Jo Wimble-Groves is busy chatting on her phone when I arrive at the Tunbridge Wells Hotel to interview her. She waves a friendly ‘hello’ at me and I take a seat at the window table she is sitting at where she is in deep discussion about something.
I’ve never met Jo before but I’ve certainly heard a lot about her recently as she has just celebrated a milestone anniversary for the successful tech business she co-runs with her older brother and has just had her first book, Rise of the Girl, published by DK.
Jo’s also behind the popular Guilty Mother blog which now has over 55K followers and a thriving Instagram following too. If you’ve not come across it then essentially it’s a forum where Jo, expert guests and followers can share stories and explore conversations about making mothers feel – you guessed it – less guilty about being the perfect parent.
And as if being an entrepreneur, blogger, author and mother wasn’t enough Jo also finds the time to squeeze in a bit of public speaking, host motivational talks for teens and pen specialist opinion pieces for national newspapers including The Guardian.
“The idea is to share my story,” Jo explains after she comes off the phone and we’ve ordered some coffee. “I left school at 16 because I struggled academically. I was always in the bottom set so had to dig a little deeper in order to do well. My parents divorced right in the middle of my GCSES and that was a tough time for me. I often bring this up when I do talks in schools as there’s a good chance that some kids will have experienced their mum and dad not being together anymore. But the key message is your grades don’t have to define who you are – or your success. If university is not right for you I believe you can create your own success without it.”
Jo, who was born in Tunbridge Wells and still lives here with her husband and three children, says that it took her a good while to realise all this and that’s why she is now on a mission to empower young teens – especially girls – into becoming more resilient and ultimately making the right decisions for themselves.
“I worked hard and did OK in my GCSEs in the end but when I went to sixth form college I felt a bit lost. I’d always loved drama and wanted to be a performer but I didn’t pursue this so I found myself at a bit of a crossroads.”
This led to Jo leaving school at 16 in order to work alongside her older brother Richard when he asked her if she fancied helping him sell a few mobile phones.
“It was the mid 90s and he’d been playing golf professionally for England but sadly he was involved in a car accident and sustained a knee injury which temporarily paused his professional career in sport. Richard started selling mobile phones as a way of paying for his rehabilitation. He was doing it independently and asked if I would like to get involved too.”
“Being quite young I put my hand up and took an opportunity. I think I said to him it would only be short term as I still wanted to do drama but I saw the potential to earn a small income.”
Fast forward a quarter of a century and the duo’s specialist b2b mobile telecoms company Active Digital has just celebrated 25 years in business. Over the past couple of decades it’s won many high-profile clients including Crew Clothing, Saracens Rugby Club and all of the Premier League along the way as well as numerous accolades. Active Digital has been awarded a customer service gong every year consecutively for the last 15 and is one of O2’s best performing partners across the whole of the UK and Ireland. Meanwhile Jo has been crowned Everywoman’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2020 and listed in Management Today’s 35 under 35 in The Sunday Times. Not bad for the girl who found herself at a bit of a ‘crossroads’ in life when she was just 16 but then as I discover Jo is all about taking those opportunities in life and running with them…
When they started Active Digital in 1996 Richard and Jo concentrated on getting businesses as diverse as law firms, architects and chemical engineers – not just locally but from all over the UK and Ireland – on their books as opposed to individual personal customers.
“We knew we could never compete with the likes of Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U who were high street giants at that time,” explains Jo. “Commercial phones however became a real lifeline for companies and gradually Active Digital became known as the best-in-class for business with a reputation for focusing on excellent customer service.
“The personality behind our business – its heritage if you like – is really important and people love our story: they’ve really bought into it. We often get people telling us that they love supporting us. And whether they have been with us since the beginning or are new clients we are still very much hands on with all our customers a quarter of a century later.”
It’s clear when chatting to Jo that the importance of a story just doesn’t apply to her tech business. In fact she tells me that the all the motivational speaking, blogging and now the publication of her book are all interlinked and stem from the fact that she is a woman in tech.
“When I was in my 20s and going to events I was only one of a couple of women and I felt I was standing out – and I didn’t know how I felt about that. The conversations at those events weren’t necessarily those I would have if I was around more females so I felt different. It made me think ‘well if I’m only one of a few, how is the next generation coming through and where are their role models?’”
