Michelle de Klerk, founder of the Women’s Chapter, has had an extensive career in communications. She worked as a journalist in South Africa before relocating to the UK, where she worked her way up to associate editor for a commodities title. In 2009 she moved on to oversee the global marketing activity for a global boutique hotel group.
The common thread through the various professions and experience working around the globe, from Paris to Hong Kong, was people: connecting with them and discovering the story behind the story.
Meanwhile in 2011, de Klerk and her husband moved to Paris. The couple soon discovered that they were expecting twins. After two years in France, they returned to the UK, and de Klerk set about reactivating her network.
After launching luxury marketing and private clients venture, The World At Your Feet, de Klerk set up her networking organisation the Women’s Chapter in 2014.
The group runs small, curated networking events, largely for senior-level professional women, entrepreneurs and creatives, as well as larger outreach events open to everyone.
She regales First Women about her journey so far, and what the future holds.
How much has the Women’s Chapter evolved since you began?
The network now has 1,800 women. We don’t have a membership fee. We didn’t want that model. We wanted to create amazing events people could attend, where they made good connections, enjoyed themselves and it didn’t feel like hard work.
Despite what people think, not everybody is good at networking. I’m not a natural networker. I like my events because I create them but generally, networking events are terrifying. We try to tap into several different interests and it may be an activity that people don’t often get the chance to do anymore.
How important is networking for women to get ahead? Where is it on the scale of skills and expertise, to who you know?
It is phenomenally important. The Women’s Chapter wouldn’t be where it is now, and would not have so many people who love our concept, if not for the incredible introductions and referrals that keep coming. Women by nature are very collaborative, and networking is important from that perspective because it provides a platform to come together and empower one another.
What in your opinion are the biggest challenges professional women and entrepreneurs face today?
Equal pay is a massive issue. It is shocking that it is still, today, something we’re having to fight for and talk about. I worked in a corporate environment in the past and I never felt disadvantaged by my being a woman.
I didn’t know whether or not I got paid less but the statistics, considering the time we live in, are shocking and it is something all women need to be talking about and fighting for.
Flexibility is one of the reasons why so many women make the transition from being employed to self-employment because it allows you to be the master of your own time and to shape your own destiny.
You have flexibility from a childcare perspective, which is a major challenge for both men and women. This was biggest incentive to work for myself.
You’ll end up working harder but you get more time with your children and make up that time in a way that works for you.
You invest more time and effort in your own business and hopefully reap a reward relative to work you put in.
Confidence is another issue, particularly after career breaks and maternity leaves. It was something I struggled with. I spent a whole year back at work wondering if anyone would realise I didn’t know what I was doing anymore.
Many women say exactly the same thing, where they feel like a fraud, but they just get on with it.
How does the Women’s Chapter help women with these issues?
I envisage the chapter as a place where women come together, not necessarily to complain about their situations but to feel empowered through them.
By being exposed to women from different sectors, professionals, entrepreneurs, startups, philanthropists, and people doing interesting things, the women can feel inspired and leave with something.
I am privileged to be exposed to some of the most amazing women around the country. I count myself very lucky that every day I get to be inspired by them. It gives me a sense that anything is achievable.
I am firm believer that we all possess coping skills and building blocks of resilience, it is a case of developing it to a point whereby we bounce back easily from things that might have thrown us years ago and thrive on the back of challenges.
I discovered through the Women’s Chapter that lots of senior professional women have business ideas, or are making the transition, are terrified of the change from earning a really good salary to starting a business from scratch and giving up that security.
This bravery has kept me inspired when I had dark days with my business – and all businesses go through that.
How do you intend to ensure the network continues to thrive?
My vision for the Women’s Chapter is to develop a platform where women can come together, showcase businesses and stories can be told. Through that network, they can also make connections they need to keep growing their business, but also to keep developing from a personal perspective.
So far, because the formula works, and it is something people are enjoying, it’s all happening naturally. The more people come into the network, the bigger it gets and takes on a life of its own.
With all your accomplishments, what are the principles and guidelines you live by?
This Nelson Mandela quote: “Things seem impossible until they are done”. Most of the time it’s your fear that holds you back. When you’re procrastinating or holding back, generally, the biggest obstacle in your way is fear.
Both in business and in my personal life, if I’m afraid of something then I know have to put it on my to-do list, face it and overcome it.
Another principle is to trust your gut instinct and be true to self. Don’t feel obligated to conduct business or collaborate with someone if it doesn’t feel right. It is one of the biggest lessons I have learnt.
Fortunately, I have always walked away in time but the idea is: don’t be afraid to walk away. You don’t have to grab every opportunity that comes your way. Face your fears and trust your instincts.