Etta Cohen, Founder, Forward Ladies: the UK's Largest Network for Women in Business

Etta Cohen is Founder of Forward Ladies, the UK’s largest network for women in business, with a database of approx 13,500 professional women.

Forward Ladies runs more than 350 events a year including an inspirational speaker programme, annual International Women’s Day conferences, Women in Business Awards, business breaks, training and development workshops, mentoring and social events.

After launching in the north of England, Forward Ladies launched in Scotland in 2011 and In London earlier this year.

In 2006 Etta was the winner of the Institute of Directors Judges Special Award for her work with women.

A passionate advocate for empowering women through business, Etta is dedicated to Forward Ladies; “My life philosophy is that we should all be supporting each other. As Madeleine Albright said ”There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” The ethos and values of Forward Ladies are built on this. We shouldn’t judge others, success is different for each individual. We should be there to encourage women every step of the way and therefore develop a pipeline of talented women.”

As with many women who go on to achieve brilliance, a life changing event was the catalyst for Etta’s personal and professional expansion. In 1988 the mother of two found the strength to leave an unhappy fifteen year marriage and shortly afterwards became disillusioned with her career as a teacher in an inner city school. During her next role as an education manager, Etta began to build powerful relationships within the private sector which were to become invaluable in the foundation of Forward Ladies.

In 2000, in response to the UK Government’s focus on encouraging women to be more enterprising, Etta met with a handful of senior women to discuss ways of working together for mutual benefit in business – and Forward Ladies was born.

Her members love and respect her, and integrity and transparency are the ethos of the group; “I have opened up my life to them and never pretended to be perfect. They know me warts and all. Members of Forward Ladies know that we are sincere, we are there for them and there is no pretense. We share our issues and challenges openly and honestly with no hidden agenda and we never make judgments.”

“There is no shame in failure- it is what you do as a result of it that counts. Seize the opportunity to pick yourself up and start again. Life is about the ups and downs and we have to be able to ride the storms. Giving up is not an option.” 

We spoke to Etta about the current hot topics in the Forward Ladies community; her international expansion plans; and what changes she'd make if she had a magic wand.

TNW: What do you find most rewarding about your work with Forward Ladies?

When I attend our events and have an opportunity to meet with members I am truly inspired. They are so supportive, positive and always have a sense of humour. It makes it all worthwhile. 

TNW: What are the current hot business topics or areas of concern amongst the Forward Ladies community?

EC: These are challenging times for everyone and the Forward Ladies are no different. Job security, work coming in, being paid for work are all hot topics at the moment. It is an uncertain time for business and cash flow can be a major issue. Add to that all the other issues facing women and you can see why it is important to be part of a community like Forward Ladies.

TNW: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing to make life easier for women in business, what would it be?

EC: Not an easy question - obviously I would wish them all good health to deal with issues. For women with families, childcare would be high on the agenda. I suppose creeping into the minds of those who question the rights and abilities of having more women in business. Doing away with judgmental people.

TNW: What do you see as the benefits of all women networks? Do you look forward to a day when they will no longer be necessary?

EC: Currently the benefits are the support they offer. We encourage women to support each other. Often women can feel isolated and loneliness can be an issue.

Women are very capable and yet don’t always believe in their own ability. I hope there is a day when there is no need for Forward Ladies - and yet, don’t we all like to get together at times?

TNW: Who are your members and partners?

EC: Our members are women from all sectors and backgrounds. They work in every kind of organisation at every level. They run every kind and size of business. What is impressive is how they all work together, don’t judge each other and are willing to support each other both professionally and personally.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

Follow your dream. If you believe in your idea then you can achieve anything. Never give up and if things go wrong there is no shame in that. Pick yourself up and start again.

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the Forward Ladies? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

EC: Yes I do. Think that is par for the course when you are running a business. I think about new ideas, issues the members are facing, income generation in fact anything and everything. It is hard to switch off - I should take some of my own advice!

TNW: If you could get on soapbox and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

I would like to make it easier for entrepreneurs to do business. They take the risks, generate wealth and jobs and yet there are so many barriers they have to overcome.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of Forward Ladies, which you remember as the highlight so far?

EC: The Women in Business Awards. Hearing such fantastic stories brought tears to my ears. I felt humbled by the amazing business stories and what the women had overcome to achieve success. Their determination, creativity, staying power and ability to laugh was so impressive. I would also want to mention our visit to Westminster. I believe it is important for government to listen to women from right across the UK. Women from all corners of the UK and all sectors need to feel that the government is for everyone.

TNW: Do you have plans to expand internationally? Which countries and when?

EC: I would love to take Forward Ladies to Europe and the US. We have had several requests however in order to do that we would need more support on the business side.

TNW: How would you describe your leadership style?

EC: I like to think I am very close to our members, open, honest and demonstrate integrity in everything we do at Forward Ladies. I believe we should work together, support each other and I hope I lead by example.

TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made?

EC: Leaving my last job to run Forward Ladies as a business. Whatever the future holds I believe we have to take opportunities when they knock at our door. It will involve risks, however life is not a smooth ride. I have been privileged to run Forward Ladies, work with amazing people and hopefully together we have made a difference.

TNW: Is there anything we havent asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers? 

The future of the UK economy can be greatly improved if there are more women involved. I don’t believe in quotas on boards; I believe in recognising women for their skills and ability.

I am confident that any woman wanting to be on a board will get there. We should also not make assumptions about success. Success is different for everyone and different again at different times in our lives. We should therefore not judge people.

I've been a member of Forward Ladies for several years but I also recently started working with the organisation and I can tell you that what is most striking about Etta and the whole team is the genuine desire to make a difference and that is the driving force behind it. Etta not only talks the talk, she really does walk the walk.

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