A perspective on the origins of Bedfordshire BusinessWomen

by Diane Butler – Collingwood Design

Honorary Member of Bedfordshire BusinessWomen

Diane Butler, Collingwood DesignI joined in Bedfordshire Businesswomen in 1988, a few months after the group started.

What was it like back then in the dark ages you may ask? Well, it was a renaissance for women who had rediscovered that they were able and capable of running their own businesses or holding senior positions in industry and commerce, despite the popular concept that we were only fit to run a home and bear children. The 60’s had opened our eyes to girl power and those with strong willpower and belief in themselves wanted so much more. We were not quite sure how then but we recognised that it could be done.

This was the scenario when a young woman called Ruth Bendall working for Grant Thornton went out to do a presentation to a client with two male colleagues. The pitch was highly successful and the client came onboard. Ruth was delighted as she had done a lot of the major work towards the project. They all returned to the office with Ruth anticipating a celebratory lunch (as you would!).  She got out of the car as her colleagues called out “Goodbye Ruth, see you later – we are off to a Rotary lunch now ”… and drove off leaving her standing, fuming on the pavement!

With Ruth vowing that women should be recognised in the workplace and have a voice, Bedfordshire BusinessWomen came into being – a women only, third Thursday in the month lunch meeting where women from all disciplines could meet and get to know about products and services on offer from their colleagues. You will note that I have not mentioned  the ‘networking’ word – it was a few years before someone put a name to what we were successfully doing at our lunches but the ethos was very similar to today.

The dress code however was not! At the first meeting I attended I was rather awestruck. Pearls, vertiginous stilettos and  Crystal Carrington padded shoulders ( I am sure a lot of you remember Dallas!). These were the order of the day and they were out in force. A few diamonds on view and a sprinkling of fur collars and Chanel handbags – this was the Glitterarti of Bedfordshire! There were lawyers, judges, accountants, estate agents, florists, more accountants, public relations executives and me. I have to say, that I was quite terrified, but as I got to know them all, they were great, and they were fun! I subsequently joined the committee and Grant Thornton let us have their conference room for meetings and very kindly supplied the sandwiches.

The issues discussed were much the same as now, membership, recruitment, lunch venues, speakers and what we wanted them to speak about. We invited members to talk about their businesses or topics of interest, like tax and business insurance, employment issues and how to sell your business, neuro linguistic programming, and psychometric testing. No stone was left unturned. I was responsible for Newsline, our regular members newsletter and created the cartoon characters Betty and Beryl who had a regular slot.

We all had an input and every president bought something exciting and interesting into the mix. Janet Julyan – who taught us to ‘network’ – always carried a very large handbag and inside it was a set of every members business cards that she would pass on to anyone she met requiring the services of our members.

Kirsten Rimmer in her term as president started the very important and prestigious Bedfordshire Businesswoman of the Year Awards. We worked very hard to establish them and now they are a strong part of our heritage as a group. Many have copied, but we were the originators of the idea.

I followed Gill Lake as president and did a two year stint over the millennium, instigating our first website and along with my committee we commissioned it and set the wheels in motion for our presence on the web.

We also had a major challenge on our hands – The Millennium Bug! The effect of midnight on computers and timers was a totally unknown phenomenon. Would planes fall out of the sky, would every computer default to a 0000 number and lose all its memory?!!! It seems laughable now in retrospect, but at the time it was a real worry. I was determined that BBW would lead the way and know as much about the implications and how to deal with them as we could find out, so we had speakers to tell us what to do if our computer defaulted – how to back up all the information, what to do if the clocks stopped – we were the most informed local group and could hold our own in any technical argument about the pro’s and con’s of the event. As it turned out it was all a bit of a damp squib, but you never know… it could have gone the other way!

Over the years we have had some inspirational women speakers. Two stand out in my mind, one being Diana Lamplugh, the mother of Suzy Lamplugh the estate agent who went missing after a viewing. Her body never found, the police had a very strong suspect but were never able to prove his guilt. Diana campaigned ceaselessly for the protection of women through self defence and knowledge and awareness of how a situation could occur.  With incredible irony, another of her daughters was placed in a potentially similar position. One day leaving her flat she got in her car and a strange man opened the passenger door and got in. ‘Drive’, he said, and being very aware of her danger, she smiled at him and said,’I won’t be a moment, I need to get the washing.’ and casually got out of the car taking her flat keys. Walked to the front door and very speedily locked herself in and called the police.

The other remarkable speaker was Edwina Curry, a very candid and forthright woman – this being not long after the egg incident and when she was running for European Parliament. She spoke for nearly an hour and was mesmerising – agree with her politics or not, here was a very charismatic woman. She declined lunch, but came and spoke to every member and guest of BBW and had something of interest to discuss with everyone. A very remarkable politician.

BBW is an acronym for Big Breasted Women – you have to be very careful where you use it! However, in a recent newspaper there was an article claiming research on how – ‘women with large breasts are more intelligent’. I rest my case…

With this established we cannot go wrong. We go from strength to strength, each president and vice president forging a link in the chain which will continue for many years to come. Our group survives because it is not for profit and is run by members for members. Over the years, many charities have benefitted from our fundraising; many women have thrived from business advice and friendship. Where else can you go and get free help and trusted informal advice when you need it? We get back what we put in and this is where we are head and shoulders above the competition.

Not a bad outcome for a retaliation on a missed lunch. Ruth Bendall launched the ship, but we are all here to steer and sail it. Bedfordshire Businesswomen have a place in the county that is second to none.