Transcript: Vanessa Vallely – The Queen of The City (Max#47)


Kevin: Welcome to Maximise Potential the podcast to educate and motivate through a range of original interviews designed to help you maximise your potential.  Brought to you in association with the award winning recruitment group Jenrick.

Welcome back to Episode 47 of the Maximise Potential Podcast.  Vanessa Vallely is considered by the Financial News as one of the most 100 Influential Women in Finance, by Brummels as one of the 30 Top Women in The City and was crowned as the Champion for Women at the 2011 Banking and Finance Awards. In addition to her flourishing corporate career, Vanessa is an entrepreneur, mentor and charity champion.  She is known to some as the ‘Queen of the City’ and to others as ‘The City’s most connected Woman’ yet to everyone she is known as someone with energy, flair and above all passion.

Here is Vanessa to share her story with us on Maximise Potential.


Vanessa welcome to the Maximise Potential Podcast.

Vanessa: Hello.

Kevin: You, in the nicest possible way are a bit of a rarity in the City and rather than me trying to explain why you are a bit of a rarity I am actually going to ask you to do that.

Vanessa: A rarity is an interesting word. I suppose I would term myself as that because of I started in the City at 16. I have been able to build a fairly successful corporate career alongside running two businesses. I am also intent on giving back and breeding that next generation of talent. So I left school at 15 because I was an August baby so I was always going to be an early leaver. I basically turned up in the City with I always say 15p and a bit of ambition really to try and find myself a job. I managed to get a job in one of the banks in the telex department. And I turned up there cheeky chappy cheap suit with my personality really just to get me by.

Kevin: Firstly what drew you to banking and secondly how did you get that job?

Vanessa: I had to, the reason I had to leave school was I was the daughter of a single parent family, we never had much money we kind of spent most of my youth from the back age of 7 was doing extra jobs with my mum to kind of earn an income. And where I lived down in Hackney the bright lights of the City kind of beckoned me. It was in the year of the film Wall Street so I felt everyone that was up there was dripping with gold. And if ever there was going to be a pot at the end of my rainbow that was where I was heading. I used to be able to see the tallest buildings of the City from my bedroom window and I used to say to my mum ‘one day I’ll work there’ and I did.

Kevin: You must have been competing against a heck of a lot of people coming in for these jobs in the City because if you were drawn by the Wall Street movie I think there is a load of other people I can go and speak to who would probably say the same.  So how did you manage if you like forge open that door for yourself do you think?

Vanessa: I think again it was a lot of my personality and the gift of the gab. I mean back in the days when I went to school bear in mind you are talking a lot well 24 years ago, there wasn’t like a mass of grad schemes and stuff. It was very much; it was back in the old school of who you knew. I mean half the kind of the traders that are up here kind of got in off the back of that. It wasn’t this mass focus on university education or anything like that. So mine was more really my personality and how I come across at the interview and if there was one thing I could say about myself even then is I am hugely passionate individual and its really convincing someone to give me a chance, to give me a shot.

Kevin: I’m glad you answered that question because you mentioned personality about three or four times already or were there other elements to it because it also sounds like there is a bit of determination, perseverance creeping through.

Vanessa: I think there is, and where that actually stems from like I say growing up as a child in a fairly, and I’ve said it before, kind of socially and economically challenged area you don’t have much but what you do have and what you can control is those things inside you. Now I grew up with parents that told me that there is nothing that I can’t achieve if I put my mind to it. The passion and drive was always there. It is kind of driven from where I come from and also to the point around I mean throughout my life even then, even throughout my career there was always people that told me more what I couldn’t do than what I could do.  And I love those people because I now realise that they fuel my fire. Impossibility is nothing because you can do things you know I am never going to be a size 8 because my bones are not built that way but there are certain things that you can do if you have the attitude to support and the absolute tenacity to do it. And I think those were things that I had ingrained in me as a child so you know I would go to one job and if that didn’t work out then I’d try something else.

Kevin: You just said about the way your parents installed that self belief in you. How important was that then?

