Tag Archives: Mission Impossible

Nancy Honey and her 100 Leading Ladies

Nancy HoneyLast year the Somerset House hosted a fabulous exhibition 100 Leading Ladies, a project which took Nancy Honey three years to accomplish. Nancy may have been working towards that project all her life. What she has been able to achieve is awe-inspiring. Over three cups of tea, Nancy told me her story.

Nancy Honey was born in the US and came to Britain in 1970s. She studied Fine Art, Graphic Design and Photography both in the US and in the UK. She has been photographing for more than 30 years and started exhibiting her work in 1984. Alongside art, corporate and advertising projects, Nancy has published four monographs: Woman to Woman, Entering the Masquerade, Poodle Parlour and, most recently, 100 Leading Ladies.

100 Leading Ladies… I have always been fascinated with what successful, high powered women had achieved throughout their careers. How did they manage to juggle professional and family responsibilities? I have deliberately chosen women over the age of 55 because of their accomplishments, but also because senior women are very much under-represented in the media. I wanted to change that by making portraits and hearing the views of older women. I wanted to include the voice of the younger generation as well, so I commissioned former The Times journalist Hattie Garlick to interview my subjects.

When I started my research for the project, I wanted to approach women I personally admired, for example, Barbara Hulanicki OBE, fashion designer and founder of the iconic clothes store Biba. As the project developed, it was incredible to discover so many women I have not even come across before in art and science, business and public service. I asked them where they went for inspiration, to think or just to relax. Such a setting reveals a lot more about a person than a photo studio. Some of my heroines chose the comforts of their own homes, others chose professional settings, providing fascinating backgrounds to my portraits.

Brave new world…  The research and the photography took me about two years. I funded it myself, selling my house and moving into a smaller flat in the process. The next step was to get funding for the exhibition: in addition to the portraits, I also wanted to put together a beautiful book, featuring the photographs and the interviews. I had no fundraising experience, no corporate network to access, so I had no idea where to start. I went to the Westminster Reference Library, where a helpful librarian gave me a UK Guide to Company Giving. Gradually I learned how the company funding worked; I researched then approached many, many companies that I thought were a good fit with the project. I hired an intern and an assistant to help me. I also did a huge amount of networking.  It took us a year to put together the required funding. Women push themselves, if they really want something.

Thirteen of Nancy’s portraits were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 and displayed in a small group exhibition of recent acquisitions. The complete work was shown at Somerset House in 2014. Her accomplishment lives in a stunning, timeless book, featuring photos and interviews, which is available for purchase online.

What have you learned from the women you’ve met? They were all incredibly passionate about their work. It is also true that many women had to make sacrifices to achieve what they have.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? I would advise her to try to look for a role model or a mentor. Although I had loving parents, there was no one in my life to look at who was the kind of woman I wanted to be.

What are you good at? I am good at organisation, managing complicated problems and taking on challenges. I love research.

What is your greatest achievement? My two children.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? At this point, I would build my own house.

Who inspires you? There are too many people to mention. I admire so many artists in so many fields, both young, old, alive or dead. There is so much to find out about and to be in awe of.

To find out more about Nancy’s work, please visit her website www.nancyhoney.com and www.100leadingladies.com

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

Kate Arkless Gray wants to go to space

Kate who wants to go into space

This is Kate Arkless Gray, and she wants to go to space. Really badly. This idea took over her life when she turned 30. Below is an incredible story of how an ordinary girl, who grew up in East London, is friends with astronauts, gets phone calls from space, appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour and was invited to see a shuttle land by the Head of NASA.

The story begins with a science conference in Canada, where freelance journalist Kate met a scientist from NASA. Meeting a person working for NASA is a little bit like bumping into an A-list celebrity at your local pub: it is, of course, possible, but highly unlikely. Kate was understandably thrilled:

“He gave me a NASA pin and I was so excited. I thought that it was the official staff pin for people who work there. He let me have my moment of excitement before explaining he always carries a few in his pocket to give to people – apparently you can buy them in the gift shop…”

That encounter inspired Kate to mastermind her mission: get to space by the time she turns 40. Now, I don’t have to spell it out how impossible this mission is: UK’s space missions have not traditionally funded human spaceflight; the US are winding down their shuttle programmes and Kate would need to a U.S. citizenship to get involved with NASA; her Russian is patchy and Virgin Galactic flights are advertised at $250,000 a pop.

