Launching the Women to Watch and Role Models for Inclusion in Retail Index 2023



Perhaps my biggest lesson from my decade at The MBS Group is how dramatically emerging leaders are shaped by role models throughout their career. Having someone to model yourself against can be transformative, providing inspiration and motivation to progress through a chosen field or company.

On the one hand, I’ve observed that many of our sector’s best leaders have all been influenced by the same people. But on the other, it’s not uncommon for women and diverse candidates to tell me that they struggle to see leaders in the hierarchy above them who they can relate to and learn from.

With this in mind, it was a real privilege on Thursday afternoon to celebrate the launch of the Women to Watch and Role Models for Inclusion in Retail Index. Produced in partnership with Diversity in Retail, the publication highlights more than sixty leaders from right across UK retail: women and diverse leaders who are making an outstanding contribution to their organisation and industry, and senior decision-makers who are driving lasting change on D&I.

The Women to Watch and Role Models for Inclusion in Retail Index highlights more than sixty leaders from across UK retail.

In the ‘Walkie Talkie building’ in central London, we gathered with dozens of retail leaders to mark the launch of the index, and reflect on the power of role models in driving up D&I.

What is clear in the report, and indeed was clear from the conversations in the room, is the incredible variety of stories in the Index. Each person selected has taken a different path to get to where they are today, and has something unique to offer to the sector as a leader and as a role model. This Index makes clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to a career in retail – and that the sector can indeed be an inclusive space for people of all experiences, backgrounds and ambitions.

“This Index makes clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to a career in retail – and that the sector can indeed be an inclusive space for people of all experiences, backgrounds and ambitions.”

But at the same time, there are common threads which tie each of these role models together – certain characteristics which pretty much every Role Model or Women to Watch in the index espouses.

First, is the need for authenticity. The most powerful role models are those leaders who are true to themselves. They’re honest about when things go wrong, open to learning from others, and lead with their own personal style, rather than adapting their behaviour to fit a certain mold. Authentic leadership not only fosters an inclusive environment but also inspires others to bring their whole selves to work. This Index is packed with anecdotes about inspirational, genuine, human leadership – and full of advice on how to guide teams in a way that feels authentic.

The second idea that comes through loudly in this publication is the sense of responsibility that comes with being a role model. Every person featured in this Index understands the impact they have on those around them, particularly on the next generation. Tea Colaianni, founder and Chair at Diversity in Retail, spoke to this point on Thursday night, emphasising that “thoughts alone don’t change the world; action is paramount. It’s wonderful to see our role models using their voice and platform for the benefit of others”.

attendees seated at the event
Dozens of retail leaders and featured nominees gathered at the ‘Walkie Talkie building’ in central London to mark the launch of the index.

The third theme is the power of mentorship. So many of the leaders featured in this publication spoke to the impact that mentors have had on their lives – from offering specific advice during tough trading periods to simply being on the other end of the phone. As Debbie Robinson, CEO at Central Co-op said in her address: “find the people who are in the roles you would like to own yourself. Ask them what it takes to do the job, and what it means to them.” In the vast majority of cases, senior leaders are generous with their advice and enthusiastic about bringing up the next generation of leaders. Indeed, it’s been particularly wonderful to read about those who still have thriving relationships with their mentors from early in their careers – sometimes ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the line!

Fourth is just how critical allyship and advocacy is, especially from the most senior leaders in our sector. To really drive change on this agenda, we need everybody – regardless of gender, race, or if you belong to a diverse group – working to dismantle the systematic barriers to equality and being vocal about the need for inclusion. Many of the entries in this publication mention the impact that senior sponsorship has had on D&I – whether it’s a CEO championing women in the nineties or a NED chairing an LGBTQ+ network today. I’m thrilled that this Index provides a platform  for those who may not be part of a diverse community themselves, but are putting D&I at the very top of their personal agenda.

“To really drive change, we need everybody – regardless of gender, race, or if you belong to a diverse group – working to dismantle the systematic barriers to equality and being vocal about the need for inclusion.”

It has been such a privilege to bring together this year’s report. It has been a truly inclusive exercise that has encompassed all aspects of diversity including gender, ethnicity, social mobility, nationality, sexual orientation, age and disability. Inside these pages is a plethora of personal and professional stories, from leaders who reflect the full spectrum of diversity that exists in the industry and the communities it serves.

I’d like to congratulate every role model included in this year’s Index, and thank them for taking the time to share their stories. Hopefully, highlighting these leaders will drive critical conversations about the importance of diversity, and amplify the efforts of leaders going above and beyond to drive positive change in their organisation.  Retail is one of the biggest employers in the UK, and our actions in the sector can pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive society.

You can read the Index here.

Elliott.Goldstein@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup