INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY – MARCH 8TH
Elena Harries is the International Sales Manager for Atlantic Service Company, charged with growing the export arm of the business and looking after customers in more than 40 countries around the world.
Elena, give us a little information on your background and your career to date:
I’m a second-generation Welsh-born Italian and I was brought up in a hardworking, very practical, and down-to-earth family environment. My parents owned a café and a fast-food outlet, and from the age of five during the summer holidays I was sent to Italy to spend the summers with my aunties while my parents worked. I travelled on my own by plane, escorted by air stewards! I have two older brothers and lots of cousins. As a passionate animal lover, I have always had a dog and a cat in my life along with other furry animals and a few not-so-furry corn snakes along the way.
For as long as I can remember I have always worked and have always volunteered within my community or for causes close to my heart. My earliest memories are of helping to collect dishes in the café, sweeping or cleaning tables along with chatting to people; this progressed to working in a wide variety of catering jobs throughout my educational life which helped me go through University with just an overdraft and no loans. In my teenage years I used to take Christmas dinner and hot food to the less fortunate who lived in the park in front of our house.
Having been used to solo travelling from a very young age, along with annual family road trips through Europe to Italy with my family, I wanted to pursue a career which would utilise my love of languages, travel, different cultures and food. I love nothing better than to sit outdoors in a café and watch the world go by, or to explore a new city or region on foot.
After University I signed up to a Language Export post-graduate course run by the LX Centre at Swansea University. This allowed me to gain theoretical and practical first-hand experience in export and International sales.
I was very lucky that right from the beginning my managers had enough confidence in my hardworking ethics and abilities to provide me with opportunities to research and open new markets, to travel overseas representing the companies I was working for, or to organise, set up and attend exhibition shows as far away as Hong Kong.
What are your favourite memories from your career so far?
The people I met along the way who made a difference to my life or career. Overcoming and finding solutions to challenges at different stages of my life, such as juggling work and raising a family. I love working in manufacturing. Seeing something made in Wales, being shipped and used all over the world constantly fills me with a real sense of pride. However, I am also very aware that in business we are just a small component of a much bigger machine and I would not be where I am today without my fellow team players, staff, friends and mentors, as well as the advice & support we get from organisations such as Welsh Government, the FSB and the South Wales Chambers of Commerce.
What do you see as key values to be successful in business?
Honesty, positivity, hard work, perseverance, listening to people and being part of a team, just like in sport! You need see the bigger picture and always have your focus on the end results or goals.
Do you still experience assumptions and stereotypes around being a female in the business world, if so, how does that manifest…?
I did when I first started out in business, especially nearly 30 years ago when I was in my early 20s. I was single, slimmer and inexperienced in a male dominated world of business! Having come from a strong Catholic background it was the first time that I discovered that married businessmen thought it was acceptable and normal to see me an additional challenge to pursue, or even as part of the business deal.
…and what are the most effective ways of handling it?
Honesty and directness in general, and in the instance above just continually saying NO thank you. At first it did cause me to be self-critical and withdrawn, but then my strong moral compass gave me the strength to realise that I could be a single businesswoman without feeling guilty about other people’s lesser values.
What are the biggest issues facing women in the workplace in 2021?
I think Covid19 has presented a brand new issue with juggling work and family commitments more than ever. More and more women have been able to work or set up businesses from home due to the increase of remote working over the last few years, however with Covid19 they have now additionally been juggling home schooling, family life and potentially looking after aging parents too. It’s affected men to, but lots of research suggests in the majority of cases there are more women working in the same room as children whilst men have a quiet office to escape to.
How important are events like International Women’s Day to you and to women in business?
They’re extremely important. It is crucial to be inspired by other women; to empathise, relate and learn from different people’s lives and experiences. My mother was always extremely honest about how hard her life was and about the sacrifices she made, but she was also all about the positive things in life and how you must never give up. Having been both an employee and an employer I understand the importance of respect, hard work, teamwork, and flexibility. I also try to support overseas charities who provide girls with an education and a chance to be whoever they want to give them a helping hand.
And finally, what is the most important piece of advice you would give to young females at the start of their career, aspiring to be successful in business?
Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You need to understand your customers and remember everyone is human. Personally, I never cross the line when it comes to work and pleasure which has earned me respect and always be honest. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on.