And yet… Inspired by her idea and demonstrating extraordinary resourcefulness, Kate managed to attend the launch of space shuttle Discovery STS 133 and see it land for the very last time, an awesome adventure, which allowed her to meet real astronauts, the Head of NASA and plenty of like-minded space enthusiasts. Through her engagement with all things space though freelance assignments, via her blog and through Twitter, she can boast a money-can’t-buy collection of memories and experiences: getting a phone call from space, receiving a Tweet from Houston Mission Control during her recent space ‘unconference’ and quite simply making friends with equally passionate, interested people from all over the world.

Kate Arkless Gray wants to go to space

Granted, Kate has not yet made it to space, and her mission remains impossible (for now). But whoever travels for the sake of arriving at a destination? This story is about an ordinary woman and her extraordinary journey. I bet many of you can relate to it in some way – I know I can.


Maybe I’m Crazy But… with Jen Brister, Sarah Weldon, Chi Onwurah and Helena Morrissey

Maybe I’m Crazy But… this time I’d like to celebrate women who embarked on the most audacious of missions, came up with the most impossible ideas, weren’t afraid to break conventions and set their own rules.”

It’s always a thrill to open a Ladies Who Impress celebration, and our 5th event was very special indeed: a packed room with over 100 guests, very naughty espresso martinis and not three but four fabulous guest speakers from very diverse backgrounds: stand-up comedy, education and adventure, politics and the City. Backgrounds aside, their stories were equally inspiring and here are some of the highlights.

Jen Brister

Jen Brister’s profile on Twitter says: “I am a stand up comedian and I am a woman. I know AS IF?”

Jen did have a stab at the 9 to 5, selling advertising space, once in her twenties, but having studied stand-up comedy (although by her own admission, you cannot be taught to be funny…), she knew that her calling was to be on stage. You may think that Jen has always been supremely confident to take on live comedy, but it’s about ‘faking it till you make it’ and then being on stage becomes natural and quite a bit addictive… Why, I can even relate to it myself.

To see Jen perform live, check out her website or Twitter.

Sarah WeldonSarah Weldon is setting off to row solo around Great Britain in May 2014. Nope, this hasn’t been done before but this incredible woman has come up with an insanely ambitious plan to raise awareness and funds for the Oceans Project she founded in 2010, whilst teaching kids in Georgia. The project has a custom-built online platform with English and Science lessons delivered via Skype. Funds raised will buy tablets, internet access, projectors, solar charges, and, ultimately, education, for kids globally.

There are many ways to help, so please get involved! For just £10 sponsorship, you can get your name on her boat!

Chi OnwurahChi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle and Shadow Cabinet Minister, joined us straight from the Parliament, which, by her own admission, still largely resembles a men’s club.

When asked about her most treasured achievements, Chi first told us about her career as an Electrical Engineer, connecting Nigeria’s first telecoms network to her father’s house and making him proud.

Chi is incredibly passionate about getting more women interested in science, engineering and technology. On a personal note, if she had any spare time, she would study … Portuguese.

Helena MorrisseyHelena Morrissey advised women to be open to opportunities, get noticed rather than blend in and be proactive because merit alone isn’t enough to advance your career. Otherwise, she talked about doing not just ‘white’ and ‘dark’ but ‘orange’ laundry, an ordinary chore for a mum of nine…

Helena’s foundation, the 30% Club, committed to greater gender diversity on corporate boards through voluntary actions, has made great progress since 2010: now only 2 FTSE-100 boards have no female directors and 20% of all FTSE-100 directors are women, up from 12.5%. To find out more about the 30% Club, please visit its website.

Fabulous five

This event has been generously sponsored by:


The Makers Academy, offering full-time web development courses for both IT professionals and complete beginners and helping their graduates to get jobs at top technology companies in London. 

They also offer £500 scholarships for women to promote greater diversity in the tech community.


Cru Kafe, a new brand of 100% Arabica, organic, eco-friendly coffee, delivered in biodegradable pods, compatible with Nespresso machines.

Indeed, the evening wouldn’t be the same without the Cru Kafe team and their fabulous espresso martinis…

Many thanks also to Abby Chicken, Anne Sommerfield, Michael Hobden and James Stittle!

Jana with Jen Brister

Cru kafe martinisJana with Helena

Jana with Sarah

“An incredibly inspiring event, highlighting successful women”

“Far exceeded my expectations – a truly inspirational evening. A room full of positivity and forward thinking. Cannot wait for the next event!” 

“I left the Maybe I’m Crazy But.. event feeling pumped up for life. Such inspiring women make you realise you can do anything!”

Jenni Crane, a story of a TV presenter

Jenni Crane

Today I asked myself:

“What was the most inspiring moment in the Ladies Who Impress journey?”

