From boom and designer threads to social entrepreneur and Sheffield Soup – Jill Theobald meets Pennie Raven to find out why she ditched the boardroom to boss it as a community champion

When I first met Pennie Raven circa 2006, it was to interview her and a host of other business leaders in the city who had joined the board of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce’s Inspiring Women.

Back then Pennie was driving a Merc, dressed in designer gear, and running her own HR, consultancy, and change management multi-business enterprise.

Fast forward a decade-plus and I am meeting to profile her once again – but as a woman who has become inspirational in the city for very different reasons.

In 2019 she has switched the labels and brands for her apron to front Sheffield Soup, with business partner Jonny Douglas, where local people’s projects from across the city pitch to the sociable crowdfunding platform.

It’s like she’s a different woman. And, in many ways, she is.

“When I was in that world, I played a role. I even had a name for her – Felicity! I wore Vivienne Westwood, did the shoulder pads thing, had an expensive watch, piled my hair on top of my head and, am embarrassed to admit it, I wore fake glasses – I need real ones, these days!

“But I did all that because I was very conscious of being a woman in a very male environment. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t acted like that, but I felt at the time I needed to.”

Basildon-born Pennie grew up in a working-class family in Essex and worked down south including in Milton Keynes before moving to Sheffield, like many people I speak to, for love. She set up home with her then-partner, and held various high-level roles at firms including QJump and Bright Finance, before founding Direct Human Resources Ltd.

Class as well as gender played a part in the ‘part’ of Felicity, too. 

“I’d sit in these meetings with all these big CEOs, thinking ‘try not to say anything ridiculous, council estate bird!’”

But as an entrepreneur and self-made woman, she could clearly more than hold her own.

“I always knew from an early age that I was going to go out and do stuff,” she says.

And so she did. During the boom in the early noughties she worked as organisational development director for the world’s first supply chain portal which saw her going into and restructuring businesses and helping organisations that needed help growing, thanks to her change management and HR skills.

She joined the Leadership Team at Bright Finance in Sheffield and helped transform the business from start-up with circa 50 staff, to a 500-employee business ‘fit enough to do business with big business while maintaining its entrepreneurial DNA’.

In 2005 she founded Direct Human Resources, going on to work with a portfolio of prestigious high-profile clients.

“When I first conceived the business idea, great HR, organisational development, training and recruitment was the privilege of corporate blue chips and multinationals. There wasn’t an affordable quality solution to make this elite service accessible to start-ups and SMEs – so I created one.”

At its peak, the team was 15-strong, with £2.5 million secured contracts, and Pennie was driving around in her longed-for Mercedes.

“In the 90s I loved that car advert with the Joni Mitchell Mercedes Benz song! My first company car was a silver convertible and then finally I got my black Mercedes Benz SLK. I called her Betty and I loved that car. I used to sing ‘oh Lord, thank you for my Mercedes Benz!’”

However, 80 per cent of her business income and 90 per cent of contracts derived from high-profile clients in the subprime finance sector. While preparing for a £7.5 million investment, the financial markets crashed, wiping out the subprime market in the following weeks.

After an intense period of downsizing and refocusing, Pennie’s turnaround efforts were halted as the recession started to grip and she faced the reality of voluntary liquidation.

“It was like going from hero to zero overnight,” she says. “That industry just did not exist anymore.

“I looked at my life and realised I had a very nice convertible car and Vivienne Westwood boots and that was how I referred to them. Not my favourite red boots but my Vivienne Westwood boots. I had to have the fancy watch and the big brands, and I started to hate it.

“I had stuff that was worth a lot of money but shared that with my other half and when we broke up a lot of our shared friends, who I had met and made after moving to Sheffield to be with him, went with him.

“I ended up having a breakdown and struggled for about a year, I had lost everything.

“I was going through all of this but still had to drive around in Betty, too, because the car was leased, and it would have cost a small fortune. I couldn’t give it back until I went bankrupt.

“It was then I had an epiphany – it’s all a lot of bollocks! Everything I cherished at the time, the brands and the cars, unless you’re a multi-millionaire it’s all leased and on loan and on credit cards.

“I’m not judging anyone who does want to wear an expensive watch – I’ve still got mine, I just don’t feel comfortable wearing it, and my friends joke I can still spot a fancy watch quicker than I spot the Prosecco when I walk into a bar!”

And the problem with aspirational purchases?

“These were things I looked up to, things I wanted as a kid to get out from a poor background. But when you get ‘there’, you don’t know it because, while you were trying to get there, they’ve moved the goalposts.”

To plan ahead, Pennie decided to look back – to a time when she was helping businesses deal with change management and effectively turn the focus on herself.

“Take a look at what you HAVE got – whether that’s friends or all the personal connections built up over the years.”

Pennie went on to meet another friend, personal connection and future business partner Jonny Douglas at The BiG Challenge enterprise competition.

“While I was working out what to do next, I decided to choose 50 people who needed my change management experience and I would coach them. Then 50 didn’t seem enough so I came up with my Future 500 plan. Jonny needed help with his design business so that’s how we ended up working together.

“We shared a lot of values and aims in terms of working out what it is that truly matters to you – a lot of our challenges, hopes and fears were similar, there was a lot of crossover.

“We both believed in the model of spending 20 per cent of your time doing good and 80 per cent building on your network, organisation, finances to create something bigger – the trouble is balancing that as the 20 per cent is so fulfilling!”

The pair set up social enterprise Avenues to Zero and are the driving force behind Sheffield Soup, where attendees pay a small entry fee for a bowl of soup and to hear local people pitch ideas to help the community. They then vote for their winner, and at the debut event it was Real Junk Food project – now known as Food Works Sheffield – who took the title and entry fee winnings to invest in the business.  Today Food Works Sheffield are the ones serving up the soup at the event which has now found a new, larger home at the Crucible.

“Food Works and Sheffield Soup will always be each other’s firsts!” says Pennie, who finds it difficult to narrow down her stand-out projects from over the years. “Can’t you just mention them all please?!” she says. (We have previously featured a few, to be fair – check out edition 13 for our interviews with Dopamine Disco and Grow UK.)

What she perhaps loves most about Sheffield Soup is its inclusivity.

“It’s for Sheffield people, by Sheffield people. There’s no Dragons’ Den style questioning and no criteria – judges just have to ask: ‘Is this is a good project for Sheffield?’” says Pennie. “We have about 2,000 residents registered to vote to help us pull together the shortlist for the four people to pitch on the night.

“We have one shortlist judge who is house-bound, and she loves knowing that her voice is heard and included.”

The Soup network has already outgrown Sheffield – Huddersfield Soup are into their third year and Pennie and Jonny are rolling it out to Rotherham soon.

What with their Pecha Kucha nights (‘It’s a business social that’s more like a night out’) and campaigning work, it looks like the non-Dragon duo are set to be busy for a while yet.

Plus Pennie also has her hands full with the HR Guardian Angels business she set up in 2011 and works as a consultant a day or two a week sharing those HR, recruitment and organisational development solutions to ‘pay the bills and keep a modest roof over my head’.

“I used to be reasonably attractive in all my nice clobber and guys would try chatting me up,” she says. “Now when I walk into a room I’m there to help and people are genuinely pleased to see me.

“I know which I prefer.”

Me too – an Inspirational Woman indeed. Farewell Felicity!