Round tables were marked with large names and then there were smaller card by each of the chairs. A few women were sat at Kate’s table. She found her name and nodded politely to them, noting that there was a mixture of business clothes and casual, at least not everyone had come from the playpen, she thought. The clothes were more M&S than designer, but it could have been worse.
A trip to the bar later, Kate settled herself into her seat and looked at the time on her phone. “You’ve got to turn that off” hissed her neighbour.
“You’ve got to turn your phone off” she said again pointing at the device in case Kate didn’t know what she was talking about, “It’s the rules of the forum.”
“Hold on, what if someone needs to get hold of me?”
“It’s the rules. Something to do with showing respect for the speakers.” she paused, “I’m Ally by the way.”
“Kate. Pleased to meet you.” they shook hands.
“If I’m honest, it’s so all the yummy mummys have to take a break from the kids for an evening.” Ally whispered, “If they’ve got their phones on, they spend all the time issuing instructions to their other halves by text.”
Kate switched her phone to silent and tucked it in her bag. Looking around the room, the seats were filling up. “Looks like we are nearly ready to go. I wondered if they would start on time.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. Sheila, the woman who runs all this is a stickler for punctuality. It’s a bit like herding cats sometimes, but once you get the hang of it, it makes sense. Don’t over-run with your pitch either or she’ll cut you dead.”
Kate looked surprised. “My pitch? We have to do a pitch?”
Ally smiled, “You really didn’t read the instructions did you? We all have 30 seconds to say who we are and what we do. They call it a pitch, but it’s really just an introduction. Then you jot down the details of anyone you’d like to talk to later and find them once we break.”
“Ahh. I get it, so I’m Kate Smith and I run a management consultancy, that sort of thing. “
“I thought you’d get it. That suit says you’ve done this sort of thing before.”
Kate nodded. “Once or twice. Not usually as part of a production line though.”
“True. It’s a bit overwhelming for some people. I reckon there’s about sixty here today so more than normal.” Ally paused. “Hang on a minute, Kate Smith, you are from that KOD company aren’t you? I’ve seen you on TV.”
A few more head turned at the table. Due the prominence of the two big contracts KOD had done over the last few years, Kate and Gareth had both been on the radio and TV talking about the company. Kate preened slightly at been recognised.
“You put that Nolan woman in her place on Loose Women, didn’t you.” Ally’s eyes sparkled and a few of the table members tutted.
Before Kate could prepare her response, a woman stood up and fiddled with a microphone.
“Good evening ladies. I’m Sheila and welcome to the Midlands Empowerment Forum. I hope the evening is both fun and profitable for all of us.” She looked slowly around the room. “I see we have a few new faces so perhaps I’ll run through the ground rules for our sessions. First, phones off please. We don’t want any amusing ring tones interrupting the speakers.” Several woman hastily grabbed their mobiles from the table tops and fiddled with the buttons as if they didn’t know where the off switch was located. Grudgingly, the phones were then tucked into handbags under Sheila’s stern gaze.
She continued, “We’ll kick off with our pitches in a moment, but first some exciting news. Next month we have a very special speaker, Karen McDaniel, the founder of the national chain of Empowerment Forums. She’ll be explaining how these events grew from a tiny back room in a Camden pub to these glorious premises”, she waved her hand as though pointing out the décor for anyone who hadn’t spotted it, “I’m sure you’ll all be excited by that. It’s quite an honour for Karen to visit us and I for one am keen to know how you grow a business as fast. I’m sure we’d all like a dose of that sort of success.” Everyone in the room chuckled.
After explaining where the toilets and emergency exits were, Sheila handed over to the rest of the room for their pitches. A smartly dressed woman stood up at a table next to the stage and announced, “Hi everyone, I’m Joanne,” some of the audience tried to say, “Hi Joanne”, but were silenced by the glares of their neighbours. “I run a small marketing company. We do flyers and posters which I design myself. If you’d like some samples, I have them in my bag”. After a polite round of applause she sat down.
Next up was Andrea who ran a pottery painting shop followed by Sarah who did some book keeping. Around the tables, each woman stood up, said her piece and quickly sat down. Kate noted that Sheila was timing everyone like a hawk and gave them a harsh stare when they were close to running over.
