One of the UK’s first female entrepreneurs, now 71, talks to Beena Nadeem about leaving school without any qualifications and going on to launch a world-renowned publishing firm.
Judy Piatkus did not come from a monied background. Although having won a scholarship to a prestigious girls’ school, by her own admission, she enjoyed her teens a little too much and failed to secure place at university.
Unsurprisingly, for an ambitious person, this wasn’t going to hold her back. Being sent by her parents to secretarial school, she soon found her future didn’t lie in typing. Working her way up through the ranks of publishing, she learnt the business, going on to launch her own publishing firm from the bedroom of her Essex home.
Not only did she make a success of it – the company became globally renowned – but she also managed it all with three very young children, one of whom was born with cerebral palsy, and as a lone parent. Life hasn’t been easy for the then CEO of Piatkus Books, but as she says, she has always been a solutions-driven person with a resolve to overcome challenges.
In an environment where hardly any other women were working as entrepreneurs, she said networking events and mentoring were largely for men. Yet not only did she help promote networking with other women in the UK, but she also went on to make a huge success of her business, publishing the works of Danielle Steele, Virginia Andrews, Nora Roberts and Mary Berry to name a few of her authors.
As well as mentoring start-ups, and being a coach, she also received a diploma in psychodynamic psychotherapy and counselling, has worked with the NHS in the evenings and in 2016 went to university for the first time and got her MA in Creative Leadership.
Now 71, Judy hopes that her new memoir will inspire others to achieve what they want, against the odds, when the road ahead seems challenging.
Judy: It was definitely difficult because networking, as a concept didn’t really exist. And in fact, when we published a book on networking and. mentoring for women in the 1980s it was a real struggle telling women how to do it. Then in the early 90s when networking become more popular, there were more books. So many people thought it was something that was not quite really what they should be engaged in because it was often transactional – about profit and how to get straight to that bit – but once women realised how effective it was, it became largely about relationships and they realised they were great at it.
Judy: I think women found it harder than men, especially as there weren’t very many women in the workplace. And women who weren’t in the workplace were not used to taking time off work and going to meet other women to talk about work. So, while men have been doing it for years and not feeling guilty about having lunch with a colleague, it did take some adjustment for women.
I was invited to join a network called the International Women’s Forum, which had a lot of women in it who had high level positions in public organisations and on non-governmental bodies, and it was really interesting talking to them. They too felt isolated. It was probably the first network that I actually heard about, and it had originated in America – they did it much more quickly than we did in the UK. It showed the importance of knowing other women who are doing the same work that you’re doing. Women who might be able to help you in other areas.
Judy: I think it’s something men struggle with as well. Over the years there have been books aimed at both men and women. Perhaps women are more used to being upfront about it. I do think it’s something as people we all struggle with.
Judy: As you get to your middle years you have much greater understanding of yourself. There is always a lot to learn, the better you understand what your needs are, the better you recognise what you enjoy, and the more confidence you have in yourself and your ability to listen to your intuition. That means you’re more likely to find the right activity to take part in, and the right career.
Other people might feel threatened by this change. We’re always a little wary when it’s someone very close to us, because it makes people think they didn’t know that person as well as they thought they did. If you have a dream thing you really want to do, then recognise it, acknowledge it and explore how you can invest more of your time doing it and how you might train or develop yourself for it. The key to all of it is understanding yourself as well as you can.
Judy: I had fantastic colleagues, but you’re always slightly apart from everybody else when you have a team to lead. And it’s not always a very comfortable place to be, especially if you’re taking a stand that is slightly different or when you want to go in a different direction, or when it’s about whether we might invest in a particular project. You still have to work as a team, but someone has to make that final decision and leaders do that. It’s always very helpful to talk to people who run or have run other organisations because you can’t quite have that conversation with your colleagues, however close you are.
And when you come home from work, however supportive, your family are so not the ones making the decisions for you. If you don’t make decisions, some organisations stagnate, and it’s not helpful to the business no matter how big or small it is. If you don’t have a clear vision of what your work is about or what you want the organisation to achieve, then that is no help to you or anyone. The best leaders are always very clear in the messages they are communicating.
These days there’s a whole host of support out there, even on the internet. There are various courses to support you with management and leadership techniques, but in the early days, you were very much finding your own way.
Judy: The publishers of my book sent out early copies to an organisation which is called Publishing Hopefuls. These are several hundreds of young people who want to get into publishing. I was invited to speak to them, which was a pleasure. And you can see there’s a whole generation of people who are getting to know one another and who are going to build a career. The women seem particularly good at networking, through social media in the case of the publishing house. I can see they’re all going to do really well.
I don’t think there are any women in the most senior ranking posts in publishing now, but there have been periods where there were three women heading up three of the largest global publishing corporations, including Random House and Harper Collins so, of course, women can get to the top posts – there’s no question about that.
Judy: Publishing has always had many senior women in it and there are some powerful players and that includes their agents and authors too.
Judy: I’ve always been adamant that women like to work with words and be creative. It’s not unusual to find more women than men in publishing and there are many lower-level managers who are women.
Judy: If you’re starting out, be good at your job. Learn as much as you possibly can and get as good as you can be doing what you’re doing – it’s the best way to get promoted. Obviously, if you want to build in a career in a particular industry, then you’ve got to learn as much possible about being as helpful as possible. Don’t be the person who turns down opportunities.
Judy: Don’t be the one who doesn’t acquire new skills or take an interest in new technology. Technology is something everybody has to use and learn, whether it’s producing all kinds of work on video or doing social media. Use those hugely valuable skills to help your company and yourself. Get the kind of skills that might not have been needed a few years ago, which are constantly being sought. Upskill yourself and show willing.
There’s always someone else who can do things you can’t and will have more skills. A teenager might be amazed by what their younger siblings can do. Every generation has to learn new skills, and we have to keep up.
Judy: The most important thing is to get the medical help and support that you need. My understanding is that sometimes you have to look beyond your local surgery. And there’s a lot of literature out there. You may have to call a specialist because you can’t always get the best help and support you need from your local surgery.
You do have to be proactive with your own health, and sometimes it might mean taking time off work now and again.
Judy: You can do the market research and all the preparatory work while they’re young. You can learn to understand the market and the big players, you can understand your potential customers and find out what they’re doing. There are lots of things that you can do.
Judy: We’re at the mercy of the changing tides in the marketplace so you can never rest on your laurels. You always have to have your wits about you. You have to be vigilant and keep an eye on what your competitors are doing. And at the same time, not pay too much attention to it because you’ve got to create something different or develop whatever your Unique Selling Point is. And we had to reinvent ourselves in different times: when the market changed, we changed. And that’s as true today as it ever was. Look at how many new businesses have started up because of the lockdown.
*Ahead of Her Time is published by Watkins Publishing, £14.99, and is available from all good bookstores.