The answer is probably Mission Impossiblethe very first celebration. I dreamt up an event and pulled it off. What’s more, many more women were inspired that night to follow their dreams and set goals, big or small.

Jenni Crane’s “mission impossible” was to become a TV presenter. Very soon after the Ladies Who Impress celebration she left her job as a receptionist and put all her energy into applying for presenting roles, as well as continuing to record her own video diary, Jenni’s Journeys. In January she got a call from ETV Media looking for a presenter for Gala Live, an interactive online bingo show.

– Jenni, did you get the job?

– Of course! 

More seriously, Jenni is now collaborating with her producer and integrating her own ideas into the show. Her dream is to land a daytime TV presenting job, and Jenni is now waiting to hear from ITN about a work placement.

What I like about this story is that Jenni does not stop!

Good luck, Jenni, go get them!

Mission Impossible with Sarah Hyndman, Marianne Elliott and Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence

On October, 31st, 2012 seventy fabulous females gathered in The Groucho Club in London’s Soho for the very first celebration of Ladies Who Impress. Lawyers and nutritionists, bankers and writers, media professionals and academics, they were all equally curious, and they were about to be impressed…

Ladies Who Impress series started with Mission Impossible, an evening encouraging women to be inspired by the extraordinary achievements of ordinary women and to build up confidence to embark on even the most audacious missions of their lives in the future. In an intimate setting of The Groucho Club, the guests met three impressive women:

Sarah Hyndman is a creative polymath. In 2003 she founded the graphic design agency With Relish which works with clients from the arts to corporate sectors on a wide range of projects. Sarah teaches creative workshops, organises exhibitions, has launched a creative collaboration project with photographers, illustrators and anybody else who has the enthusiasm to have a go. Sarah continuously challenges herself with new ideas such as the Olympic Logo A Day project (for which she was interviewed by the New York Times) and The Random Project 2012 which is a growing collection of postcards documenting London in 2012. When Sarah isn’t busy being creative, she can be found kickboxing in Shoreditch or off having an adventure somewhere around the world.

Marianne Elliott is an Associate Director of the National Theatre in London. She is best known for the play War Horse, which she co-directed for the National Theatre, the West End and Broadway and for which she received the Tony Award for Best Direction of Play. She then directed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a brilliant production based on the award-winning novel by Mark Haddon, which made its way from the National to the West End and Broadway.

Before her tenure at the National Theatre, Marianne was an Associate Director at the Royal Court, where her productions included Stoning Mary, Notes on Falling Leaves, The Sugar Syndrome and Local. Other select theatre includes productions for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester where she directed such plays as Design for Living and As You Like It; Much Ado About Nothing set in Cuba for the RSC and The Little Foxes at the Donmar. In an interview she gave to The Telegraph in 2010, Marianne said: “Theatre requires a huge amount of energy. So it has to be brilliant, I think. It has to be life-changing. Or what’s the point?”

Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence is an engineer, a Royal Society Research Fellow at the University of Oxford Department of Physics and a bit of a genius. In 2008 Hanna took part in an exciting project as an Instrument Downlink Engineer at NASA mission control station in Arizona. She was the only female engineer in her team and the youngest in a group of British scientists to take part in NASA’s Phoenix mission to Mars. She was the first person to see new images from Mars every day, produced using a piece of hardware 150 million miles away that she herself had designed and made. Hanna was selected as the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2008 at the age of 26. Hanna is currently continuing space research at the University of Oxford. She is actively involved in promoting engineering to young people, breaking the stereotype of this profession being dominated by men in blue overalls. Hanna’s favourite colour is pink.

In addition to being a fun occasion, the event raised £800 for Huntington’s Disease Association, a charity contributing to research and supporting families, affected by Huntington’s disease.


“I just wanted to thank you for putting on such a great event. You were the perfect host and all three women were so inspiring. I came away from it feeling really happy, confident and ready to take on the world, so thank you! “
Ana Foster-Adams

“Massive congratulations on last night! Your first event was a triumph. I really thought it was fabulous, and there was such an inspiring buzz in the room with a gathering of like-minded females. Can’t wait for the next one.”

“I’ll be thinking for days, but I think one thing I took away from it was that ‘you can do anything, but you don’t have to do everything’.”
Laura Stevens

“Great night, many thanks. It was good to attend such an inspiring event and also to attend an event with lots of lovely inspiring ladies and not an annoying power woman in sight!”

“You were a brilliant hostess and the interviews were great. Very well done for organising such a great event and thank you, I felt very inspired!”
Sadia Salam