From initial ambitions of becoming a farmer to running regional food group Taste North East, Karen Dent meets Jane Hogan and discovers why she believes women really come into their own in their 40s.
WHEN Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he postulated that 42 was the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
For Jane Hogan, it’s the number when a woman realises exactly what they are capable of. The recently appointed business development manager at local food promotion group Taste North East, who is just past the magic age, believes a woman is in her business prime when she reaches her fifth decade.
“I have a friend called Jane and she knows a lot more about this, and she says there’s something about ‘little me’ syndrome that women have,” says Hogan.
“They just somehow are inhibited and they see other people and they think ‘ooh, but I couldn’t do that’, or ‘it’s only me’. Maybe it is something to do with having multiple roles and not being able to go to work and just screen everything out, and focus on purely work.
“In my younger days, when I was a bit more strident, I used to say we’ll have true equality when there’s as many mediocre women at the top of organisations as there are mediocre men. And that sounds really aggressive but I do think there is an element of truth in that.”
Hogan says women’s qualities are not recognised as ‘businesslike’ in the same way as men’s.
“I would never ever say – and I’m not anyway – but I would never ever say I’m an entrepreneur, but a bloke would quite happily say he was an entrepreneur,” she remarks.
“If you watch the first rounds of Masterchef, a woman will always come out and tell you all the stuff that went wrong and where she didn’t do as well as she expected.
“A bloke who has had a total disaster will come out and say ‘actually, I don’t think that went too bad, I think I’ve done enough to get through’. Men are able to focus on the positive and sometimes women are really hard on themselves.”
She believes the adoption of social media such as Twitter and Facebook will now have a major impact on the role of women in business, because it allows their skills to come to the fore.
Hogan says: “Women have always connected over a range of issues, so I think it’s broken out of that business – and particularly in the service sector – being about going to the rugby and having conversations about blokes’ things.
“Women connect on so many different things and that creates opportunities in a different way. It’s really levelled the playing field because all of the formal constructions around business are still a bit rubbish and still a bit male and difficult to break into.”
Hogan may deny she’s an entrepreneur, but she has co-founded one business and started another on her own before moving to the regional food group to grow its membership. In her first couple of months, membership has doubled.
Her desire to show her four-year-old twins Phoebe and Caitlin there was nothing strange about their mum running her own business was the only qualm she had about taking the role.
Hogan said: “I was worried that if I didn’t run my own business any more, that I might not be a good enough role model for them.
“I think the next generation will automatically do better because their mums are doing so much more now, whereas we probably didn’t even grow up seeing our mums working.”
English Literature graduate Hogan admits she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life and when she left Newcastle University. A first job as the information officer at an open cast mining company led to a career in marketing, and she has two decades’ experience helping businesses find new markets, from plastics to publishing, securing venture capital finance and running a £110m regeneration project.
She owns business consultancy twentyeight, now run by a colleague, and co-founded Pure Insight, which works with huge international corporations such as Unilever on R&D and innovation capabilities.
“When I ran Pure Insight, I had that with a business partner and we had a team of six people in the company and we delivered workshops, seminars and membership services throughout the UK and mainland Europe. I was over in America a lot of the time, because that’s where the big conferences were.
“And then I actually got pregnant with twins and I realised that I couldn’t be away from home for big chunks of time, so actually it wasn’t something that I consciously decided to work for myself on my own.
“I was kind of thrust into it because I had to come out of that business and stop travelling. In actual fact, I prefer to be leading a team and working on implementation, and doing stuff, rather than being a consultant, which is what my business was. This actually suits me much better.
“I don’t think that I could’ve taken on this challenge if I hadn’t founded Pure Insight, grown it to a certain point, raised investment, lost investment, hit rock bottom, built it up ... if I hadn’t gone through certain cycles and trials and tribulations, and had been out on my own as well, which teaches you a lot of resilience and hones your selling skills.”
Taste North East works with local food firms from producers to shops and restaurants. Hogan has arrived at a pivotal time for the group.
Hogan says: “This isn’t a food business – we are not a bakery or a butchers. We are champions of North East food and drink.
“It used to be one of, I think, eight regional food and drink groups which work very closely with producers of food and drink and really was about developing supply chains and routes to market for them.
“They received quite a substantial amount of money via One North East but essentially from the government. That money actually stopped in June of last year, and so I came in in February of this year, and am developing the commercial side of the activities from scratch really, so it’s a very different picture.
“We’re a very light touch organisation compared to the services we could offer previously, so effectively we’re trying to punch the same weight as we did when we got government money.”
Despite the recession, people’s taste for local food has not abated. TV food programmes and the rise of the celebrity chef have helped whip up interested in where our ingredients originate.
Hogan said: “There’s a lot of evidence to say that when there’s big global events go on that actually people take comfort in what’s close to them and when times are really hard, and people are giving up luxuries, actually food is something they can afford to spend a bit more money on rather than saving for a holiday.
“The sad thing and the difficult thing is, a few years ago, when we all started to go out to work and we all shifted our shopping and eating habits away from shopping and preparing food and shopping every day to the big out of town supermarkets.
“I’m not knocking the supermarkets, because they responded to our changes, the fact that many more people were working.
“But in creating the big supermarkets and their depots and their distribution chains, which then led to the supply chain all consolidating into much, much bigger suppliers, a lot of that stuff can’t be undone now.
“You just don’t have the infrastructure in place which enables local food really to get on to everybody’s plates and it becomes really difficult for a football club or a supermarket to actually bring local food in, because they’re only set up for food to be delivered en masse.
“And that’s where we come in really, helping people to understand where they can get their hands on it – where there’s a food festival, or a farmers market or a farm shop or a restaurant serving local food.”
Hogan’s first ambition was to become a farmer, like her own mother’s North East family.
She said: “I was born in Durham, but I lived in Warwick in the Midlands for all my growing up years and then I came back here to Newcastle University and then I met a chap in my third week, who I’m still married to now. The girls were born in the same hospital that I was born in, but to me that feels really odd as I didn’t actually spend any years in Durham growing up.
“My dad was from the West End of Newcastle and my mum’s family were farmers at Low Fell. I always wanted to be a farmer, but farming isn’t something that you go into – and they gave up the farm. There was only the milk round left by the time I was little, so there wasn’t the opportunity for me, but I do feel it’s in my blood – I’ve had horses all of my adult life.
“In so much that I had any ambition at all, I wanted to be a farmer. I had never thought about it, I had never focused on anything other than what I liked to do.
“I’d always worked since I was 14, I’d always had a job which was Saturday and Sunday, I always liked having my own money. That was very important.
“I had never thought beyond the end of my degree and my observation is that all English literature students are the same; we all got to the end and didn’t have this realisation that we were going to have to find something to do after that.
“I’m quite good at making connections between things and finding paths through things and putting things together and getting a sense of things very quickly.
“So one thing that I do really, really well is adapt to a new environment really, really quickly. I think if I’ve got a strength it’s really that – to be focused on what’s really important, to cut through noise and to be able to just understand what needs to be done and when.”
Within weeks of taking up the reins at Taste North East, she said she felt like she’d “come home”.
“The main and only challenge is to make sure we’re still here in two years time because we’re generating enough money to cover our own costs,” she says.