Carolyn Banks loves Monday mornings. While a good portion of the working world will wake with a groan to a commute-calling alarm, Carolyn wakes up to the gentle lapping of the ocean against the hull of her yacht. Sipping her tea up on deck, she watches the sun dance over Auckland Harbour as her thoughts turn to the week ahead and to the 1100 women she is responsible for as Venus national manager.
It was in a moment of clarity six years ago that Carolyn decided to simplify her life and make her ‘happy place’ — a sailing boat on the ocean — her permanent dwelling. “It’s a lifestyle I love,” says Carolyn. “For me it represents freedom and independence, and those things are really important to me.”
It also took courage to live out these personal values. Living on a boat is not conventional. Learning the ins and outs of a seafaring abode requires ingenuity, verve and a willingness to be challenged beyond her comfort zone. Luckily, these are all qualities Carolyn has in spades. “I thrive on challenge,” says Carolyn. “I love being at the edge of my comfort zone. Being told I can’t do something just makes me more determined to do it.”
This appetite for challenge has held Carolyn in good stead throughout her life. It gave her the strength to rebuild her life after having a break-down at 30. It lent her the determination to build a successful bespoke communications technology solutions business in a male-dominated industry from the ground up. And it is what motivates her to be at the helm of the Venus Network, championing the personal and business growth of a national community of businesswomen.
By taking up the leadership mantle of the Venus Network, Carolyn had freed Venus Founder and CEO Vanessa Davey to create and innovate. This freedom has so far resulted in the Venus Academy and Venus Summer School, and there are more projects in the pipeline which will add even more value to the Venus suite of services.
Carolyn says, “When Vanessa and I were talking about me taking on the role I said to her, ‘I will run Venus like it’s my business, but respect it like it’s yours’.” And she does. Coco, her canine companion, might be the only other permanent presence on board Faraway, but Carolyn is conscious of being surrounded by the invisible network of Venus connections and of her role in shaping the network.
At 52 Carolyn feels comfortable enough in her own skin and passionate enough about seeing businesswomen thrive that she is willing to challenge them — even if they don’t welcome it at first. “Being Venus national manager is like being an annoying parent,” laughs Carolyn. “I have got a reputation, particularly in Auckland, for being firm but fair. I’m quite pleased with that.”
Carolyn had been running her own business, Independent Communications Expertise (ICE), for 18 years before she came across Venus. From her very first meeting at a group in the East Coast Bays she felt like she had come home. “Straight away I understood the value Venus offered,” says Carolyn. “These women ‘got’ me. I could see how different my business life and my personal life would have been if I had had Venus around all those years ago. Because I understand that, I am determined that our members honour the commitments they make to each other. Most women love the accountability. They like being pushed.”
And in case you think she spends all her time finger-wagging, you should know that Carolyn is heart-felt in her role as coach and cheer-leader. “Most people in life just need someone to see the potential and encourage them,” she says. “They need someone to back them, so they can back themselves.”
She adds, “The most wonderful thing in Venus is seeing women come in who are just a shell of who they can be and watching how they blossom after a bit of encouragement and a bit of direction. I love that about the job.”
While Venus is at its core a networking and referral business, Carolyn says it offers so much more than that. “The ‘value-add’ we offer is training and development, it’s having a group of people to drink wine with, it’s the learning that you’ll have, it’s people kicking you in the butt because those people can actually see things in you that you can’t see in yourself. That’s what being part of a community is all about.”
Carolyn came to value community after the stress and loneliness of climbing the corporate ladder at Telecom in Wellington during her 20’s. “I always felt like a square peg in a round hole in the corporate world,” says Carolyn. “I am not a political game player. If you ask me what I think, I’ll tell you, which is not always good in corporates.”
It was community, in the form of family and close friends, that got Carolyn through her break-down at age 30. Carolyn was putting in long hours at Telecom and battling glandular fever and hepatitis when a messy romantic relationship ended with her ex committing suicide. “I disappeared into a bottle for six months,” says Carolyn. “I just didn’t cope at all. I went to the doctor one day and she said to me ‘you are emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted’.”
Hitting the wall, Carolyn moved in with her parents and slept for a month. “Dad was marvellous, he literally took over my life for a while,” says Carolyn. “Mum took me out for a little outing to the same cafe every day. Even though I didn’t want to go I can see in hindsight it was the best thing for me.”
Carolyn was on Prozac for two years. She was made medically redundant from her job and had to go on a benefit. She saw a psychologist and embarked on a journey of personal growth, gaining new understanding and the capacity to move forward with her life. Slowly, but surely, she started coming right.
As part of rebuilding her life she began to build her own business with a $5000 business loan kickstart from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ). Since then, she has gone from strength to strength but has carried the lessons and the growth of that experience with her.
“My breakdown was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says Carolyn. “I dealt with stuff. I think it’s part of the value I bring to women in Venus. I can listen and ask them key questions. I say to them, ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it’.”
She adds, “My top strengths are strategy and empathy. I can put myself in their shoes, but I can also say to them, ‘it’s time to step up and put on your big girl pants’.”
A deeply held Venus value is a whole-person approach to business, and Carolyn supports this 100%. “I think it’s very important that personal growth is valued as being key to business growth,” says Carolyn. “A woman coming into Venus has to be open to the concept of working on herself.”
Carolyn believes that what Venus offers is life-changing, but she lands the responsibility and the kudos for that change squarely at the feet of the women themselves. “Our role at Venus is to facilitate change,” she says. “I can give advice, I can throw the whole of Venus behind you, but you’ve got to make the decision to step up,” she says. “Every time I sit down with a member who is stuck with something, I ask a few key questions and they have always got the answer. They just need the encouragement to act on what they know.”
Carolyn is not looking to be the hero. She is here to champion every woman in the Venus Network to be the hero of their own story, the leading lady of their own life. “I’ve had women in Venus say ‘thank you, you’ve really changed my life’,” says Carolyn. “I always go back to them and say, ‘Actually, no I haven’t. It’s you that did that’.”
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