Aim high and keep going: in conversation with Claire Davenport, CEO at Treatwell and Founder of WITSEND

Does it have to be lonely at the top? Claire Davenport doesn’t think so. Claire is Chief Executive at Treatwell, a pan-European business marketplace focused on the beauty sector. Alongside her highly impactful career, Claire is the founder of WITSEND, a network group for women in senior executive, founder, non-executive and investor positions. Supporting women leaders to ‘aim high and keep going’, WITSEND exists to make ‘the top’ a little less lonely.

At the end of last year, I had the privilege of catching up with Claire. On a chilly Tuesday, we discussed her career journey so far, the game-changing impact of role modelling and mentorship, and the evolution of WITSEND from a birthday dinner party to a 200-strong network of industry-leading professionals.

Our conversation started at the very beginning. Claire grew up in the Midlands, attending a comprehensive school before being accepted into Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. After university, Claire moved into investment banking – in large part to prove her ex-boyfriend wrong, who had told her she couldn’t go into finance as a woman from a comprehensive school background.

“That was the motivator,” she recalled, “so I decided only to apply to places that he hadn’t got offers from. I was accepted into Goldman Sachs, and that’s where I started my career.” Claire spent a decade in investment banking, but was always clear on the scale of her ambition. “I knew very quickly I wanted to be a CEO, and then to sit on Boards,” she told me, “so after banking, I was deliberate about building the right mix of skills in the roles I took on.”

“I knew very quickly I wanted to be a CEO, and then to sit on Boards, so after banking, I was deliberate about building the right mix of skills in the roles I took on.”

This clarity led Claire into strategy, then to a Chief of Staff role at Skype, and later a Chief Commercial Officer position at German gaming giant Bigpoint. Her first top job was as General Manager at Voucher Codes, before taking on CEO roles at HelloFresh UK in 2017, and at in 2019. After a stint leading the executive team at SAAS firm Infogrid, Claire was appointed as CEO at Treatwell in October 2023.

Claire has clearly made her mark on the European tech industry, but she’s also had a lasting positive impact on hundreds of women leaders in tech.

“Something I noticed very keenly is that when you get to a senior level in your career, it’s hard to find friends who are in the same position,” Claire explained. “I found that my existing friends had taken their careers in different directions, or had stopped working. But sometimes senior women need support from other leaders who ‘get’ their situation, and role modelling from those who have been CEOs or sat on Boards, and might have juggled all that with children.”

The WITSEND Founding Members. Left to right: Rikke Rosenlund, Lisa Rodwell, Claire Davenport, Maria Raga, Tamarah Lohan, Elaine Safia, Celia Francis, Ariane Gorin, Alex Mahon

It was this observation that led Claire to bring together eight women CEOs for a dinner in 2016. “As a birthday treat to myself, I invited eight other women CEOs to dinner,” Claire explained, “people I’d met at head-hunting events or knew through the industry. And we just got on like a house on fire… it was like one of those great first dates where you talk all night. We gradually realised that we could be an invaluable support network for each other.”

And so, WITSEND was born. Today, the group has more than 200 members, and a mission to help women ‘aim high and keep going’, with a focus on supporting women on the executive committee and into Board roles. WITSEND runs panels, in-person meet-ups, webinars and WhatsApp groups for women in the senior-most positions in the tech sector in the UK, and increasingly in Europe.

Events and sessions cover everything from founding and funding to the best tips for managing and inspiring Gen Z colleagues. They host industry experts as guest speakers, and invite leading academics to present on specific issues like AI. Upcoming is a ‘Things I wish I’d known at 30’ session, led by executives in their 40s and 50s who are running companies.

Claire tells me that the community has grown completely organically, through word-of-mouth as women mention it to colleagues and friends in senior positions. “But we’re not aiming for exponential growth,” said Claire, “we have found it’s important that the network remains targeted at those in the very top roles, to keep the conversation really relevant to leaders and maintain the common ground.” There’s also a broad spread of functional expertise within the membership: “if you’re a Chief Product Officer looking to move into a CEO role, or a CMO thinking about your own start-up, you don’t necessarily just want to be speaking to other product or marketing people – you need the wider network,” Claire explained. WITSEND provides an opportunity for aspiring functional leaders to have frank, honest guidance from women at the top of those organisations today.

As our conversation drew to a close, I wondered what Claire has learnt from her time leading WITSEND?

“Two things stick out,” she considered. “First, everybody over the age of 40 needs more friends. People’s friendship groups dissipate over time, and you need people around you to offer support, share experiences, and make things more fun.

“You need people around you to offer support, share experiences, and make things more fun.”

“The second thing is that senior leadership is not out of reach. If that is what you aspire to, put in the effort to build your network, reach out to search partners, and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on, then your talent and drive can take you where you want to go. That’s what I want to show people through WITSEND and through my work with entry-level social mobility charities: it doesn’t matter where you grew up or what jobs your parents did, you need to know nothing is closed to you.” | @TheMBSGroup