This is the real-behind-the-scenes-story of Vanessa Wiltshire, founder of the successful and quickly growing The HR Talent Community a networking and event-based organisation, or “platform” for Human Resource Professionals.
Vanessa Wiltshire can trace her heritage back for more than five Australian born generations to a mixture of English, Scottish, German, French and Latvian descent. Vanessa, who holds two Bachelor’s degrees, in Arts (psychology & history) and Business (human resources). She worked in HR for over 10 years, four of those in the corporate world and six of them in the not-for-profit sector.
In late 2011, Vanessa was told by some respected Melbourne-based HR recruiters that it would be “very difficult” to re-enter the corporate sector. She’d “spent too much time” in Not-For-Profits, which apparently is not “real” experience when it comes to HR. Plus, she’d also “moved around too much” and had probably ruined her career. After persevering for another year, Vanessa realised that her HR career had only made her unhappy and angry anyway. She enrolled in a Viticulture course, which turned out not to be for her. Angry, frustrated with her career path and with no job salary, she moved back in with her parents in a small seaside village near Melbourne.
Feeling frustrated, humiliated and even cursed, Vanessa realized the connection she was seeking with HR professionals was available through social networking. Everyone was using it, but not yet, or so it seemed, for professional networking. “The concept of networking scared the bejesus out of me.” But, she decided to host a casual lunch in the Melbourne CBD for HR professionals she already knew. Everyone was interested in coming again with another guest who would be a HR professional and “the Fresh Face of HR”, the HR Talent Community was born.
Vanessa continues: “It was during the long, hot days I sat in an alfresco cafe and built the HR Talent Community “for something to do.” At first, I started writing personally to whomever I could connect with on Linked In. In the end I must have contacted over 500 people. I created an online group and invited my new connections to join, persuading them that the HR community needed yet another networking group, and that The HR Talent Community was different.”
Even so, Vanessa still had her detractors. “I was told that my “informal” networking initiative was a great idea but had little chance of succeeding. I felt deterred but I continued because I was enjoying it and people kept on coming back.” Her initiative, the HR Talent Community now has an organising team of 15 and over 3,000 followers. The HR Talent Community has organised successful functions in both Melbourne and Perth and is of course still growing, rather rapidly.
But Vanessa had much to overcome before The HR Talent Community started to grow and she could see that it did indeed fulfill a gap that she had long before identified as existing for networking with HR professionals.”Yes, like everyone I have faced adversity, at times, extreme. Without going in to detail, I had an exceptionally challenging year in 2011 when a relationship ended. I was in denial for a very long time. My life completely unravelled, but looking back, I allowed that to happen. No one can “make” me happy – I learned that the hard way.
I did go on the dole: it was incredibly hard. I was 34, the feeling of humiliation was almost unbearable. My advice to others is just to accept it. We live in a society where it is there. Being on the dole is transitory. If you view it like this, it will be easier to accept.”
If it wasn’t for the phenomenal support Vanessa received from her parents and her stepmother, she might have thrown her hands up in the air and given up, with it being all too hard.
“Where do I begin!” She says. “My real supporters are my parents and my stepmother. I could never have done this if it wasn’t for their support. Yes, I am 35 and living at home, rent free, in order to build my dream. They see what I see (particularly my father) and they are in it for the long haul with no expectation of return. They want to see me fly. I find it very hard to accept sometimes. I know i’m very lucky.”
Her biggest role models are her parents and sister. “They have all experienced extreme adversity and tragedy. But they have worked hard, and are the most wonderful, successful people I know. My grandparents and great grandparents were also incredibly hard working. They owned their own business. So you see it runs in our family. I was always taught that you work for what you want. Nothing is ever given to you.”
“Then they are my girlfriends, and people who have come into my life professionally over the last 17 months. There have been over 20 people, I can’t name them all. The level of encouragement, support, mentoring, coaching and advice has been so abundant. It is because of these people around me that The HR Talent Community is what it is today. I have had some tough love coaching as well- some very hard experiences and straight up feedback has forced me to look within and cut the crap.”
While recognising that she is incredibly lucky to have so many people around her who support her vision of The HR Talent Community and while she also recognises the efforts of those who work with her to create something special and extraordinary, Vanessa is the first to admit that it’s not all roses. Her supporters “are not always with me. They are not there when I’m still sitting at my computer at 1am, working unpaid. They are not running next to me when I pound the pavement to deal with a level of anxiety that is always there. No one is there when I sit in a café, staring in to a skinny flat white, wondering if it’s been worth it. My team and I see huge potential in The HR Talent Community, but there are no guarantees.”
Even so, Vanessa maintains an intense drive to create something bigger than herself that can touch the lives of others. “It may sound namby pamby, but for me, this is a calling. I couldn’t ignore it even if I wanted to.”
Does she have any regrets? “No regrets – at all. The money in HR was great, but I was an angry, bitter and cynical person. I wasn’t nice to be around, and I certainly wasn’t nice to work with, I know that for a fact. Towards the end, I was also 15kg heavier because I never had time to exercise, despite the fact my hours are longer now. I integrate running into my life. I also allowed myself to smoke quite heavily after many years on the bandwagon. I haven’t touched one for three years now and I am so much healthier and happier! Last year I achieved a goal I never thought possible, I ran half a marathon. This year I intend to run a marathon. Quite often when I am out running, I am amazed and proud. From 25-30 cigarettes a day at my lowest point, to becoming a long distance runner”
But when pressed, Vanessa admitted that maybe she did have a couple of regrets after all. The first is that she “followed the crowd” when she chose to study HR all those years ago. “My second biggest regret is chasing the money. Every time I made a decision based solely on money, it never ended well.”
Her advice to other career aspirants who are feeling “burnt out” by their career? “Just stop. There is no shame. Forget what everyone else is doing. The success of the corporate world is an illusion. Climbing the ladder is only one definition of success. Figure out what yours is. Any lifestyle you have created around your salary – you can change it. Houses and cars can be sold. They are just things! Your biggest asset is your health and well being. If you lose that, it cannot be brought back. Don’t be afraid to work part-time, even travel! It can be simple travel – like working on an organic farm close to your city. The bigger piece of advice- take time out for yourself. You cannot make a bigger or more important investment in your life than that.”
And having listened to her own advice, the platform Vanessa created, The HR Talent Community, is on a roll. Growing rapidly, it has recently hosted successful events in Perth as well as Melbourne and is now looking to expand to the other Australian Capitals. It has also been greeted with more than a passing interest by HR professionals working overseas, where the next big network is waiting to connect with The HR Talent Community!