Vanessa: Well it was massive and I mean I do it with my children because the power is within you. If you want to make a change and don’t get me wrong there are situations that will constrain you and I was in an environment where there was many constraining situations but once you are an adult within your own right as long as you know you have got the ability to get out there and to speak and you know to go and seek those opportunities why would you not. And again it is about asking the question and more over people will sit there and kind of say well I can’t achieve that because of this, because of that. Look at the that and the that and say right okay what can I do to change that, where do I need to go, who do I need to meet, what are the gaps in my knowledge. Its investment. Its investment in yourself. And I had a huge drive to invest in myself because I wanted to do stuff back for my family to give us a different way of life. Those were my drivers. You know I had a lot of people around me saying you know just conform Vanessa and you know accept what we are part of and stuff like that. I never believed it and I certainly don’t believe it for kids nowadays. And again I see my job as a parent and role models and mentors across the City to get hold of that younger generation and kind of pull them up and show them what they could be if they put the effort in.

Kevin: Do you think it seems like a few people succeed against the masses that don’t mainly because those few are not necessarily exceptionally talented but they are the ones that actually don’t get caught up in this conforming to the ‘you can’t’?

Vanessa: Yes. I think now I think things obviously over the last 20 years society has massively changed and I think its okay now to be different. And that difference is welcomed. You know when I started back difference wasn’t welcomed. I almost felt like a leaming coming up to Liverpool Street and walking in the same march as everyone else and I was never quite like that. But I think now as I say that difference that diverse background, that different way of thinking is welcomed. And I have seen many people succeed. It is not just off the back of fantastic educations but really being innovative and being creative around what they can and can’t do. And again it is these nay sayers that tell you things that you can’t do. Take that and put it inside you and think what do I need to do to turn that around. How can I prove them different? And also you know do it for yourself. I often say to youngsters that I work with sometimes the opinions of others are just noise. You are the judge of your own true capability. Surround yourself with the right people, put the effort in, fill your knowledge gaps where you don’t have them, be innovative and creative and above all ask. My mother always taught me ‘if you don’t ask Vanessa you don’t get’ and I’ve always asked for things and sometimes it’s been a no. Okay you dust yourself off you move on and eventually you will find someone to say yes. Again it is about that tenacity.

Kevin: And this will be asking promotions, asking for.

Vanessa: Yeah and its difficult, its difficult there is plenty of stuff in the press and papers that have been written about how women don’t naturally ask for promotions and how we go about things in a different way to like our counterparts. You have got to ask, you have got to plan those things. Because again I have worked in teams where I have had absolute hidden skill sets that these people haven’t told me that they’ve got and if I don’t know that they have got these skills how can I help them grow them or how can I grow them as individuals.

Kevin: So it is not just asking, I’ll call it asking up, it is also asking down, it is asking around, it’s asking naturally. It’s just asking questions generally.

Vanessa: It is but also for example I mentor 15 individuals globally girls and boys. I probably get as much from those relationships as what I am giving because they make me look at life through a different lens. Either a cultural lens a different age group lens and I learn new things that shapes my thinking. So again it’s about not becoming staid in your opinion and it keeps someone like me that enjoys doing that sort of thing and working with these individuals, it keeps me with a fresh perspective as well. So as well as helping them obviously as well. Open I think it is being open to opportunity and I’m a true believer that if you do good things in life then good things come back. I absolutely believe that.

Kevin: Tell me about the mentees you said you have got 15 people all over the world.

Vanessa: I have yes. I pick them up wherever I go sets of traffic lights. No I don’t really. So I tend to pick them up for short periods of time and I have got some rules about mentoring as well. So for example I won’t mentor anyone unless they are mentoring a level down otherwise I feel the cascade of knowledge stops with us and I want that legacy to continue on. I also operate within a framework of a period of time. Now sometimes that mentoring doesn’t always involve crutch brainstorming a business issue or an idea but it is also about being their champion. You know a key thing I like to do is I will open doors for individuals when they are not in the room.

Kevin: Is that the biggest pleasure from the mentoring?

Vanessa: Absolutely it’s that and its obviously seeing them go on to success and don’t get me wrong some of them have had very rickety paths and some of them are still on them because they are finding their way. They are on a journey like we’ve all been on a journey. So if I can help in some way and one day I look at those individuals and they have achieved their measure of success. You know some people may say success is the big corner office, the leather chair, the C suit title. I think everyone has got their own level in terms of what success looks like. But to be part of whatever is deemed as their success why would I not want to play a part in that it is a magical thing.

Kevin: Completely. I’m just going to pull you back to the corporate career. You have already touched on the point of the importance of asking. You just touched on an area where you said about working out the plan, working out the how to ask. What did you mean by that?

