Giving advice to my 18 year old self - a careers feature for St. Mary’s Calne

by Silvana de Soissons19th June 2014

At my daughter's school, St. Mary's Calne in Wiltshire {founded in 1873}, they pride themselves on preparing young girls for the world beyond school, and among many different initiatives they organise a publication which is sent out to all girls, staff and parents called "Futures". This aims to provide useful information about further education and careers, and it interviews a different parent with each edition. Its producers asked me to reflect on my education and career, to see what guidance I could give to the girls of the Sixth Form class {including my daughter} as they prepare to leave for the wider world.

I have had a very unconventional and circuitous career path where I have learned many lessons the hard way. So, what advice would I give to my 18 year old self? Here is what I wrote. 

 

I graduated with a BSc in Economics from Bath University in 1987, and like many contemporaries followed the well-worn path to the City of London, at a time when capital markets, trading and finance were all the rage. It seemed like everyone was buying property in London {well before the market boom} and borrowing as much money as possible to obtain a mortgage and secure a well-paid job in order to buy things they did not need to impress people they did not like.

I had worked throughout my degree, in hotels, restaurants and wine bars, cooking and waitressing. One evening, the owner of a successful group of restaurants I was working for asked me whether I would consider leaving my studies in order to be general manager of one of his restaurants.

I was really offended at this offer: I firmly replied that I was destined for higher things, a high flying, highly paid career in London, no less. How that decision would come back to bite me.

I was born into a family of hard working, pioneer Italians who, like their ancestors before them, irrigated and developed farms in Africa. Contributing to growth, being financially independent and leaving a legacy of achievement were ethics drummed into me from an early age. As was growing, preparing and eating good food.

So off I went, to seek my fame and fortune in the big city, with all my Italian work ethic, energy and ambition.

But, the problem was, I hated my job. I was stuck all day in a dealing room, mainly dealing with Italian money market clients {male, chauvinistic, arrogant and rude}, wondering how I could pursue a career in food instead. I often sat in front of my Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones screens, thinking of the job offer that had eluded me, the life I had left behind, the folly of my youth and my very big mortgage.

The best part of my job, however, was that entertaining customers and travelling to pursue new, profitable business was an important part of the departmental goals. So off I went, to ooze and schmooze clients in places like The Savoy in London, Trump Tower in New York, Le Baur Au Lac in Zurich, Il Principe di Savoia in Milan and The Ritz in Paris. All on the bank’s expenses. I tasted some of the best food in the world, and while not stuck in meetings, I would sneak off to see food shops and markets. I learned a great deal about gastronomy, culture and customs, and this enrichment was a welcome form of escapism away from the daily grind.

I met my husband in London and after I gave birth to my daughter, Mariella, in 1996, I asked the head of my department whether it might be possible to be given part-time work, a job sharing scheme or some way in which I could be with my new baby for longer than the six week statutory maternity pay. In those days these things were unheard of. Thinking I would not be able to cope with the long hours at work, and the long commute from our new house in the country, I gave up a lucrative job, a company car, a pension and all the trappings of my corporate career.

I was down, but not out, and proceeded to reinvent my career in food. I did private catering, taught in cookery schools, wrote about food for magazines, became a food stylist, and even created my own online journal, The Foodie Bugle. From there, the idea expanded into a print journal, followed by an online shop, then a pop-up shop with cafe, and, very soon, we will be getting our own premises for a grocery, provisions and supplies shop with a cafe.

So, what advice would I give to the young ladies leaving St. Mary’s School to pursue their future? If I knew then what I know now, what advice would I have given my 18 year old self? Here are my top ten tips.

1.        Always keep the main thing the main thing. What is it that drives you, that you are passionate about, that enthuses you? Do that.

2.        Success comes before work only in the dictionary – you will probably have to work harder for longer than most of your male peers to earn a fraction of their salary. This is unlikely to change in your lifetime. Keep going.

3.        Your career will not arrive by DHL. Walk to the mountain, because the mountain will not walk to you.

4.        Follow the conscientious – find the most talented and skilled people in your industry and ask if they can train-mentor-help-advise-guide you.

5.        Do one thing very well. Just one. Specialists will always be in demand.

6.        Choose a career that is as regionally portable as possible.

7.        Choose a career that will not cut you off if you have a child. That’s most of them. So think about teaching.

8.        Learn to cope with rejection and silence – there will be a great deal of both when you apply for jobs.

9.        You won’t be able to change the world, but you can make a positive impact on your community. Make a big difference in a small pond.

10.     As you rise triumphantly up the escalator of life, always be courteous and kind to those below you. One day you may be descending that very same escalator.

 

About the Author

Silvana de Soissons is the founder of The Foodie Bugle Shop and its journal. You can follow her on Twitter @SilvanadeS and @TheFoodieBugle.