“On paper I should have failed” – Joanna Wake rips up the rule book
SHE went from student to guest lecturer, passed her Masters degree with just a handful of GCSEs to her name and has raised thousands for charity.
Joanna Wake’s career path hasn’t been conventional and she’s proud of it – now she’s in the running for business role model of the year in the Women in IT Awards and hoping to inspire others to realise their potential.
What did you want to be when you were young?
An actress, but my mother was a single mum to four children so it was impossible for her to afford classes, not to mention getting me there and back again. I had lot’s of outlets at school though, as well as the street theatre my friends and I put on regularly.
I went to a loving school, Blakeston School in Stockton where I was in all the shows, lots of sports teams and I would volunteer for things to add to my CV.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
When I left school I worked part-time a McDonalds but I dropped out of college to get a job with the DVLA. There were 600 applicants for 13 roles so the interview process was really thorough but, with hindsight, I think my bubbly personality got me though.
After two years there were redundancies and it was fight or flight and got a job at the Department of Education at Mowden Hall in Darlington where I ended up spending a lot of time working with Government ministers and at the House of Commons.
I never had an idea that I wanted to be an entrepreneur but I didn’t want to be looking back at my life and thinking ‘what if’? I always say that life’s too short to be mediocre.
My first business about five years ago was Tees Valley Weddings which linked brides with wedding suppliers on the internet – it grew and grew along with my business knowledge.
“One of the biggest things I learned was that the biggest test of an entrepreneur is being knocked to the ground but having the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself down again. You have to have strong self-belief and determination. I’ve had times when I’ve worked ridiculous amounts of hours. It is a rollercoaster. When I came into business I was no one from nowhere but I’ve learned a lot from other people.”
Through my online business I developed my marketing skills and I wanted to shout from the rooftops about social media which is how I started RAW Marketing, which has since become RAW Digital Training which covers all aspects of training for businesses in digital skills. We are training all over in all sectors and have some large contracts with big names.
Have qualifications helped you get where you has it all be sheer hard work and talent?
It was while I was at RAW Marketing I thought about getting a proper qualification as I didn’t want anything to hold me back.
Amazingly, I’ve gone from doing GCSEs to a Masters degree in Marketing Management at Teesside University. But I didn’t know how to critically write or or reference things so I’ve had to teach myself all these extra things. When I went in I was so excited, it felt like a real escape from my life.
I went from brand new student to guest lecturer in those two years. I’m a real marketeer so I was enthralled by it and I was overjoyed to hand my dissertation in this August. I cried all the way home because it was such a feeling of achievement, I felt like doing cartwheels!
I’ve just found out that I’ve passed, which I am thrilled about. I’m still a bit in shock, as I wanted to quit so many times when the going was really tough.
What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?
It’s important that they realise that everyone has been in their position and, for the most part, people are nice and will give you their time. Someone who’s passionate would stand out to me. Networking is also vital. It’s a two way conversation so if you meet someone take their business card and then take that relationship online by following then on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Volunteer for things too, that’s how I took charge of the Mary Portas pilot town plan to improve Stockton High Street and developed the Big Tees Sleepout with Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation which has raised more than £65,000 for charities that help homeless people in the area. And I support the Moses Project in Stockton and help serve Christmas dinner there.
Volunteer or help an organisation who’s cause or aims give you a real fire in the belly though, as that’s how you stay committed to it and make a real difference. It’s better to under promise and over deliver rather than over promising and under delivering and don’t be frightened to ask someone for half an hour of their time. I would also say, be genuine – you can spot a bullshitter a mile off.
What is a very underrated business skill?
Being genuine is so, so important. You do not need to be anything else but you. You don’t need to be the most polished person in the world, if you try to pretend to be something you’re not you become uncomfortable and you lose out. Honesty is critical.
How will digital marketing change over the next few years?
I think face to face relationships will remain – theres noting like meeting someone in person, you can’t beat it. People are going to be using social media more and the way businesses can streamline their productivity online and that means good things for business as it will give a bigger return.
And it’s not about being on every social media platform, it’s about choosing one or two but doing them well to streamline their digital image. Overall, online and digital is only going in one direction, and we are seeing so many more traditional businesses adapt to it by the day.
Which three people (celebrity or not) would you like to work with?
Alan Sugar because I like his no-nonsense attitude, he is who he is and he’s not fazed by anything at all.
Hilary Devey, she has always remained true to her self and despite her now been known for TV roles, she overcame extreme adversity started from absolutely nothing in an extremely male dominated industry
And Richard Branson – a lot of people think of him as a huge success but, in fact, he’s had many, many failures.
As a role model to others do you feel more pressure?
It’s very lovely to think that I am anybody’s role model. If I feel that I can make a difference then I will, I’ve just agreed to do a talk to a group of 14-year-old girls at a school in Darlington.
It’s important that I tell them what I’ve done and the mistakes I’ve made, it’s human to make mistakes.
As I said, thing that makes an entrepreneur is the ability to pick yourself up when you’ve been kicked in the teeth. When I started out there were times when I would cry and cry and cry.
There were a couple of people who wanted me to fail and that drove me on even more. I come from a rough council estate originally – on paper I should have failed but I don’t think that should define you.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
That I’m obsessed with music. I can’t play a note and I’m the world’s worst singer but I love the 1960s and until a few years ago wore a lot of vintage clothes from that era. But I also love British Rock, Northern Soul and 1980s Funk as well as classical. I’ve seen The Rolling Stones three times.
My son and I sing and dance around the house all the time, music is a massive part of my life. It’s actually very rare that I watch TV at all.
You have won and been shortlisted for lots of awards, you must be overjoyed to be a finalist in the business role model of the year in the Women in IT Awards?
That thrilling feeling never goes away. There are fantastic things happening in the area and in the digital sector. I was named the ‘Face of the Tees Valley’ in 2010 – my pride for it is at fever pitch, I adore it and I’ll never leave.
The awards are to recognise women in what is a real male dominated industry. Only 16 per cent of the IT sector is female, and these awards are to not only recognise the women doing well but to inspire the next generation of women.
Ultimately, if I can use the award shortlisting to inspire other young females, especially those int he North-East, to realise their own potential, in IT and other STEM subjects, then that would be incredible.
Raw Digital Training – leading digital media training agency
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Joanna Wake can be found Tweeting @jomusiclife