Women’s Entrepreneurship Day with Julianne Miles MBE, Women Returners Co-Founder
We sat down with Julianne Miles, Co-founder of Women Returners, to learn about her fascinating social entrepreneurial journey for Women’s Entrepreneurship Day.
Equality Hub (EH): We’d love to hear more about you and the time you decided to begin your business. What was going through your head? Can you tell us about that time?
Julianne Miles (JM): I was just thinking about this because we’re approaching Women Returners’ ten-year anniversary in January 2024. A milestone makes you reflect on the start of a business.
I can think of a few pivotal moments. The first one is when I took my own career break. I had a career in corporate strategy consulting and then in strategy and marketing for a big multinational. For a variety of reasons, I paused my career to look after my two young children, and I had a point where I decided I wanted to go back to work, but I didn’t think I wanted to go back to what I was doing before. Yet, I wasn’t quite sure what to do next.
I remember floundering and thinking there’s no real support here for me. So I spoke a lot to friends and family. I did a lot of reading and, in the end, I decided to go back and retrain as a Chartered Psychologist. That led me to the next pivotal moment, which is when I started a small career psychology practice and, as a pro-bono sideline, I began helping friends and people I met in my local community to get back to work. Their career breaks were largely for childcare. Like me, they were struggling to get back to work, experiencing a real loss of self-confidence plus uncertainty about what to do and whether it was even possible.
“I started running workshops for these women returners around my kitchen table.”
What I quickly realised, is that there were barriers way beyond their uncertainties and their lack of confidence. There was a real societal problem. These women had been in financial services and law, they were doctors, marketers, tech professionals and yet they all were saying, “I’ll never get back. It’s just not going to happen.” And those who did apply for jobs weren’t getting anywhere.
I started to read a lot about it, and I realised that this was a structural issue in society. There was this amazing army of talented people — most of whom were women — who’d just fallen out of the workforce. Some had got back — but even then, they were working small scale and not leveraging their skills and experience. This experience inspired the third pivotal moment. In 2012, I had got together with another woman, Katerina Gould, who had a similar background to me and we started writing a blog for women returners. We wanted to put more positive messages out there.
We started collecting stories of people who’d gone back to work after career breaks, to create a sense that it was possible. At this point, there was no business model, it was just something that we wanted to do. Around this time, I first read about the idea of a returnship in the US: a higher level professional internship for returning professionals. I thought for a year or so, “What a great idea. Why doesn’t somebody do this in the UK?”
Then I started to consider whether we were the people to bring internships into the UK. This started to grow from an idea, to a sense that it was possible, to something we decided to do. That was when we launched Women Returners at the beginning of 2014.
EH: You started your business later in life when you already had years of professional experience. Can you tell us about that? What was that like?
JM: For me, it was the best time to start a business. In mid-career you bring such a mix of skills and experience that you can apply both to starting a business, and also to understanding the levers that you need to pull to make a business work. The eclectic career experiences that I had prior to starting Women Returners — a mixture of business and psychology and coaching and a career break — I brought into what I was doing. And I think that was really, really powerful.
There’s a really high success rate for people setting up businesses in their forties and fifties that I don’t think is talked about enough. There are amazing role models, and huge amounts of encouragement for women early in their career to be entrepreneurs. But there aren’t enough people out there instilling belief in women at mid-career that it’s possible and exciting to start your own business.
“Often in mid-career, I find that women and men are thinking, how can I make more of a difference? How can I be more impactful?”
And maybe, how can I have more autonomy, flexibility and freedom? Running your own social business gives you all of that. It’s not an easy route. There’s a big difference between running a solo business from home, where you can manage your time, and creating a larger-scale social enterprise. Whichever model you choose, having the skills and experience to bring to a business is a huge plus. I would love there to be more role models and more encouragement of older women so that they can see this as a viable possibility.
“There is an exciting world of entrepreneurship out there at any age!”
EH: If somebody came to you and said, I’ve got this idea, but I could never start this business, what would you say to them?
JM: My first point would be, believe in yourself and believe that you personally can make a change. My story is illustrative of that and there are many thousands of other stories. Find the stories that resonate with you.
My second point would be to adopt a pragmatic approach. Look for a way to try out your venture in a low risk way rather than immediately jumping in. This can mitigate some of your doubts and that sense that it’s not possible. Once you set out along the journey you build that sense of belief.
The third piece of advice I would give is to be prepared to flex your model. One of the reasons we have been successful with Women Returners is that we’re constantly finding new ways to achieve our mission (to remove the career break penalty). We started with the concept of a returnship, but we’ve evolved to work with employers in multiple ways. This has been according to the needs of employers, to our increased understanding of what is needed, and also a growing excitement around how we can make more impact. In general, don’t be afraid to pivot to improve on your initial idea.
EH: And what are you most proud of?
JM: Back in 2019, I received an MBE for Services to Business and Equality, in recognition of my role in having changed the landscape for returners in the UK. That was definitely my proudest ‘big’ moment. But I also get smaller proud moments every time we hear from returners about how we’ve helped them. For me, that’s what it’s about — that’s what keeps me going when running a business gets difficult.
EH: Why do you think Women’s Entrepreneurship Day is important?
JM: I believe that role models are incredibly important. If we see that somebody we can relate to has achieved something, that reinforces our belief that we can do it ourselves. I think a day to celebrate women who have been involved in a whole variety of different forms of entrepreneurship is incredibly powerful. I hope that people will hear my story, and the stories of women who are being celebrated around the world and gain that self-belief that they can do this too.
Women Returners is a social business, with a mission to remove the career break penalty and normalise career breaks. They run a free-of-charge network supporting over 9,000 professionals to return to work after a career break; partner with over 170 employers to create and support returnships and other supportive returner programmes; and work with the government to provide job-readiness programmes for returners around the UK.