telling inspiring stories, celebrating successful, yet very real women and dreaming about the future.

But this is not what this article is about. One year ago, Ladies Who Impress was just an idea, a tiny spark, fuelled by a G&T (if I remember correctly), a fantasy, tuned to Love, Love, Love (my favourite Monsters’ song). A chief executive of a TV production company I respect immensely once told me that it is always tempting to think of an idea as key to success of a television format but actually it’s all about the execution. A show isn’t successful until it’s produced and either loved or slated by the audience. And I agree. It took a lot of thinking and planning, energy, courage, perseverance, getting help, calling favours and taking a giant leap of faith. One year ago, Ladies Who Impress was just an idea. A year on, it is my pride and joy.

And so I would encourage you, my dear ladies, to look back at something you’ve done or achieved in the past months or years and give yourself some credit for all the steps you’ve taken to get where you are today. And even if you’ve failed at something, it’s been an experience, so pat yourself on the shoulder for taking yourself through a valuable course at the school of life.

Remember, experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted…

Just how did they get there?

This time last year I was in Tromso in Northern Norway, psyching myself up before the big day: Midnight Sun Marathon, a 42km/26m run in the gorgeous setting of snow-capped mountains, lit by the never-setting Arctic sun at the time of summer solstice.

In fact, the marathon itself was a culmination, a triumphal parade, an ode to all the hard hours of training I’ve put in to prepare for the big day. I am thinking about it today in the context of a journey.

Every big success, achievement or an accomplishment starts with a first step taken days, weeks, months or even years earlier. What’s more, that step isn’t even necessarily deliberate.

I didn’t wake up one day and decided I am going to run a marathon. In fact, I used to hate running, when I started enjoying it, I was rubbish at it and it was not until a decade after I started running more or less regularly that I ran my first marathon. What happened is that I fell into exercising when I was conscious about my sedentary lifestyle and then little by little I got really into it, thanks, perhaps, to my competitive streak.

Once you are well and truly on your way, it’s natural to pick targets to aim for and heights to reach. I believe that many impressive role models you come across have achieved fame or recognition at some point of their journeys which may have been simply exploratory at their beginnings.

The point I am making is that you don’t have to think of a marathon to go for an afternoon run, in the same way that I am not thinking about writing a book or spreading the Ladies Who Impress word as am writing this blog. I am simply putting my throughs on paper, taking one step at a time. Life is a journey.

What step will you take without worrying too much about your destination?

Job swap at the Borough Market

This morning I took my mum to explore some of my favourite “pockets” of London, including St. John Square and Smithfield market in Clerkenwell, the Southbank and the Borough Market.

Having sampled delicious coconut pancakes and bought some fresh produce to cook at home, I found the stall of Rubies in the Rubble, selling lovely chutneys, including my favourites: red onion, pear & walnut and nutty plum. Alicia behind the stall was running out of crackers, so I offered to fetch some or look after the stall…

…There I was greeting passers-by, encouraging them to taste chutneys and telling the story of Rubies in the Rubble. The company’s founder, Jenny Dawson, spotted an opportunity at London’s night wholesale markets discarding fruit and vegetables at the end of the trading hours. Rubies in the Rubble take and preserve discarded ingredients, making chutneys and relishes with the help of disadvantaged women. This is an inspiring example of social entrepreneurship.

Now, I’ve got to be honest: in the 5-10 minutes of “trading”, I have not sold any chutneys (sorry, Jenny!) but the experience was interesting, to say the least. I was smiling, bubbling with energy and chatting away, which is not exactly how I normally feel, stuck in the office in front of my computer screen. It’s not that I am applying for a market stall license this minute, but there is something about letting my personality show and thinking of a calling which would match it rather than trying to hide myself behind the job that isn’t really me.

That’s some food for thought, isn’t it?

     

How to get inspired … by failure

Recently I went for a walk with a friend of mine. Let’s call her Mila. Mila is amazingly talented and a great friend to have. Often she’d invite friends for tea and cook sensational roast lamb or treat us to miniature cup cakes delicately decorated with love and Mila’s imagination. Right now Mila is sad about being stuck in her office job and dreading week days of grey furniture with maroon upholstery, daydreaming about the next weekend’s tea party with home-baked scones and other deliciousness. When I asked what she thought about an idea of starting her own party project, Mila shied away saying she’d probably fail.

That conversation made me think about many talented, creative women full of potential who are afraid to get behind their passions for the fear of failure. And at the same time I also thought about other women who did not take ‘No’ for an answer and went ahead to reach incredible personal and professional heights.

Just last year London Olympics witnessed a story of personal triumph for the British rower Katherine Grainger who finally claimed her Gold with partner Anna Watkins after getting Silver in three previous Olympic Games. What’s more, Katherine’s love affair with rowing started with a failure when at her first ever trials, she was initially rejected by a university coach. That failure fuelled her ambition, and she came back with vengeance first claiming her seat in the squad, then, 15 years later, earning her very special Gold.

Elsewhere, Polly Courtney, the author of six best-selling novels, was initially rejected by all the UK publishers when she tried to tell her story of what it was like to be a young, female banker in the City of London. She went ahead and published The Golden Handcuffs herself, selling 10,000 copies on Amazon in the first three months.

There are many stories out there of people, missing out on promotion, succeeding elsewhere, dumped girlfriends signing up for and running marathons, entrepreneurs learning from early mistakes and persevering to grow successful businesses. Remember, failure may be inspiration in disguise. A true failure is not to start.