On 21 January, millions of women took to the streets in cities all over the world to march for the protection of their “rights, safety, health and families” – all of which they felt were under threat with the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Vanessa Vallely was among the 100,000-strong crowd that crusaded through London, an experience she describes as “an amazing show of unity”. “That day, we marched for every woman,” she says. “Everybody had their own reasons – it wasn’t just about politics, and it wasn’t just the women that came out – it was about showing solidarity.”
It’s a sisterhood Vanessa has done a great deal to empower through her professional women’s network and jobs site WeAreTheCity, which launched its third annual Rising Stars Awards programme this week.
The awards celebrate the professional achievements of women in the talent pipeline – that is those who are below management level – a group Vanessa labels “the next generation of future leaders”.
“There are awards that recognise the achievements of women in boardrooms, and those are great, but we knew through the WeAreTheCity network that we had this amazing array of women who haven’t reached that level yet and nobody was really looking at that demographic,” Vanessa says.
Vanessa left a 25-year career in banking and finance to establish WeAreTheCity in 2008 after identifying a lack of resources for women who wanted to progress their careers and build their professional networks.
The site now boasts a network of more than 100,000 users in the UK and India, and attracts between eight and 10million hits per month. “We asked ourselves, ‘how can we showcase these women and their achievements, and support them through their careers?’ The Rising Stars Awards evolved from there,” she says.
What began with 50 nominees across 10 categories in 2015 has grown to 150 across 20 industry categories, recognising talent as diverse as sales to sport, construction to consulting. Anybody can nominate and there are no restrictions on age, just that the candidate must be below senior management level.
Expert judges assess each entry and whittle down a shortlist of 10 for each category before a winner is determined by public vote.
“We try to celebrate shortlisted candidates as much as the winners,” Vanessa says. “We give them access to our careers club, facilitate speaking opportunities, put them on panels – everything we do is trying to help establish them as leaders in their chosen field, getting them from A to B.”
It’s all part of a strategic objective to showcase the achievements of 500 women by 2018 – no small task for a woman who is also a published author, sits on the boards of several charitable foundations, is in high demand as a corporate speaker, mother to two daughters, and serves as the Pearly Queen of the City of London.
Despite what could be referred to as a very full plate, Vanessa says she sees the WeAreTheCity as a major “contribution to the gender initiative”, an agenda that has undergone significant change over the last decade. “When we started there were only about 400 women’s networks in London, now there’s closer to 1,800, and a great deal more pressure from the government on the bigger companies to ensure equality in their boardrooms.”
Getting men involved, she says, has also been “incredibly powerful”, as was evident in the number of men showing up to march in solidarity with women on 21 January. “The UN’s ‘He For She’ campaign really changed things,” she says. “There’s now an understanding that you can’t just go locking women in rooms with other women – it’s not going to work.
“There are a lot of men out there who do get it and who want a more equal and balanced world, so why would we not want to include them when they’re the ones who can really help us?”
To nominate someone for a WeAreTheCity Rising Star Award, simply visit