Each month we showcase some of the fantastic stories our community of business owners and professionals have to share.
This month Jennie Winhall speaks to Virtalent about her inspiring consultancy business, which keeps her very busy indeed, and her plans for the future.
Hi Jennie, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your business?
My name is Jennie Winhall and as part of my social innovation business I run large-scale projects which design new solutions to social challenges, from youth unemployment or economic inequality, to housing or healthcare.
This involves working with governments, foundations, charities, and other businesses both in and outside of the UK. In fact I split my time between living in Copenhagen and London, with regular travel to Canada too!
My role is very varied, and encompasses a mixture of fieldwork and live prototyping of new services, facilitating design sessions, teaching, and innovation management.
What an inspiring job you do, it sounds very varied – what does a typical day look like?
Today’s a good example of a typical day.
I spent the morning with my Danish team in Copenhagen, prototyping activities for a new service we’re developing, which is trying out a work-based alternative to education for young people who are not thriving in the traditional schooling system.
Then I held a workshop with leaders from several municipalities to discuss scaling up our new youth employment service, which facilitates networks of local companies who work together to move groups of vulnerable young people into employment.
Next, I had a video call with colleagues in London to develop the brand for a new business that will run some of our social innovation programmes.
In the afternoon I tuned into a webcast from the RSA where my former colleague was launching a book – Radical Help – about our work together. My Virtual Assistant, Lucy, wrote a blog post for my website, and advertised the launch of Radical Help via my social media channels.
In the evening I had a video call with Canadian colleagues to plan our next residential teaching program.
Alongside this, and with the support of Lucy, I also had to prepare materials and arrangements for a workshop in London training start-up entrepreneurs in design thinking, as well as book travel and accommodation for my next trip to Canada. I also translated and read through a whole host of Danish research papers, scheduled interviews with thought leaders in Canada as part of a current research project, and started planning a residential innovation programme in the UK.
On top of that, I need to find someone to fix the dishwasher in my Copenhagen apartment, arrange some building work in my London house, and find a glass-blowing course for my Dad’s birthday!
What an interesting typical day you have! It certainly sounds like your business keeps you on your toes. What was it that made you want to work in this industry?
Originally I went to Art School and studied product design. What I really enjoyed about that was getting to think about what matters in life and what people want from products and systems.
When I graduated, I worked at the Design Council, and together with some inspirational designers, was part of pioneering the discipline of service design, which is now a huge field. Through this I was able to apply design thinking to public services and design them in a way that increased people’s ability to live a good life.
The best thing about working on challenges such as our ageing population or precarious work is that I had the privilege of learning about the lives of lots of very different types of people who took part in our research and design work – from elderly Trinidadian ladies who came to London as part of the Windrush, to millennials in Toronto who are working in the gig economy.
I also loved working alongside experts in lots of different fields and being able to bring their thinking into the innovation process.
That sounds fascinating and very challenging! Tell us about the biggest challenge you’ve faced since starting your company?
Invoicing has definitely been one of my biggest challenges! I’ve been lucky that I’ve always had lots of work on, but this has made it difficult to manage the finance side of the business. Lucy has been a massive support with this!
Another challenge has been thinking about whether, and how, to expand the business. Having a Virtual Assistant has been great as it has actually allowed me to do this in a flexible way.
It’s great to hear that Lucy has been such a help to you! We often hear stories about how our VAs have given business owners the time to actually grow their companies. Now that you can focus on this, what is your vision for the business?
At the moment I am in the process of forming a second company with a colleague, which will build and run innovation programmes focused on transitioning systems.
The long term vision is to have multiple teams in different locations, who all bring together leaders, innovators, and experts to form new systems to address problems in areas such as employment, the economy, homes and housing, or mental health.
That sounds very worthwhile indeed and we’re so pleased to be able to support you as you embark on these goals. How did you hear about Virtalent?
A friend of mine, who is a PA, recommended that I find a Virtual Assistant to support me and helped me narrow it down to four different companies.
I found that Virtalent asked me really good questions about what I needed and how a Virtual Assistant would actually help me.
They also offered staff with the right kind of interests, skills, and background which I thought would fit well with my company, including specialist assistants to help with research or social media.
The flexibility of payment was also a plus as it meant that I could buy the right amount of time and roll it forward on the odd occasion if I needed to.
It’s great to know we were such a good fit for you! What tasks and projects have we been supporting you with?
Lucy helps me in all aspects of my business and personal life, including invoicing and accounting, scheduling meetings, appointments and interviews, booking transport and accommodation, and assisting with research projects.
She has a great intuition for when I’m overloaded, and in a sense she manages me and my time too!
Having her support has meant that a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and has massively increased my capacity. I am finding that I have the time and energy to take up more opportunities – I feel much freer in what’s possible, because it’s no longer just me.
It’s wonderful that Lucy has had such an impact. How has her support changed things for you?
I have a funny life in between all these different locations, and knowing someone is there to help me plan the extension on my house or sort out personal errands strangely helps the work life balance, because it makes things seem a bit more seamless.
It’s an uncertain game trying to get big initiatives off the ground, and it’s great that I have the flexibility to call on Lucy for more support as and when I need to.
Having a VA has also made a big difference to the people around me. They are better able to get my time and attention. Having a VA also helps me get the attention of other people too!
In this world where I have several businesses, and work across several different communities, Virtalent plays such an important role in enabling my way of working. And Lucy plays an important function in making it possible to manage multiple collaborations with different groups of people in different locations, which is itself important for innovation.