Vanessa: Well I’m a big planner so when I look back, as far back as I can remember I write lists and I plan things out. But it’s true what they say 80% planning 20% execution. If I am going to be doing something either going for a pitch or if I’ve had to have one of those difficult conversations if for example throughout my career I have been asked to work on projects I’m not necessarily qualified for the reason being I want to learn. So even if its I’m sitting in the back of the room and I’m listening to a project team talk for a couple of hours about what they are doing I will leave that room with a better understanding than when I first walked in to it. So it is planning how to do that. And again it is your approach that you are taking to people. It is a mini business case you know what are they getting out of me sitting in that room. Well eventually they are growing a pipeline of someone one day may be qualified for that job. Who is going to say no to that. You know it is about showing enthusiasm.

In terms of other plans I mean every year I have a map of what does this year look like, what do I want to achieve and then I work my way back saying where are the gaps in my knowledge, who do I need to help me to achieve that. And if I don’t already know them then I need to plan forward again how am I going to meet them, how am I going to put myself in that environment, how am I going to build not a transactional relationship where I am actually giving them something for them giving me something back. And I always open up my conversations in that tone. What can I give to that individual. Because again back to this point I’m a true believer that things come back. So I think if you plan things and you show a respect for someone’s time when you pitch your business case to them or an idea then there is a respect there that someone has actually thought about it. I’m not just asking to work from home because whatever reason or I’m not just asking to be on your project or I appreciate I haven’t got the skill set yet but help me get it. You know these are yearend conversations and things that you have. Okay year end you’re telling me I’m not yet at this particular level right how can you help me? What do I need to do in order so that we are not having this conversation next year? And part of that is not just within your own corporate environment expecting your line manager or your peer group to plan out your career. To my point that I always say it’s your boat you need to swim out to it and that requires in investment, and investment outside of corporate life, networking, mentors. All of that encompasses how you can move yourself forward. But again it is time consuming especially when the bulk of my life when I was doing that I had two young children as well and obviously other commitments.

Kevin: That was funnily enough going to be my next question. I was actually going to say to you just how have you juggled everything over the years?

Vanessa: That question comes up all the time. I think I’ve got an extra five hours in the day. I don’t suppose I am ever off duty you know even when I am on the train I am on one of two phones, I’m answering one email because I need to get the stuff I do outside of work done before I enter my corporate day.  When I am at work I am solely at work. I will go out; I will meet someone before work breakfast at 8 o’clock in the morning. I will maybe see someone at lunchtime for half an hour. I am not an advocate of long lengthy meetings let’s get to the point but I am a huge planner and I advocate it as well. I even plan with my kids.

Kevin: But it sounds as though you are disciplined as well because you stick to the plan.

Vanessa: I do. I give myself a midyear review and no one is harder on me than me you know because I think I’ve got a short period of time in this world and there is things I want to get done. So again it requires focus. And there are moments when I’m like any normal woman you know some days I come out and in the younger years the kids would have been sick down my suit, I’ve got dry shampoo in my hair, I’m not perfect by a long chalk but I say I am very focussed and if I commit to something I am going to do it, I will do it.

Kevin: What has been the most difficult aspect of your career has it been something external or has it actually been internal?

Vanessa: I would say there has been two difficult points in my career. One where I absolutely, which probably was the tipping point as to when I left one of my firms and kind of went on this journey where I’ve absolutely whole heartedly threw myself into my job so much so that I lost sight of the support that was around me because I was so focussed on the goal of getting a particular job done, the promotion that would be at the end of it, so I almost went, not particularly proud of it, I kind of also went into this kind of self bubble you know. And there were people trying to burst me out of it and I wasn’t listening because I was so focussed that this was going to get the promotion and this was the pinnacle the turning point.

Kevin: And I am guessing when you say burst you out of it they were trying to help by pulling you out of it?

Vanessa: Yeah absolutely. I mean the biggest one who normally grounds me is my good old fashioned Jewish mother you know who brings me back down to earth. She was kind of saying things and I wasn’t listening and funnily enough I didn’t get promoted at the end of it. And I mean it was a huge realisation that you know work is massively important, don’t get me wrong it is a fundamental and I absolutely love my day job however there needs to be balance. There needs to be balance at home and there needs to be balance with other interests and you cannot work consecutively like that where everything in your life is just purely about work. There needs to be some down time and again at that time I thought I was a machine that I could just keep carrying on but I was lucky that the people that supported me and were around me realised that it was just one of life’s lessons and they kind of hung around. But it was after that point that I kind of changed it and went actually I want more in life I don’t just want to be in this particular job and that’s all there is to me. I always thought there was kind of more and I’m glad I did it because clearly there was more.

