Inspiring women in rural enterprise

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Sarah Wells-Gaston speaks to CLA member Jo Hilditch, Managing Director of White Heron, about the lessons she has learnt as a woman in business
Jo Hilditch

Jo Hilditch, Managing Director of White Heron, is a mother and wife, farmer and entrepreneur. From appearing on Dragons’ Den to serving as chair of the Blackcurrant Foundation, she shares her experiences, advice and inspiration.

As a fourth generation farmer, did you feel any pressure to follow in your family’s footsteps?

I never expected to be involved in the farm as I had a younger brother, who unfortunately died aged 26. My family was always very pro primogeniture in the traditional sense, so there was no question that I would come back. It seemed the obvious thing to do, as there was no one else. I was 29, and for someone who had just married and moved to Cheshire, expecting to continue a career in PR and marketing, it was a huge career change.

How did you carve your own path?

My path was not in farming. I moved to Oxford and then London straight from school. Always with an entrepreneurial bent, I did a secretarial course and an haute couture course, as I saw myself as a designer and dressmaker. Having worked for someone else first, I then set up my own businesses – originally making wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, curtains and Ascot outfits, and then a business importing linen from Thailand. Latterly, I moved into PR, interspersed with travels around the world – including nine months on the British Virgin Islands, where I worked as a cook and deckhand on dive charter boats.

Who has inspired you the most?

Probably my dad. Nothing was too much of a challenge for him, and that has lived with me. He had a positive attitude and always had great respect for everyone. He died a few years after my brother - far too young. In the three years that we worked together, he never held me back, he allowed me to make decisions in the business (sometimes incorrect ones!) and, as a seat-of-his-pants operator, he gave me the confidence to be bold.

What is the most important piece of advice that you have been given?

Having been educated at a girls’ boarding school, I was empowered to be what I wanted to be by the headmistress, Pat Lancaster. She gave me terrible reports, but I always respected her point of view. She was a visionary as she foresaw how society would develop, realising how these changes would bring women new opportunities but without ever underestimating the difficulties and resistance that would accompany them. My strong character and sense of self were definitely partly formed by being at such a challenging girls’ school, never seeing sex as a problem or a barrier.

Jo Hilditch 1

What is the stand-out moment from your career?

I am proud of many things I have done, or we have done as a business (along with my farm manager). These include expanding the business in every direction and diversifying into many other enterprises, using our blackcurrants for a consumer product winning a 3* Gold and Golden Fork in the Great Taste Awards in 2019, and being the first woman chair of the Herefordshire Agricultural Club, inaugurated in the year I was born.

Have you faced barriers in your career, and how have you overcome them?

Not being able to drive a tractor, not being much of a mechanic and not being able to chat ‘boy stuff’ in the pub. Everyone knows my limitations, so delegation is key. Holding my own in a male-oriented farming society has become second nature.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing women in business?

Having a family and trying to keep the balance. It’s all very well if you are self-employed, as I have been, but for most, taking a career break to have a family is still risky. It shouldn’t be, but it’s hard to see a way around it, as a family is important for many people. In many families, the expectation is still that the mum looks after the kids and the household, so it is a hard habit to break.

What message do you want to send to young women who are thinking about their careers?

Be bold and do what you want to do – there are no limits to how successful you can be, so be confident in your power

Every company needs a balance, and being a woman in business at the moment gives you an opportunity to get ahead. The story my artist daughter tells me is about a male artist who walks in with a new portfolio of paintings and says: “Hey guys, look at what I’ve done – I’m pressing on with this brilliant new technique, and it’s working really well.” A female artist walks in and says: “I’ve been working really hard on a new concept, but I’m not sure it’s at all good”. Even now I think this is how we often behave as men and women. Our modesty is great, and no one likes a brag, but a better balance would be good. That’s not to say that accepting that men are men and women are women is not important – we do have different qualities, and these should be embraced and championed.

If you could have dinner with three inspirational women, who would they be and why?

I need a dinner party for seven! Pat Lancaster is one. I would love to discuss all the things she didn’t know she gave me, and let her know that her advice and influence has resonated throughout my career. My mum, who’s nearly 90, is my brilliant rock. She’s incisive and inquisitive, interesting and very much ‘alive’. And Miranda Hart, because I love her sense of the absurd and we would need someone to keep us laughing. There are many business women: perhaps my Dragons Deborah Meaden and Sarah Willingham, Anita Roddick – a true feminist - and Minette Batters, a great farming advocate. The debate would be lively. And Michelle Obama, we can definitely find a chair for her.

CLA Women's Network

The network seeks to promote the involvement and voice of women members within the CLA