Jo says this led to her having the idea about talking to younger people, mainly those at secondary school, about her experience in business and as a woman.
“I felt that having been so successful I needed to give something back,” she continues. “I wondered if it might be useful for me to go into schools, colleges and universities to talk. I wanted to explain what’s it’s like and how we can all create our own success.”
Jo tells me she has a particular interest in speaking to girls as there is a massive lack of them in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) community.
“We’ve had some incredible female scientists – many of whom have brought us through the pandemic – so I think it’s really important that girls know if they want to be scientists or engineers, or they want to work in tech, they can. And actually it’s quite cool to do so. There’s loads of opportunities for girls in these areas but we have to tell them that.
“If there’s just one child who realises they can achieve what they want to, then I have done my job. We hold the power to do all this but as women we take so long to figure that out. We should be telling people when they are younger – what’s the point when you’re 30 or 40? I want to empower girls from a young age.”
Jo explains that it all starts from not being afraid to put your hand up. “You have to take a chance. Girls have the edge when it comes to having a fear of failure but they actually outperform boys year after year in the UK. Girls need to know that they can go into these types of STEM careers but it’s important to show them the role models who are doing it now.”
Jo also says that telling children they can achieve has to start at home and that is the essence of her first book Rise of the Girl which is a series of conversations and stories about empowerment and possibility.
“As parents we talk a lot about children putting in the hard work, focusing on their strengths and having lots of grit and determination and these are also the things that transpired into my book.”
She adds that writing her successful Guilty Mother parenting blog was the ideal outlet when it came to pitching her idea for Rise of the Girl to publishers.
“I’ve wanted to write a book since I was ten and the blog gave me the chance to show publishers what I could do. Their job is to produce a great book which will sell – so you need a great platform. Thankfully I have a very loyal following and so it was a perfect storm.”
The book blurb for Rise of the Girl says its aim is to support parents in helping their daughter ‘fulfil her potential in a challenging world’ – something Jo knows all about.
In the book, which was published in October and is still riding high in the Amazon charts, Jo identifies the seven most common issues preventing girls from fully succeeding in today’s society. There are guided conversation starters from Jo on subjects like not giving up, how we can learn through failure and sourcing strong, positive role models. In addition to this there are contributions from people who have experienced tough challenges and overcome them. They include essays from people like Anna Whitehouse who started the Flex Appeal campaign which encourages people to ask for more flexible working hours, as well as Mark Martin MBE founder of Black Tech and an advanced skills tech teacher who’s been bridging the gap between education and the STEM industry for the past 16 years.
“I know the voice of the author should be the loudest but I’m such an inclusive person I wanted to hear from others so the contributors were an important part of the book. Some of them talk about their experience raising teenagers while others talk about how they remember what it was like for them growing up and how they overcame certain challenges.”
Jo says Rise of the Girl is not just another parenting manual though it’s about laying the groundwork early so girls can grow up feeling they can achieve whatever they put their mind to.
“I do I feel my book is different from others. We all talk about entrepreneurial spirit and getting more women represented on the whole but we’ve got to start young. It reminds me of being young and thinking about who my role models were. How did I feel about being in the bottom set? Which teachers inspired me and encouraged me to bring out my strengths rather than focusing on my weaknesses. Sometimes we are really bad at negative thinking saying ‘I can’t do that’ but we need to rewire all that and think ‘these are the things I am good at and what make me who I am’.”
THE ESSENCE OF RISE OF THE GIRL
Jo says the idea for Rise of the Girl ties in with her own experience in life:
“It originates from being a woman in STEM, really focusing on the importance of role models and mentors, raising a daughter myself and sometimes seeing the challenges she faces – as well as seeing this imbalance with equality. All these things were whirling through my mind and I thought if I could write a book I could reach a lot more girls a lot quicker. When I spoke to my agent I really wanted to write a book for teenage girls but she queried whether this was the right angle, asking whether teenage girls are buying books at the moment. And the answer is no they’re too busy on Tik Tok! So the decision was made between us that the book would be written for parents and care givers of girls because if we’re thinking about raising strong resilient girls then it needs to start at home.”
Jo Wimble-Groves is very happy to give talks to local schools and youth organisations: