Benardo Moya talks to Etta Cohen, and finds out how she founded Forward Ladies, and has become a beacon for woman entrepreneurs countrywide.
When Etta Cohen realised her marriage had come to an end, her future looked bleak.
“My son had just had his second birthday and my daughter was six. It was not easy. I had to sell my home and I was left with a huge financial debt,” she remembers.
Yet there is no doubt in her mind that her decision to divorce was right. “It was one of the best decisions of my life.”
That decision came in 1988, after she had been trapped in an unhappy marriage for 15 years.
“From day one it was the biggest mistake I ever made,” she affirms. Marrying in 1973, she bowed to societal pressure to stay in the marriage, though she knew things weren’t right. “There was a sense of duty and stigma and all those kinds of things. It actually destroys you as an individual. There comes a day when something happens, maybe something small, but it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It was the best day for me, because that was the day I started to live.”
Her life experiences gave Etta the insight to see what support other women needed.
Etta grew up in Yorkshire in the 1960s, the daughter of a small businesswoman and a father who was a “hard grafter”. She was not academically gifted, but worked hard.
“I struggled with science and maths, I was never a great writer, so English wasn’t that good either,” she recalls. One subject did leave a lasting impression. “I loved History. I just love anything to do with, you know, where we’ve come from, why things happened.” It was an inspiration to Etta, and it encouraged an enquiring mind in her.
That’s why, after going to teacher training college she took up a role as a teacher, working for 20 years in the inner city in Leeds.
“I met some amazing young people, some of them I’m still in touch with now. What you had there was the real spark and fire – feisty young people who because of their circumstances and their background were written off before they came to school. We should all be looking to help and support other people and that’s what I liked to do and what I do today.”
There’s no doubt that her own background and experiences inspired her to help women in the years after she left her work as a teacher. She worked with the Development Agency supporting women in the Yorkshire area who wanted to go into business as part of the state-funded Forward Yorkshire initiative.
After the funding looked like it was going to dry up, in 2000 Etta set up her own business – Forward Ladies.
“It’s all about supporting women. Whether they’re in employment, whether they’re in business, whether they’re a student, whether they’re starting a business, it doesn’t matter where they are. We don’t judge anybody, but we help them with training, through mentoring, through introducing them to role models, through speakers and celebrating success through awards.”
Etta explains that Forward Ladies is all about giving women opportunities, not to a template, but by helping them find what success means for them. She adds: “I think, for me, that’s absolutely key because at different stages in my life, success looked different. It’s different now than it was when I was homeless with two babies. Success was feeding them every night, now they’re grown up, success is making Forward Ladies a success. So what we say is wherever you are on your journey, whatever challenges you’re facing, you’ll go through different chapters and success will be different. We don’t judge that.”
As she explains, not every woman wants to be on a Board. Some want to run a small business from home, others want to work part time. “That’s fine,” she says with a smile. “We can help you get there, we can train you, we can support you, we can get you mentors, we can listen to your stories, we can put you in the company of likeminded women where you can share and support one another.”
It’s a growing success. Currently Forward Ladies covers Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, the North West, the East Midlands, London and parts of Scotland. In the next few years Etta plans for the company to be UK-wide – as well as having connections overseas.
With well over 13,000 women signed up and engaging, from major corporations small businesses and individuals, Forward Ladies is a fabulous opportunity for women to work together, learn from each other and succeed. All from the brain of someone who struggled herself at school and has a burning desire to help others get on.
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