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Gina Connelly
CEO
University of Plymouth Students’ Union

Just one month after my 16th birthday, I took up a full-time role with a high-street bank. I hated exams and simply could not face A-levels and University. From day one, I loved my job and colleagues. I embraced every training opportunity and rose to become a personal banker by my mid-twenties.   Bank careers were considered to be a “job for life” back then and I never yearned for anything different, I was very happy.

I met my husband, who was in the Royal Navy, when I was 26, and found out we were expecting our first child shortly after marrying at 28. We had the perfect life and I planned to return to work three days a week. Amy was born in March 1990 and soon after we started to notice that, something was not quite right. In June, tests revealed that she might have some brain damage caused by a traumatic birth.  We were devastated but something still just did not seem to add up. We were correct in our fears and three months later our world came crashing down when Amy was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of childhood cancer with multiple tumours throughout her tiny body. She needed urgent surgery followed by treatment. I was due to return to work later that month so my manager agreed that I could take a further month off by which time we would know more. However, it transpired that Amy would need extensive treatment over at least a year and that her prognosis was not brilliant.  I had no choice but to resign from the job I loved to focus all my attention on our sick baby girl.

The next six months were horrific and in July 1991 when Amy was still having chemotherapy, we discovered that I was expecting our second child. James arrived the following February just as Amy went into remission. While the treatment was successful, Amy was left with severe disabilities from nerve damage and unlikely to ever walk. My life revolved around babies and hospitals with no time for myself. In August 1994, our second daughter, Jennifer was born.  With three children under the age of four and a husband away in the Navy, any thoughts of ever returning to work were dismissed.

Over the next few months I became very low and was diagnosed with depression. I was lonely, unfulfilled and missed working. I tried taking up various hobbies but this did not combat the lack of mental stimulation and loneliness. Then, in August 1997, a friend pointed out a job vacancy at the University of Plymouth Students’ Union. It was for four hours a day, term time only, counting money. Although it was lowly paid, it seemed like the perfect job for me, and one I could fit in around the children! I have never felt so nervous walking in for my interview after a seven-year gap from the workplace. I could barely speak. I must have done okay as I was offered the job and in September 1997, I finally started my working life again.

On my first day, I was beyond nervous and although I lacked confidence in myself, one thing I did know was that I could certainly count money! Soon, I felt at ease and loved it. It was challenging at times balancing work with the children, especially with Amy being disabled but with the support of my family and my manager, I settled into the role and found myself wanting to learn more about Finance.

Two years later the company got into financial difficulty, which resulted in key finance staff leaving, including the Manager. The CEO at that time asked if I would take on some extra responsibilities and learn some new tasks. I was certainly up for it and it was at that point I started to develop my love of accounting. The CEO recognised this and suggested that I undertake a formal qualification and, whilst they could not afford to fund it all, would support me where possible. I was also offered extra hours but that would still fit in with the children. I was now beginning to feel that my career had taken a turn for the better and loved learning all of these new things!

Over the next three years I went to evening classes and undertook the AAT accountancy qualification. It was tough at times, balancing work, study and my family life but I was determined to achieve the qualification. I then further continued with my studies, going to college one day a week in Exeter for two years working towards the CIMA qualification.

I developed a huge passion for learning – whether it was reading, on the job training or any course that was offered to me. By this stage, I was also virtually working full time as the children were now older and our organisation was flexible so I managed to juggle my work life balance. I continued to progress up the organisation with various finance roles until in 2007 the CEO promoted me to Finance Manager. This was the most exciting moment for me but also the scariest! Gosh, how had I got here, could I do this? I was the only female member of the Senior Management team which at times was challenging but, with the support of the CEO I continued to develop and learn, not just about Finance but about Management, Leadership and Strategy, amongst other things. I threw myself into my new role ensuring that I was always one step ahead. I started to develop networks around me both locally and nationally, sharing best practice and new ideas with like-minded colleagues.

In 2009 when we became a charity, I was offered the role of Director of Finance and Resources, which meant taking on the additional responsibility. I accepted, and embraced the challenge of learning yet more new things. It was at this time that I also became a Chartered Manager, a very proud moment as my hard work was finally being rewarded.

In 2010, the organisation went through a period of significant growth, almost doubling in size, both in terms of revenue and staff. With this came new complexities and challenges but I continued to develop in my role and keep up with my passion for self-development.

In July 2013, the CEO left and the Trustees approached me and asked if I would take up the role of interim CEO until they appointed. I agreed and for the next six months did both the CEO role and my own job. It was a tough few months with significant challenges to overcome, but I did it. I then started to think, shall I apply for the CEO role myself? Can I do the job? Yes, I can I thought to myself. In January 2014, after working at the organisation for sixteen years I became the Chief Executive.

I have now been in the role for nearly four years and continue to learn every day! It was never my intention to become a CEO, all I wanted was a job that stimulated me and one that I enjoyed. As a CEO, I have embedded a learning culture and so that our organisation is totally committed to developing its staff and supporting them with flexible working policies. We also try to support the staff within our organisation to manage their work life balance.  We are an Investors in People Gold organisation and one that I am very proud of.

If I could give advice to any woman in the workplace or those re-entering the workplace after having had a family, it would be to never think that you are too old or that it’s too late in life to seize an opportunity and develop in your career. Always commit to your own development, learn whenever you can and never give up. If I can do it having left school at 16 and after re-entering the workplace at 37 after a 7-year gap, then anyone can achieve their dreams with a little self-belief and determination.

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