Durham High School Conference Report

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National Council of Young Women Conference for Year 9 Students  ‘Moving On Up’ on Wednesday 7th June at Durham High School

This event was attended by around 150 students from local schools i.e. Ferryhill, Woodham, Venerable Bede, Parkside, Belmont, Castle View, Seaham and Durham High School. Three members of the National Council of Women attended – Elsie Leadley, President, Heather Carter and Doreen Outhwaite.

The day was introduced by Simone Niblock, the Principal who was very welcoming and hoping that the students would gain much from the event enabling them to raise their aspirations.

The Key Note Speakers were:

  • Sophie Milliken, is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, author and investor who is the CEO of the Moja Group.  They work with entrepreneurs and senior executives to amplify their personal profiles and become known authorities in their industries.
  • Kari Owers is the founder and Head of Client Services at O, a creative agency in Newcastle that has won over 60 awards.  Their clients include Dr Martens, Fenwick, British Gas and British Masters (golf).
  • Workshops were then held, led by Stacey Wagstaff from the Girl’s Network to encourage pupils to recognise their key strengths and consider pathways they can take to achieve their goals.

Sophie Milliken told us to always say ‘Yes’ to opportunities and she supported this with her own background story. She had always wanted to be a Fashion Buyer and knew that London was the centre for this industry but was nervous about going there instead she did a Business Course at Leeds. She then moved back to her local area Newcastle and joined the John Lewis graduate scheme. Sophie gained a great deal of experience by managing several different departments and then moved to a Human Resource role. By the time she was 25 years she was offered a six month opportunity to go to London which became the catalyst for a significant seven year period when she trebled her salary, opened new John Lewis shops around the country, oversaw graduate recruitment, had the chance to do her Masters degree and travelled to Portugal on a buying trip. Regrettably not as interesting as she thought it would be as the product was towels but she learnt a great deal about them after spending 15 hours in the Portuguese factory!

Allison Hall a North East Business woman was someone Sophie sought advice from when she was setting up her own business. She has a vision board and on it is a picture of Neca Island, owned by Richard Branson, and now she has an invitation to go there in 2024. She is prolific on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

New York is her favourite place and Istanbul is the most interesting place she has been to. She advises you to take opportunities when you can, develop connections, raise your profile, volunteer, go to networking and conference events, join Linkedin, always do what you say you’ll do, keep going, nurture relationships and take any public speaking opportunities. 

Over the next few years, Sophie married, had a child, commuted weekly to London and completed a PhD at Durham University all the time working for John Lewis. However, it became obvious that there were no local jobs with comparable salaries and opportunities so she set up her own company called SMART Resourcing Solutions. She did this with one other person and they set up mock interviews for students and implemented graduate assessments for employers. It was at this time that she decided to apply to go on Dragon’s Den where she pitched her business but regrettably didn’t succeed. Sophie’s view is to make and maintain contacts throughout your career. James Caan one of the Dragon’s recognised her potential and with his support, she developed her company into Scale Up North East. She worked with the University of Hertfordshire on several annual events, worked with Chesterfield University to set up student interviews and started a YouTube Channel promoting women.

At this point, she became a one women band as her original business partner left so she now did the Marketing in the business as well. She won lots of awards and then a Graduate Technology Company approached her to buy her company. She admitted to having ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as she couldn’t believe how well her business was doing. So she took the offer from the company and stayed on as an employee. Sophie had some regret that she did sell up at this time. So she started to write and has written amongst others The Ambition Accelerator and From Learner to Earner. She then did a Telex Tour from Birmingham and this although scary really boosted her confidence. She interview Sara Davies from Dragon’s Den as she had kept her as a contact from her appearance on the show. They have even made a podcast together.

SMARTWORKS is a charity and Sophie has always had a voluntary job in addition to her paid employment. She was a listening volunteer with the Samaritans for seven years. She has now recruited Sara Davies as a SMARTWORKS Ambassador. SMARTWORKS supports unemployed women in the North East with interview techniques and practice and provides suitable clothing for their interviews.