Kevin: I don’t know about you but I know from my perspective I know when I was younger I used to feel that it was a race, it seemed like you had to get an awful lot done in a very short space of time and I’m probably going to say something similar to you but it seems like the older you get the more relaxed you become about it and yet the more things tend to happen.

Vanessa: It’s like the hour glass right the times running out. I will never forget just as I, it was back in it must have been about 2006 there is a guy that I worked with, and I still remember him to this day, and he said Vanessa when you head towards your forty’s your perspective changes, if you’ve got kids or responsibilities and stuff like that. And bear in mind, if you can imagine I was almost like a yappy puppy you know running round in circles trying to grab on to that next opportunity. I didn’t believe him I said that will never happen to me I’m after the big chair and C Suite that’s the way I am going. And it’s funny because you get up to and the second kind of blip in my career was going after that C Suite job getting there and realising that I didn’t actually want it anymore because to have it would mean I would have to compromise all of the things that I now do and I’m not prepared to give them up. The hunger has not gone; the hunger is there but just for different things.

Kevin: When you are in a corporate environment and when you are in an entrepreneurship environment and when you are in a mentoring environment can you be the same person?

Vanessa: Sometimes it depends. I would like to think you know that now I have kind of found my way that I am consistent in the person that I am. Don’t get me wrong in the corporate environment there are decisions and things that you have to do and approaches that you have to take to work, because you are working in a structure. You know within my mentoring environment obviously they are benefiting from that experience. And I can flick on a sixpence in terms of who I need to be. So I think it is kind of a, it’s that people skill that I can take to all of those different things. People are our business without them nothing moves. You get the people on side there is amazing things that you can achieve. Again I think that’s the worry because with all of the doom and gloom and opprescence difficulties firms are going through we can’t lose sight of our people. And it is often the people who are absolutely in the weeds that have got the best possible ideas. I love spending time with people at grass roots. You know they know how to fix the problems.

Kevin: Now I am going to keep you on the people subject but I am going to get you completely away from the corporate environment right now and I’m going to talk about your family history and what you are involved in which is part of London’s history and it is something that we haven’t mentioned at all yet but is something I am dying to talk about. You are a pearly queen.

Vanessa: I am a pearly queen. The funny thing is before.

Kevin: Before you do this, before you talk about this there is people all over the world listening to this.

Vanessa: Okay so you want a skinny version.

Kevin: I think so give them an idea about what the pearly kings and queens are of London.

Vanessa: So the pearly kings and queens, it was actually started by a young orphan boy who was a rat catcher. If you bear in mind the City of London was full of markets and he used to go around the markets catching rats but he also.

Kevin: How many years ago are we talking?

Vanessa: Oh 1875 I think he was born. And he used to hang around the markets of London catching rats. And in the markets you used to have what you called ‘costermongers’ they were the apple sellers. And to note that they was the apple sellers they had penny sized buttons sewn on the lapels of their jackets and the sides of their trousers. What they also used to do bearing in mind there was no social security system either if a fella coster was down on his luck they would all chip in and basically put money together to help that family out. So Henry looked at this and thought I’m going to make my suit full of buttons and I’m going to collect within the markets for charities and for his home because he was a Barnados boy, collect back for his home. And that is what he started to do. Well eventually Henry was in such demand they wanted him in all the markets. So obviously he can’t be in all places at one time so he created one pearly king for 28 boroughs of London which is how London used to be divided. So there begun the 28 original pearly families. Then what they did was they had their sons and their daughters so you have to marry into it or it comes through the blood line traditionally. They would have pearly kings and queens who would go out shake their buckets. If you look at Mary Poppins there is pearly kings and queens in the back of Mary Poppins. You know this goes back over 100 years. And they would raise money for charity.

Kevin: And how old was Henry when he was starting all of this?

Vanessa: Oh he was about 13.

Kevin: So a 13 year old boy started a movement completely across the whole of London and he is living in a Barnados home.

