A Conversation with Jo Fairley
Updated: Feb 17
Jo Fairley is the co-founder of Green & Black's organic chocolate, a £100 million a year brand
Jo left school at 16 years old with 6 "O" levels, and went on to become the UK's youngest ever magazine editor
Jo is a serial entrepreneur, via an organic and natural food store and bakery, a wellbeing centre, and most recently, The Perfume Society
Jo has received an honorary doctorate in Business Studies from Kingston University, and the Shackleton Medal for leadership and citizenship, from the Scottish Royal Geographical Society
Jo spoke at AXIS Network's September event during Offshore Europe - read the full event synopsis here.
1. You left school at the age of 16, did you know then what you wanted to pursue as a career?
Like many young girls I wanted to be a fashion designer, originally (and some drawings from that time were pretty promising!), but my school was completely science- and classics-focused and we were steered away from art. So by the time I left school, I had decided I wanted to be a secretary to someone with an exciting job. I honestly never expected that I'd have that exciting job myself, but in those days, you could pretty much choose what field you wanted to work in. I was desperate to travel more, so I figured I'd work for someone with an international job who might want a PA along to take notes and manage their life. I know women still have a long way to go to become equal in this world, but when I think of that story, I realise how far we have already come. And am grateful.
2. You have spoken of the benefits flexible working has brought to Green & Blacks, what advice do you have for leaders who are considering trialling within their organisation?
I had two single mothers working for me at Green & Black's who had other tugs on their time, and I allowed them to work flexibly. I set deadlines and tasks and was there for hand-holding if required, but I have never, ever been disappointed by allowing people to work remotely and in their own timeframe. (It allows people to work in line with their body clocks, too – I am a morning person, but many people I know function better at night.) My experience is that people who work flexibly are absolutely determined NOT to be the person who 'lets the side down', and they repay that trust a hundred times over. So I'd say: go for it. It doesn't work in a service business (when I owned my bakery, I needed bakers and shop assistants at specific times), but in other organisations I think it is the only way forward.
3. How do you balance your professional and personal commitments – any advice for others? I have always had a real dividing line between work and 'off-time'. When I'm working, I'm giving 100% and powering through, no social media or other distractions (I have to force myself to go for a walk to break up the day, and to get up and move around). When I'm off, I don't look at e-mail and don't answer work texts unless seriously, properly urgent. (I also never text or e-mail my team out of working hours, as I think it's disrespectful and unnecessary.) On holiday, I move all my social media and mail apps off my home screen and never even think about them, and don't do e-mail at all. I spend 10 minutes each morning with my calm.com app, meditating, and I think that helps me stay mentally balanced and very focused for those demanding work hours ahead. My husband (and Green & Black's co-founder) Craig Sams is completely different; he has often quite lengthy periods of 'off-time' during his day (generally, when the sun is shining), and is happy to work late at night and a bit on holiday (without being in any way a workaholic). So it is a case of finding what works for you.
4. You have previously spoken of the importance of finding a mentor, early in your career. What guidance do you have on finding a suitable one?
Be brave enough to ask! Once people reach a certain point in their careers, most feel honour-bound to pay it forward by mentoring others, especially if they've been fortunate enough to receive mentoring support themselves (and most of us have, in some way). But approach someone who has a real understanding of the field you work in, and can help open doors via their little black book. I'm often approached to mentor people who work in completely different areas to food, social enterprise or media, which are my areas of expertise (I know NOTHING about banking, for instance!) My own mentor, Anita Roddick, was amazing at opening her little black book to me, introducing me to other social entrepreneurs at a time when we really were considered 'out there', as well as helping keep my passion blazing when things got tough. An effective mentor is someone who can open doors, rather than sit and have a coffee with you every now and then, pat your hand and tell you it's going to be OK. (It is, by the way.)
5. What have you found the most rewarding in your career to date?
Showing that you can do good through doing business, by creating Green & Black's, instilling my own values into the business and helping to blaze a trail for food that is sustainably produced, and respects and fairly rewards the people who helped produce it. But I have to say, on reflection, that the sheer variety of what I've done, which has stretched me in so many directions, makes me quite proud. I was the youngest-ever magazine editor in the UK, at the age of 23, long before we started Green & Black's. After we sold G&B's, Craig and I opened an organic bakery and one-stop shop in Hastings, where we live, completely renovating the listed shop while staying open, converting 200 existing recipes to organic and becoming a food hub for the town, working 363 days out of 365 for the first two years. Then we opened a 9-room wellbeing centre in the town, with a yoga studio and a Pilates studio and treatment rooms, and I did all the interior design and recruited a team of amazing therapists to work there. That was completely different again. In 2001, with Sarah Stacey (who I wrote a series of beauty books with, The Beauty Bible), we set up a beauty website (beautybible.com), which is still going strong. Most recently I co-founded something called The Perfume Society, perfumesociety.org (I have always been obsessed with the sense of smell), which has been described as 'the most authoritative perfume website in the world.' I think leaving school at 16 (after being completely written off by my teachers) has fuelled my determination to prove myself. And it's never been boring for a moment...