As the long round of presentations went on Kate began to wonder if this had been a waste of time. Each of the presenters seemed wetter than the rest: with their gardening, home décor, massage pitches. Where were the juicy prospects and how the hell was she going to work out who was married to the cash cow?
At least her table colleague Ally seemed to be having fine, passing aside about certain presenters that she knew and Kate might want to talk to, and seeming to be still shell shocked at being sat next to a minor celeb.
As it came to Kate’s pitch she was starting to lose the will to live.“Hi everyone, my name is Kate Smith, and I run management consultancy KOD, based here in Solihull.”
There was a sharp intake of breath across the room. Kate wasn’t sure what that mean but she ploughed on.“I’m looking to connect with anyone who….”
“Oh my god it’s you. Sheila, why didn’t you tell us she was coming.” A woman from across the room interrupted Kate’s pitch.
Sheila looked up from her stop watch, “Five seconds, Kate.”
“But Sheila, don’t you know who she is. She’s been on telly and everything. Oh my god, I loved you on Loose Women, it was hysterical.”
The rest of the room started to mutter as those in the know explained to those who weren’t who Kate was.
“Times up.” Sheila seemed to be totally oblivious to anything that broke her strictly timed routine. Kate sat down, wondering what that was all about.
“You are quite a celeb in our group, well will those of us who like women with balls. You did upset a few people with your comments about working mums, but don’t worry about them, they are just jealous.”
Kate tried to think back to the interview. She been asked on the programme to talk about the closure of HIA, a vegetable research station that was the job that put KOD on the map, wrangling with marauding locals and a lost heir had made it national news. Her being a female leader had added to the news worthiness. What she hadn’t realised with that TV show was you had to play along with whatever top of conversation was happening that day. One of the presenters was talking about how she was knackered today after spending all her time looking after her kids, Kate had made a remark about not having any might help which hadn’t gone down well. She’d found you just don’t get on the wrong side of a Loose Woman.
At the end of the networking session Kate found herself surrounded by a group of acolytes. There was a definite split in the room, with those flocking to see the local celeb and those who looked at her with distain.
Ally did introductions. Kate found the split interesting, there were some who were early entrepreneurs who worked on their own but had decided to split from the corporate worlds for lots of reasons, not just kids. Those who did have children gave Kate a slap on the back and joked about never a truer word. They loved their kids but any time away was a bonus. Kate took this in with surprise, she always thought mums just wanted to be mums and work got in the way, but these ladies were swigging their wines and talking about a night out before the next social event.
“Don’t worry about them,” Ally pointed at the break out group on the other side of the room. “Sometimes it can be like school here, who’s popular, who’s got the best toys, etc etc. They’ll come round, of if they don’t I wouldn’t worry. We’re a good bunch and we’d love to learn more about your company.
“Sheila, Sheila.” Ally grabbed the leaders arm as she walked across the room. “Don’t you think we should get Kate to give us a talk. She’s the best woman’s entrepreneur here, she’s got… how many staff have you got Kate?”
Kate looked up from her conversation. “Twelve”
“Twelve staff, a national success story, a woman who’s dragged herself up by the boot straps, I think it’s a story for us all.”
“OK Ally, OK, I get the idea. I’ll need to speak to some other members but it sounds like it might be an idea.” Sheila brushed her off and carried on.
“Not feeling it then?” Kate watched Sheila walked away.
“She’ll be fine. She likes things done her way, and she likes to be centre of attention and you are stealing some of her limelight.”
By the end of the evening Kate was glowing slightly. She’d never had her ego bolstered by so many women at one time. In fact she couldn’t remember that time she’d had a conversation with a group of women that hadn’t turned into something competitive. The women had been desperate to know all about the workings of her business, amazed at what they had done, the fact that someone was now looking for work in America, how they’d expanded. Kate practically bounced back to her flat, as much as her three inch heels would let her. No one had really mention kids, or why wasn’t she married, or any of the usual stumbling blocks she came across at social occasions. These women might only have spare room businesses but they had appetite, an appetite that surprised her.
Settling down on the sofa with a final glass of wine she curled her legs underneath her and though about how much she is was looking forward to next month, and a chance to see some of her new friends.