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Career Shaping Conversations: Sophie Milliken MBE

Voco Team
Career stories
Graphic titlecard of Sophie Milliken
Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Sophie and I’m the founder and CEO of Moja Group, where I work with entrepreneurs and executives to amplify their personal profiles and become industry thought leaders.

After starting my career on the John Lewis Partnership graduate scheme, I specialised in L&D and recruitment, and went on to found SRS, the leading provider of graduate assessment centre simulations for universities.

I’ve written two books on graduate career development and female leadership.

I also co-founded City Ladies Networking, bringing together women in business in Newcastle, London and Paris, and I’m the Chair of Smart Works Newcastle, helping to provide unemployed women across the North East with access to interview coaching and clothing.

I was awarded an MBE for services to Business & Education in 2023, and I’m a very proud mum!

A conversation I reflect on

Early on at John Lewis, I had a really interesting conversation which I’ve come to reflect on more and more in recent years.

I was told that I needed to ‘raise my profile’ but back then, I had no idea what that actually meant. And no one ever really told me the answer. So I just tried to figure it out myself. Like coming in early be to ‘seen’ or saying yes to stuff, and getting involved in projects outside my day job so I would get access to more opportunities.

What’s interesting about the conversation is not really what happened then but how it defined what I came to be great at later.

When I was building my first business, I was trying to figure out how I was going to make it work. So I starting saying yes to stuff and becoming well known in my little industry, it was a bit of snowball effect, no real strategy or plan, no attempt to build my ‘personal brand’ but it was key to my success.

And when I look back I always thought of that first conversation about raising my profile as it’s the basis of my whole business - I’ve really come full circle!

A conversation that built my confidence

This was a conversation that was actually the culmination of a series of conversations with the co-founder of my first business, SRS. He’d been unsure for a while if what we were building was right for him, but had kept delaying his decision and ‘giving it another year’.

So I was pretty prepared when he finally made the decision to walk away, and I’d got myself comfortable with the idea of being a sole-business owner, but it was still a massive deal when we actually had that conversation.

Suddenly I was on my own and I had to go out and find clients, build revenue. I was also recently divorced with a little girl to support - so it was a lot! And I was thinking: “My god, what am I doing?!”

My co-founder had led most of our business development but it had not really caught fire, so I decided to have a go and see what I could do, and I found out that I was actually good at sales. I really believed in the business, I was passionate about it and I think that came across strongly and helped me win clients.

That built my confidence and I realised I could do it alone, but I went through all sorts of emotions to get there after that conversation!

A conversation that led me somewhere new

I went for a coffee with a really successful local business owner to seek her advice about how to exit my company successfully and what to do next.

I had this idea and I wanted to run it past her. I’d been really successful at building my profile - in being seen as an expert and authority - and rather than going back to doing something similar to my last company, I wanted to see if I could build something around that profile raising expertise. A map or strategy for others to follow - that sort of thing.

I didn’t quite know if it was marketing, or PR, or personal branding, but it was something, and her reaction was so positive and unequivocal - ‘love it, you should do it’ - that I just thought, yeah, that’s it.

That conversation gave me the confidence and drive to mock up a deck and start exploring my idea properly and bringing it to life. She also supported the business by becoming a client.

I’m not sure if I wouldn’t have gone down this route if we hadn’t had that coffee. Possibly, but I might not be where I am now, so it was definitely a really key moment for me.

Someone I'd like to have a career conversation with...

I think it’s really interesting to spend time with high profile business people - people who’ve been there and done it - and ask them for advice, but also to see them in less formal settings, to get an idea of who they really are.

So I’d probably like to sit down with someone like Karren Brady, who’s just really seen as having made it big in business, and pick her brains.

Or maybe Sir Richard Branson. Again I’d like to see the more human side of him, the more unguarded side. To really chew the fat with him - preferably with a nice Caribbean view - that would be cool!

I think it’s important to remember that even the most successful people are still human. Things still go wrong, they still have doubts and suffer from things like imposter syndrome - you may perceive them to be ‘ahead’ of you but the reality is we all go through the same things.

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