Finding my voice

To mark International Women’s Day, Kate-Lily de Graft-Johnson of our Broadgate team shares how she’s finding her voice after facing challenges and explores the difference that individuals and organisations can make to a person’s life.

A few years ago, I found myself struggling with life; instead of work being a place I enjoyed, it was the most stressful, negative experience of my life, which affected me in ways I still find hard to describe. I took nine months out to focus on myself and deal with my depression and anxiety. Then I had the additional stress of seeking employment. Job hunting is hard enough but when you’ve been out of work for a while, you start to doubt your abilities, anxiety builds and you believe people will judge you for suffering with mental health.

I was invited to interview with a few companies, but I didn’t have the confidence or belief in myself to get the job. I honestly did not want to work; the comfort of my blanket felt safer than the opportunity to re-join the working population.

It was my counsellor who referred me to Smart Works, a charity that supports women back into employment. What did I have to lose by accepting an appointment to receive interview coaching and a two-hour styling session? I may have been sold on the free designer clothes but the Smart Works team reminded me of my past achievements and restored my confidence in me and my trust in others – particularly women! Then I went for an interview at Broadgate.

The people are the best bit of working here

I’ve been part of the British Land team at Broadgate since April 2018. It was daunting at first, but the team is great and the entire management team (especially my manager) has been supportive since day one. The people are the best bit of working here. Everyone makes you feel welcome.

At our annual conference, while speaking to our CEO, Chris Grigg, he learnt that I had a speaking engagement in front of 200 people for Smart Works and made time in his diary to find out more about me, give advice and even followed up after the talk. My directors are the same, they take mental health seriously. I think it helps that we have a Wellbeing Committee and Mental Health First Aiders.

An experience I’ll never forget

Through Smart Works, I’ve been fortunate enough to get involved in a few of their campaigns. Last year, I modelled for Burberry as part of International Women’s Day and then in September I was invited to model for the Duchess of Sussex’s clothing line, The Smart Set, after she became patron.

I was not expecting to meet the Duchess on set, which was apparent when I turned mute and couldn’t even say hello when she offered a hug and said ‘hi’. Meghan was engaging, pleasant and nice. She’s all for sisterhood and community and how women should be there for one another and supporting each other. It was an experience I’ll never forget and I’m grateful to Smart Works, British Land and all the other supportive communities I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, who have helped me on my journey to accepting who I am and having a voice.

Using my voice

A manager in a previous job once told me that when I speak, no one listens. These are words I’ve never forgotten and the impact they first had was detrimental to my health but, three and a half years on, I’m thankful for those comments. It’s weird to think I’m grateful for the negative experience because it has brought me to where I am today. My current manager challenges me to use my voice, Smart Works challenged me to use my voice and British Land challenged me to use my voice, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.

I’ve learnt in life things happen, sometimes within your control and other times not, but staying in your comfort zone or retreating isn’t always the best solution. Take time to heal but also push yourself outside your comfort zone. You’ll never see what you can achieve if you stay in the same lane, sometimes you just need to overtake. No matter how many times you fall, get back up. If anyone ever tells you ‘no one is listening’, find a new crowd.

For International Women’s Day this year, I’m participating in the Spin for Smart Works challenge, where teams cycle 500 miles fundraising for Smart Works. I’m not a natural cyclist nor do I enjoy exercise on a regular basis, but I’ve embraced the team spirit of the challenge, and pushing myself to achieve new goals. The best thing is doing it with my colleagues and the support from the wider team.

The future

My hope for the future is to be happy in its simplest, purest form. I’ll always be an ambassador of Smart Works – the power they have in making a positive difference in a woman’s life and the women I’ve met have empowered me to do and be better.

I’d love to be a champion of mental health and wellbeing and continue to support other women. As Meghan said at the launch of The Smart Set: women should support and uplift each other, not set each other up for failure, but instead be there, rally around and say, ‘I want to help’.


All photos courtesy of Smart Works.

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