Head of production for Barnsley-based Visualised it Joada Allen became Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber of Commerce President in December last year. Jill Theobald caught up with her to talk being an early entrepreneur, a proud family woman, and her mission in taking the President chains of office to set off a chain reaction of equality for all
Support – it’s a word that comes up a lot during my interview with Joada Allen.
The Head of production for Barnsley-based Visualised it uses the word to describe a lot of people and organisations as we talk about her background right up to date – from her late father to the places she’s worked for and, of course, Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber of Commerce.
But when we discuss her taking on the Chamber chains of office, and her surprise and great pleasure at being voted into the position by the board and members, it becomes obvious Joada’s own supportive nature is also much worthy of note.
Not least because she very views the role of President as a ‘vehicle’ to channel that support – and set off a chain reaction that opens opportunities to all regardless of circumstances, gender, background, religion, age…
A lot of this is, she acknowledges, down to her background and personal and professional experiences which led to her perspective that “your normal is not everyone else’s.”
“I’m Rotherham born and bred, we lived in Kimberworth and Canklow and there wasn’t a lot of money. I was brought up by my dad from about nine years old, with my mum and brothers living apart from us. My dad was a lone parent and he did the cooking, the washing, he taught me how to do the housework. He worked hard, too, as a warden in a care home.”
And Joada was an enterprising youngster.
“I had my first job aged 11 which was a paper round and washed cars, mowed lawns and when I was in my teens I started working in shops. It means I’ve kind of been running a business since I was a child. When you look back you realize I’ve always been like this, I just didn’t know it at time.
“With dad’s work, we lived in the care home, too, and that made me also realise I have always had a caring, maternal side too, from spending a lot of time with the elderly and people with illness and mental health issues from a young age.
“After doing a lot of work experience for media production companies to build my skills I became a freelance editor which was a very male oriented world – carrying cables, wiring broadcast trucks up.
“My dad passed away when I was 21 and I had been his sole carer up until then. I was left with quite a lot of debt so while I was finishing my degree I got a freelance job filming commercials at Rotherham College and while there I also started my teaching qualification, too, and went on to become a full time teacher.”
After falling out of love with education (“there was a lot of jumping through hoops – actually being in the room and teaching the kids had become too low on the list of priorities,”), Joada decided to start her own production company in 2013 – but with a sideline in support for educating young people.
“I set it up so that it delivered media production skills to young people who are not as successful in traditional education – that might be students who were in the system or assigned to a school but not on premises because of social situations like living with foster parents or grandparents. I’ve always worked with hard to reach kids.
“Joining Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber helped me build up my network and they were so supportive personally and professionally – I knew everything about production but nothing about business, so I got involved with a lot of their workshops on useful skills like tenders and accounts.
“Enterprising Barnsley were brilliant, too and the Digital Media Centre (where her business is based) were supportive and still are.”
Clearly, Joada has never been one to shy away from hard work but acknowledges even she met her limit while trying to juggle the professional and personal sides of her busy life.
“I had built the company up. It was growing and doing really well with a high turnover but on a personal level I was struggling to get pregnant. We went for all these tests and one of the specialists pointed out I was possibly struggling with fertility because I was doing too much.
“I was averaging 70 hours work a week plus I was in the gym training and boxing every morning – I loved my work, I loved the gym but I didn’t realise the negative impact it was having on my wellbeing.
“I pulled back a little, shrunk the company and did more consultancy work and had my son Harrison in 2018. At the same time, I inherited two stepchildren who came to live with us as well, so I went from no kids to three kids pretty much overnight – a mum and a step mum in the space of a weekend!”
Speaking ahead of International Women’s Day this month, it’s clear becoming a mum and a step-mum have enhanced both Joada’s outlook and her objective.
“Our celebration should be an acknowledgement of all individuals, their goals, their talents, their successes and, of course, that we have each other for support.
“I really appreciate and acknowledge the difficult decisions some women make mixing careers and children. Of course, all working parents have this, but women must consider the impact of pregnancy, maternity leave, breastfeeding, hormones, childcare – as well as, too often, the upset of loss or not being able to have children, which I have experienced some of.
“There’s the dilemma of judging the right time to take a break in your career to start a family and hoping you will fit in when you return. Or concerns that a company may not hire you if they think you’re planning children soon and may go off on maternity leave, all big issues women are faced with in the workplace.
