Eileen Brown has a habit of being a bit of a trail-blazer.
She doesn’t plan it like that. It just happens.
Back in the 1970s, she was the first woman ever to be employed on Shell tankers, eventually becoming the company’s first ever female navigating officer, guiding huge oil tankers across the world from the Persian Gulf. Then, in the early ’90s, she moved into IT, working for Microsoft and getting into social media before social media as we know it today existed.
And she’s hoping that lucky habit continues with her latest initiative. Along with fellow businesswoman Sue Hall, Eileen has launched a “cash mob” venture to support independent shops and breathe new life into our ailing high streets.
Eventually, they are hoping to roll out the cash mob − whereby supporters spend £10 at a nominated independent trader − from Suffolk to neighbouring counties and beyond. So far, shops in Ipswich, Hadleigh, Felixstowe, Stowmarket and Sudbury have been cash mobbed. “A couple of shops doubled their takings on the day,” says Eileen. “After the Hadleigh event, I got a lovely email from someone saying they had never visited the town before that day but they had now been back three times, spending money in independent shops. That just shows how cash mobs can benefit not just businesses but consumers too by helping them to discover something new. Supermarkets these days offer everything but it is killing our high street, so by putting some cash into local businesses we sustain our unique towns. We’re hoping to find community-minded people to roll the initiative out to Essex and Norfolk and we’re building a framework so that this can be replicated across the country.”
Neither Eileen nor Sue benefits financially. “What I get out of it is a feeling that I am helping connect community-minded people to businesses that might need a little extra help and using the skills I have gained from 10 years working in social media to good community effect,” says Eileen.
Her trail-blazing began early, with the job at Shell in the 1970s.
At first sight, it’s hard to imagine the diminutive Eileen was cut out for the sort of environment she found herself in. But after a few minutes in conversation with her, it’s obvious she would be more than capable of holding her own in that − and any other − situation.
Eileen joined the Merchant Navy after leaving school in her native Darlington. “It was just after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and women were allowed to do the same jobs as men,” she says. “I was the first girl that Shell tankers employed. This was 1978. I’d wanted to do the job since going on a school trip when I was 13 and touring the bridge of a ship. I fell in love with the idea of travelling and getting paid for it.”
She wrote to BP, Shell, Esso and Texaco, judging one of the “big four” would be most likely to take her on. Shell hired her as a deck cadet on a four-year apprenticeship, learning everything from navigation to splicing ropes.
She had to learn fast.
“There were practical difficulties from the start, just because no woman had done the job before,” she says. “They didn’t have the right size safety shoes and the kind of toiletries a woman needs. I had the right qualifications and personality and that’s why I got the job, but a lot of the men on board were incredibly negative. The atmosphere on the ship was very much like the police TV series set in the ’70s, Life on Mars. It was sexist. I decided that in order to be accepted as one of the boys I was going to ‘out-boy’ everybody by drinking, smoking and swearing, which did not actually work at all. I was accepted when I became an officer and because I was as good, if not better, at my job than the boys. I went on to become the first woman to be navigating officer at Shell. In the early days, I had to be bolshy. I was petrified but my external appearance was very tough and confident. I did not want to show any weakness at all. I wanted to maintain the impression that I was perfectly capable or as tough as the guys. Most of the officers and other cadets were absolutely fantastic. Occasionally, on some ships an officer would have a bit of a pop at the fact I was a woman and, so they thought, a soft touch.
“Some ships’ officers were allowed to take their wives to sea and on those occasions it was lovely to speak to another woman. But on several ships I was on my own.”
Despite the difficulties, Eileen loved the job and was heartbroken when she was made redundant at the end of her apprenticeship. An oil crisis caused production to be dramatically cut and there wasn’t enough work. “I thought my career was over,” says Eileen. “I was 20 years old and thought that was it for the rest of my life. I was a navigating officer and when tankers were in port, because there was no oil to transport, there is no navigating to do. All I wanted to do was go back to sea.”
Her chance came when she got a job with CP (Canadian Pacific) Ships as navigating officer, a role in which she continued until she married. A move to Suffolk followed and Eileen began working for a container shipping company in Ipswich, initially as a ship stowage planner, allocating space to containers on ships according to discharge ports. At first, Eileen drew up schedules on paper but this was the early 1990s and before long she decided to “dabble” on a computer in the corner of the office. “I worked out how to put sailing schedules onto a spreadsheet,” she says. “It was so much quicker.” Eventually, she went on to work for Microsoft, where she ended up “spreading the word” about technology. “It was 2004 and this was social media in the very early stages,” she says. “We posted blogs and got customer feedback in that way.” Eileen left Microsoft in 2009 to set up her own company advising businesses on social media strategy. She called the company Amastra, for very personal reasons. “Amastra is a small shell from Hawaii but also the name of the ship where I first became an officer. It has an emotional connection for me.”
Her clients include Jaguar Land Rover, Microsoft and IBM, she continues to blog, writes a column for an online technical journal and is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) ambassador, encouraging girls to think about a career in IT. She’s clearly busy enough, but when she learned about the difference cash mobs had made to small businesses in hurricane-hit areas of America she found time to take on one more thing. “I just thought this would be an amazing initiative to do in the UK,” she says. “We’ve got some fabulous towns but they are in danger of losing a lot of their individuality as online global businesses and huge chains take over. The high street is in danger of becoming homogenised. By spending £10 in a nominated independent shop, instead of spending it in a chain or supermarket, local businesses get a boost and increased awareness. No-one is being asked to spend any more, just to spend it in a different way. It is about helping independent businesses and keeping our towns full of character. Everyone wins.”
Shops are nominated online, with the lucky “winner” announced on the 21st of each month and cash mobbed on the first Saturday of the following month. The next cash mob will be at Framlingham Greengrocers in Bridge Street from 11am on May 3.
For details, visit http://www.facebook.com/CashMobSuffolk. No Facebook account is needed to view, but one is needed to make a nomination. Cash mobs are planned in Eye, Clare, Haverhill, Woodbridge, Southwold, Needham Market and Bury St Edmunds.
More information is available from Eileen on 07764359905 or Sue on 07722121325
Eileen Brown has a habit of being a bit of a trail-blazer.