Sophie tells us that Networking is the key and Team Working is the most important thing to do in your career. As a Company owner, her priority was money and not customers and teams.  Which is why she sold the Company.

Kari Owers has her own creative agency which covers Public Relations, Social Media, Strategy and Business Promotion. Locally we know them in Newcastle for designing and promoting the Christmas Window display in Fenwick’s. Kari has worked with Ruby Wax to promote her campaign to increase awareness of Mental Health issues.

Kari who grew up in a small Irish town where there were no female business role models. There were no mobile phones or internet and therefore she used to access her role models through magazines. Her role models included Vivienne Westwood, Blondie, Madonna and Anita Roddick who was very purpose-led. There was a common thread with them that they were passionate, caring and ballsy!

After A levels she left the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland and came to Newcastle University to do an Art and Design Foundation Course in 1992. It was here that she found her ‘tribe’ of like-minded people. She then went on to Nottingham to do a degree in Fashion and Design on a course known to be the second-best in the country outside London.

Kari’s career advice to young people is to do what makes you feel ‘alive’.  You don’t need to stick to one thing and with Social Media you can access things you wouldn’t normally experience and even things that you think you don’t like. Kari told us that Vivienne Westwood said ‘Confidence is the best fashion accessory’.

Kari came back to Newcastle after University and applied to all the Public Relation Companies she could find. To stand out she put some of her fashion sketches in with her CV. She had a one day trial with a company in Jesmond and after three months with them, she was allocated her own clients. She does her homework to be prepared, gives it a go, learns lessons and makes mistakes. Yes, she gets things wrong sometimes but she always learns to build networks from her mistakes. 

She now has Greggs and British Gas as clients following pitching to them for new business. She says work hard and challenge yourself and you’ll get out what you put in.  One of her mantras is ‘Fake It Until You Make It’ with the view that nine times out of ten you get it right. The key to success is doing the best job that you can.

When she started her own company she wanted to do things her way with the view that you can bring creative thinking to any type of company. As Madonna says ‘I think you can be defiant and rebellious and still be strong and positive.’ Kari hires rebels, ambitious females, and people with passion, energy and ambition. The key to success she tells us is to find a mentor/sponsor to ask questions, give you support and find you opportunities. So after winning 60 business awards her top five tips were:

  1. Find your passion – volunteer, build a portfolio of your interests, and take photographs.
  2. Get into the industry – try five different places even for a day
  3. Ask questions of everyone, be confident
  4. Be a culture vulture – step away from Social Media to find what you love. Make sure you have a good general grounding in Maths and English. Do any free online training available.
  5. Find a sponsor/mentor in your first job and keep in touch with them.

So show who you are and not what you are, make no mistakes on your CV and address any applications to a named person, even if you have to do some research to find one.  Do not address to Dear Sir/Madam. Show you are an individual.

Stacey Wagstaff from the Girls Network then went on to an inclusive workshop with all the audience. The Girls Network is a North East Charity set up to inspire and empower teenage girls and states that you don’t have to get amazing exam results to succeed as it is ‘What you Are’ that counts.  You need to tell people what/who you are as we don’t have logos to inform people such as Nike and McDonalds. Everyone needs to recognise their key strengths, passions and values. The key elements of a persona/brand are as follows:

  1. Values – what you care about
  2. Unique Strengths – what’s special about you?
  3. Passion – what are you passionate about?
  4. Purpose – what are you trying to achieve?
  5. Six Words – find words to describe yourself.


  1. Find what you are passionate about
  2. Find what you love doing
  3. What topics can you talk about endlessly
  4. What do you want to do 5 – 10 years from now?
  5. What’s your biggest hope/dream?
  6. What impact do you have on the world?

Think about a Six Words Box and put in the words that describe you. You will be judged on the first few words you say at the interview.

Get feedback from people you know, do an online Character Strengths Survey, create examples that demonstrate your strengths, and create a mantra using your top strength.

Simone Niblock brought the event to a close with everyone agreeing that it had been a very informative, enjoyable and useful event.

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NCW in action

Read our latest resolutions, tackle overseas poverty, climate change and innovation.