“I can see why we continue to push for independence for women because it’s been needed for years. Mine was quite a progressive family with my dad working and being a lone parent and I never grew up feeling as though women were on any different level to men. Also because I worked in a male dominated environment I’ve seen there are two sides to that.
“There’s some truth in that old saying about women having to do twice as well as men to be thought half as good – I know in my first couple of jobs I didn’t have the opportunities the blokes had. I’d hear ‘She won’t be able to…’ or ‘She won’t be strong enough’. It just made me work harder, fight and become more resilient to prove them wrong.
“But equally I was aware, and still am, of so many men without any confidence or who were downtrodden or had missed out on opportunities. It can be rare for blokes to acknowledge though in case they get told to ‘man up’.
“My stepdaughter is 14 and am very aware a lot of what I do has an impact on her – we talk about careers and mental health, but we also talk about boys and I remind her they have insecurities, too. We don’t talk about ‘You must be an independent woman and don’t let boys push you about’, it’s more about being the best person you can be and not putting anyone in a position that makes them feel negative.
“It’s no longer for me about equality of gender alone, but about equality of individuals – no matter where you come from, how much money you’ve got, what you do for a living, whether you’re black, white, or whatever your religion or sexuality.
“We have to progress from men and women to acknowledging people’s individual strengths.
“I’ve volunteered in homeless hostels and when you spend time with people you can see why they’ve ended up where they have because that’s their background – violence, prostitution, and theft. They grow up learning that ‘School’s rubbish’ and ‘The police are against you’. That is their normal.
“I know my normal, but I know that’s not everyone’s. As people – and as businesspeople – we have to have that perspective in order to be objective.”
Joada had been on the Chamber board for about three years when a few people suggested she run for Vice President.
“I decided it would give me a couple of years to prepare and get ready for being President but then things changed and the person who was going to be President wasn’t able to and the current VP wasn’t ready so I was approached.
“I said I wouldn’t feel able to do it unless I was voted in by the members – that’s the correct stipulations and procedure to go through. When the votes came in, I’d won with flying colours and I was really surprised, to be honest.
“It was a massive compliment for people to want you to represent them. I have a big personality, I often rock the boat and like to play devil’s advocate – if there’s an elephant in the room I’ll address it!
“I thought the members might go for a more traditional type of person, that maybe I was a bit too street, too straight-talking, not suited and booted but people told me they voted for me because they thought I was very open, honest and trustworthy.”
Which brings us back to that chain reaction Joada is hoping to set in motion.
“I wanted to be President because of my work with schools – through Barnsley Economic Partnership and a taskforce which helps with the skills agenda to encourage businesses to engage more with schools.
“Employers say there’s a skills gap, but schools are saying ‘We’re doing what we can but maths and English have to be a priority and there’s a lack of funding’. As businesses it’s our duty to mold these young people. Businesses need to add their support when it comes to employability.
“I see my Presidency as a vehicle to help move that skills agenda forward and link business and skills providers. Businesses want to go into schools and have pupils visit workplaces but often don’t know how about safeguarding or risk assessments – or they don’t know anything about teenagers, or what to talk to them about either!
“We’ve got 1,100 members in the Chamber and I’m trying to use the Presidency as a signposting role, creating links to point the two in the right direction.
“You couldn’t meet a nicer group of people than our board – they will challenge when needed but are always supportive, and nothing is about ego.
“(Past president and Airmaster’s) Lisa Pogson has been brilliant and it was nice having her by my side for the first few weeks. She’s not as much of a boat-rocker and I admire her – I am finding a balance between my direct approach and her more gentle approach. I often think ‘What would Lisa do?’”
Lisa Pogson said: “It was a real honour to be President for three years. Working in construction, and used to being the only woman in the room, that was what the Board Room was like when I joined.
“We now have an inclusive gender and sector balanced Board. Joada has the diversity agenda at heart and will help the Chamber forge ahead. She has taken on her new role with energy and enthusiasm and already has a great deal of experience that she has brought to the table.
“Her aims on skills are well-founded and clearly a major issue for all our members. We will all support her wherever we can!’
Adds Joada: “I’m the youngest person on the board but knowing they’re happy for me to represent them, knowing what I think, feel and say is supported, and that my objective is shared by them, the wider membership and business community – you can’t ask for more than that, can you?”