Women in business: Can you have it all? – Nicola Horlick speaks

Posted on: March 24, 2010

Last week I went along to the Open University Annual Lecture at which Nicola Horlick spoke on the topic of “Can you have it all?” I’m always interested in different perspectives on women in business.

I actually bumped into her as I left the ladies loo in the beautiful wood panelled area of the Crypt below St Martin’s in the Field and was surprised that she was not as tall as I imagined her. And rather than wearing a power suit she wore a long black military style cardigan which gave her a softer look than I anticipated.

Of course, we all saw the media coverage of her tussle with her banking employers and marvelled at the way she held down a multi-million pound job in the City whilst raising six kids (albeit aided by a nanny). She seemed the epitome of the “having it all” woman.

After a gentle plug for her new Diva product (wealth management for women) she started talking about her career. She studied law at Oxford – having dallied with the idea of an acting career – and went for interviews at Barings, Rothschilds and S G Warburgs. She said she selected the latter as it was a more diverse organisation. Under the shadow of an iconic boss she was made a director when 28 years old for helping to grow the business from managing £10 to £46 billion of funds.

She then took a turnaround role at Morgan Grenfell, where she had to threaten to leave in order to achieve change (e.g. banning politics), but then went on to transform it from the worst to the best performing fund manager with funds under management growing from £3.5 bn to £22.5bn. A rogue employee lost £400m and she was suspended – which was what provoked the media frenzy that followed her to Frankfurt. She has since established her own company.

She then shifted gear to talk about her private life. She met her husband at University and they married at 23. At 25 she had her first child and returned to work after six weeks. Another child quickly followed although she took a slightly longer maternity leave. Then at two years of age, her eldest child Georgie was diagnosed with cancer. She remained perfectly calm as she described her daughter’s ten year battle with the disease and the numerous visits to Great Ormond Street hospital and the awful tests, treatments and associated illnesses her daughter had to endure before dying at the age of 12.

I have to say that the tension in the room was palpable and there were many, many people in that audience – men as well as women – trying to subtly wipe away tears. But Nicola just carried on talking in her calm voice and answered questions about the markets (she was positive about Korea and other Asian markets as well as South Amercia) and the banking crisis. She even dealt with a rather upset member of the audience who had lost her entire savings through a pension fund disaster and received poor advice about the Icelandic bank crash. Nicola finished by imploring banks and funds to invest in innovation and SMEs.

The final, inevitable question was “So how would you answer the question – can we have it all?”. She didn’t hesitate as she answered that despite her financial success and five remaining children, she didn’t have her eldest child and so was no longer married to her first husband so, she was unequivacable, you CANNOT have it all.

When I arrived my feelings towards this high flying financial services woman in the media spotlight were pretty negative. By the end I held a deep admiration and huge respect for someone who could raise a large family, be so successful in the City, get through the death of a child and a marriage breakdown and still be there to run a business and reach out to other women in business in such a powerful way. An inspiration.

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