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| Posted by: David Gold

Anything but plain Vanilla – an interview with Rachel Whale

For our latest newsletter Prospectus CEO. David Gold, had the real pleasure of interviewing Rachel Whale, Founder and Managing Director of Vanilla and the Founding Director of Charityworks. Inevitably a conversation with a passionate social entrepreneur covered a fair bit of ground in a short hour! Everything from innovation versus plagiarism, gender imbalance in the sector, as well as more personal insight into Rachel and her experience and understanding of talent, homelessness and what it means to make a good social contribution.

Rachel Whale
Founder and Managing Director of Vanilla
Founding Director of Charityworks

Rachel is the Founder and Managing Director of the social enterprise Vanilla, a consultancy focused on talent and leadership that supports a number of ventures in partnership with the beyond profit sector. She is also the Director of Charityworks, Vanilla’s flagship project which is the largest graduate programme for the beyond profit sector. This year they have placed 120 graduates into charities, social enterprises and housing associations across the UK. Rachel has worked for many years in the voluntary sector, working her way up from volunteer fundraiser to Operations Director at Rethink, the UK’s largest charity providing mental health services.

Why do you do what you do?

I have a very strong social and political drive and firmly believe in making a decent social contribution. I think that attracting great talent into the sector is so important when there are diminishing resources for organisations that are dealing with very complex social issues. Connecting talent into the sector is how I hope I will be able to look back and know I made a good social contribution.

Can you answer the question with less analysis and more from the heart and soul?

Part of my drive to do what I do comes from my experience at school and university. I grew up in a reasonably poor environment, but threw myself into school where I excelled and was fortunate enough to be able to go to university. It was an amazing experience for me and the first time I had been outside my postcode! However, it also created an early experience of homelessness. I thrived during term time but when it came to the holidays, when all my friends went back home to their comfortable family lives in the Home Counties, I had to find a bedsit and a job.

I knew that I was going to get out of that situation through my own means and education was going to be my ticket. When I look around a room of 120 Charityworks graduates I know some of them will have come from challenging backgrounds but they too are using education and employment to change their situation – for me that’s how I know it’s worth it.

What’s your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

It wasn’t so much a mistake but when the recession landed it was just as Charityworks was taking off. I had no real understanding of what that meant and it - gave me a healthy level of fear and taught me to bring what scares me as close as possible. What kept me up at night was the thought of our payroll – we had a small team and I really felt the responsibility for them and their personal situation.

The other thing I learnt was that it is easy to come up with new ideas – but you also have to be savvy enough to understand your route to market, you have to be tough enough to weather the bad times and clever enough to understand how you make it sustainable. You should stick with one idea you do well – focus is so important and I hadn’t proven my first idea and was already thinking about all the other things I wanted to do!

At a recent sector conference (NPC Ignites) Baroness Young talked about the need for more Heads of Plagiarism than Innovation – do you agree and what do you think people mean when they talk about innovation?

In terms of a need for more “plagiarism” my understanding of that is there is not enough sharing of good practice and understanding what just works. If we had more sharing of best practice there might be less focus on impact to justify an approach or programme that is new to an individual organisation, but not the wider sector.

The word innovation has been overused to the point of being meaningless – there is not enough real innovation but as a sector we seem to think we do a lot of it. If organisations were better connected into each other you would see more genuine innovation. Innovation that comes from places of difference – different ideas rubbing together to create friction and spark a new idea, solution or approach.

Is the word innovation just a way to repackage something for funders so they have something shiny and new?

I think there is some truth in that – some funders will go through a cycle of three years of funding then move onto something new and shiny, the new kid on the block! Funders need to own that debate though.

You seem to hold strong opinions on the differences in pay and progression for women – in your view how does the sector deal with gender when it comes to leadership and talent.

Not very well – women make up two thirds of the overall workforce within the sector and that balance is not reflected at CEO level. Sector bodies should have stronger views on this subject. Vanilla created the Good Woman Network to create a space that is open and accessible to woman (and men!) from all levels and industries to talk and connect. We don’t talk enough about gender and what it means, the impact of maternity leave on a career path – it can be quite zig zagged.

What does a career path mean to you?

I think it is a very personal thing but for me it is something that produces a good social contribution that you can be proud of. When I came back from maternity leave I had the choice to return back to work in the same role, try and secure a co-CEO role which is very rare, or set up my own business which is what I chose to do.

How do you apply your need for “minimalism” at home to managing Vanilla?

I really do apply it to Vanilla! I like to strip it back and look at the essence of what we do and why we are here. That is what led to our 5 C’s of good social leadership:

“Our ethos is to be Conscious, Curious, Challenged, Connected and motivated by real Change”

For us that is the purification of our approach, working and practice.

Stripping back is something that you also applied to the décor in your office I notice?

Absolutely! Our team have done a great job of setting up spaces that are a good mix of public, semi-private and private – the décor is very “Scandi”!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us – also thank you for being so open and honest and sharing some very personal and inspiring thoughts.