Vanessa: Yeah he was. So he started off the original pearly families. So if you look at lots of photos kind of back early 1900s there are some amazing photos if you Google them on the internet, the original pearly kings and queens. And what they would do is sew buttons on their suit, tradition says that you sew your own buttons, there are certain symbols that you would have on your suit that would denote luck or you know, various different things, sometimes reflect the borough that they represent. So for example I am pearly queen City of London so on my suit, and it is a new suit because I had it made because we were part of the opening of the London Olympics, so I’ve got Tower of London on mine, I’ve got the Gurkin you know for fun. Obviously my connection with the City I had some monetary symbols put on to it. Now back in the day they would have what they used to call smoother suits which was literally covered in buttons from like head to toe. So the prime element of it that you would go out and you would raise money for charities within that borough. So it was handed down to me, from the age of 3 I used to go out with my grandfather. He would play the accordion, I would tap dance and shake a bucket and raise money. I kind of fell out between 15 – 19 because it wasn’t cool, something I am going through with my own children at the moment, to kind of go out in a button suit, I think many photos of me now I have got a face like I am chewing a wasp. And then I think as you get older you realise how important it is to keep cultures alive. If we don’t keep that pearly kings and queens which is a London tradition alive then it will disappear. So I mean making my children wear their pearly suits by going out and doing jobs wherever we are called to do them you know I don’t tap dance anymore I draw the line there, you know I will sing a cockney song or stuff like that. But I mean I am a third generation pearly queen. So as I say I inherited my title Pearly Queen of Hoxton, I took my dad’s title because he stepped down through ill health. Made my husband a pearly king, my daughter is a pearly princess and pearly queen of Hoxton now. And whenever we are asked to we go out and raise money for charity.

Kevin: Fascinating.

Vanessa: It’s a wonderful thing to do. The Olympics obviously gave us a huge Danny Ball was massive supportive of us at the Olympics because we weren’t actresses or anything like that and walking round that stage at the opening credits, it was an amazing ceremony anyway, with the Chelsea pensioners and the guys that got off the wind rush everything like that it was a most magical moment.

Kevin: I am going to start finishing our interview.

Vanessa: Okay.

Kevin: You have probably touched on several aspects of what has driven you throughout your career but also what’s driven you as a person but I am very keen to get you to just narrow it down and give me one piece of advice that you consider almost I guess to be your mantra, something that you take with you time and time again.

Vanessa: My normal strap line tends to be – a life without passion is a dull one indeed. Right because I believe you need to, if you want things you need to be passionate about them. And that passion leads into being innovative of how you are going to achieve those things. And the other one that I would say, sorry I have taken two, nothing is achieved without hard work and that doesn’t necessarily have to be hard work in terms of presantism or anything like that it’s about thinking about the what is it you are setting out to do and making that your core focus at all times. Even when you are sitting there doing nothing you can still be thinking about how do I achieve that goal, where do I need to go, what do I need to learn. Hard work and determination I definitely think that’s the key.

Kevin: Vanessa Vallely thank you very much for coming on the Maximise Potential Podcast.

Vanessa: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much.


Kevin: Vanessa thank you so much for coming on the Podcast and providing us with such a detailed insight into the drivers behind your life and your career. Personally this is one interview that I have gone back to and listened to about three times to give me the opportunity to absorb the volume of information that Vanessa shares with us. One of my favourite parts is right at the beginning when Vanessa says how she could see the tallest buildings of the City from her bedroom and that one day she was going to work there. That is clearly a very powerful memory for her even now all these years later. From a personality perspective Vanessa is another person who refers to the importance of passion, enthusiasm and determination coupling this with the importance of keeping a mind that is constantly open and seeking out new ideas.  Planning, asking questions, investing in yourself, the advice in this interview just keeps coming and coming. I’ve added several web links to the show notes for this episode starting off with links to the history of the pearly king and queen movement of London plus links to Vanessa’s website that she spoke about for women in business which is called

A big thank you to Jenrick who very kindly introduced me to Vanessa and if you would like to meet Vanessa in person she is co hosting an event with Kay White who I am sure you will remember from Episode 14 of Maximise Potential on March 20th in Central London and the event is called ‘Women in Business Step up and Be Heard.’ Well worth going to, there are only a limited number of places available so if you are interested please click on the show notes and come and reserve your place.

That’s me done for this Episode. Here’s an appropriately entitle ‘Goodbye’ from Xerxes music to finish on today. Please come and leave feedback on our iTunes page, connect with us on Twitter, come and join the LinkedIn group it would be great to hear from you.  Thanks again for listening and bye for now.


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About the Author

Hi, I'm Tom Burkinshaw, I co-produce the Maximise Your Potential Podcast and Website and my goal is to help as many people as possible be successful in life, careers and business, by offering free coaching and mentoring through a series of unique interviews from inspiring people who all display exceptional self-belief, mental toughness and desire to achieve. Thank you for taking the time to visit Maximise Your Potential!