Susannah Schofield OBE is the Director General of retail body the Direct Selling Association, whose members include Avon and The Body Shop. A passionate advocate for women and young people in business, Susannah was awarded an OBE for her work in this area in the 2015 Queen’s Honours List.
She continues to champion women in business and is a regular speaker on the importance of flexible working and portfolio careers. Alongside her role leading the Direct Selling Association, Susannah remains actively involved in two businesses which she founded: business consulting group, Dice Matrix, and global sports app, Pitch Sports.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
My career in business ranges from senior positions with household brands such as The Royal Mail to far smaller start-up and scale-ups, and I’m now involved in a range of business interests alongside my core role as Director General of The Direct Selling Association (DSA). The DSA is the UK trade body for direct-to-consumer retail (think modern-day Tupperware party!) and includes retail brands such as Avon, The Body Shop and Usborne Publishing. The association is committed to promoting and encouraging best practice and showcasing the opportunities for flexible work within the sector.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
I have – like many – faced plenty of challenges throughout my career, but the pandemic was certainly one of the most uncertain periods in business that I have ever experienced. At the start there was a real sense of ‘oh goodness, how on earth are our members going to work with this’ – after all, this channel of retail is all about people and relationships. But the level of innovation and the general ‘can do’ response within the sector was incredible; social shopping parties in someone’s living room became Facebook Live events, and the community spirit within the industry really came into its own – stories of Avon reps going above and beyond; checking in on their vulnerable or shielding customers or dropping off food shopping.
The latest data shows that during the pandemic, the direct selling channel saw one of the strongest growth periods on record since the 1970s heyday of the Tupperware party, proving how wrong my initial fears were, and how – when well supported – we can all flourish in the most unexpected of circumstances.
What are your plans now/for the future?
Direct selling is one of retail’s big current success stories, and it’s certainly one to watch over the coming years. The pandemic served as a catalyst for digital transformation and as a result, we’re seeing brands supporting their independent representatives to run really effective online operations – essentially a micro franchise, but without the high start-up costs and associated risks.
Many of the DSA’s 53 member companies are seeing significant numbers of people wanting to join the sector to earn independently, and in order to maintain the benefits of flexible working that they enjoyed during the pandemic.
And the consumer demand is there too – we’re seeing a new wave of customers wanting and expecting different things in the way they shop. Retailers need to adapt to that and find new ways to engage them in retail experiences which are more convenient and less centred on bricks and mortar.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Many female entrepreneurs I speak to are driven by a desire to create a better work/life balance, and that is a very powerful motivation, particularly if you have other areas of life that are important to you – other interests, or perhaps a family etc. I recommend always keeping in mind that original motivation.
I left a very secure, six-figure Board-level job after 18 years with the same company to start my entrepreneurial journey, and it felt extremely daunting. But I knew I wanted a different way of working (and living), and I was determined to achieve that. I often check back in with myself to make sure that what is important in life remains my key goal.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
- Make it work for you: I truly believe that striking the right balance between work and life makes people happier, more fulfilled and more successful. As with many women, work is not the only thing in my life; I want to spend quality time with my children, friends, I enjoy fitness and wellness, I want to support charity work and causes that I am passionate about. So I try to make sure that my week includes time for all aspects of my life, not just work.
- Do your research and be willing to learn. There is no substitute to really knowing your subject, and being ready to learn more. Sometimes it’s ok to be pushed outside of your comfort zone, and remember that challenging and difficult situations can be hugely valuable if you are open learning from them.
- Be realistic. Realistic about how much time you have available to dedicate to your business, what you need to earn, what you need to live off and so on. Direct selling is a good example: money is earned through commission on product sales which requires time and effort. The more you put in, the more you get out, so it’s crucial to honestly ask yourself ‘is this right for my skills, and my abilities, and how much time and effort am I prepared to give to this?’.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?
Last year I picked five amazing women for International Women’s day – this year I am picking five amazing men (but one was a woman just pretending to be a man!)
- Abiy Ahmed – The Ethiopian Prime Minister made a historic step toward gender equality in October 2018 when he signed into law a measure that mandates gender parity in the country’s executive, a major improvement from Abiy’s earlier cabinet, which included four women compared to 24 men. He changed the narrative.
- Benedict Cumberbatch – Cumberbatch went after the gender pay gap by saying he wouldn’t take a role if the female lead wasn’t being paid equally. “Look at your quotas,” Cumberbatch said in an interview. “Ask what women are being paid, and say: ‘If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it.’”
- Eddie Vedder – The Pearl Jam frontman never shies away from an opportunity to advocate for gender equality. On International Women’s Day recently, Pearl Jam encouraged its fans to empower girls, protect human rights, and work toward a world where women were in more positions of power.
- Anna Maria Lane (A.M.Lane) – Anna Maria Lane was married to a man named John Lane at the time the American Colonies declared their independence from England in 1776. She accompanied her husband to serve in the Continental Army. Anna Maria dressed as a man and enlisted alongside her husband. Anna Maria was severely wounded during the battle, but she refused treatment, fearing her gender would be discovered. This decision resulted in her being disabled for life. They both served until 1781, and by 1783. She was awarded a military pension for her service despite her sex. I like to think of that as genuine progress we should and can build on.
- My Dad – Honest, loyal, and taught me with pride that irrelevant of my gender I could be and achieve whatever I wanted, and fought for; I’d have to work hard, be tenacious, and driven but if I was – I could achieve anything. I have taken this mantra forward to my two young girls and when I say to them “you can be whatever you want to be” I genuinely believe that – and that’s progress being achieved. We still have a long way to come, but I feel with each year that passes we make real progress, and I am proud to be part of that, even in my own tiny way.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“A woman who knows what she brings to the table is not afraid to eat alone.”
What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?
Instagram: Susannah Schofield OBE
LinkedIn: Susannah Schofield OBE