Building confidence: the power of self-esteem, empathy and trust

Sairah Ashman shares some key takeaways from TEDxGreekStWomen

Sairah Ashman

Global CEO Wolff Olins


This summer saw women ever more in the spotlight in terms of popular culture. There was the box-office-busting Barbie film; the Women’s World Cup breaking TV ratings records; and sell-out tours for two of the world’s biggest acts, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, all smashing the age-old myth that content made by women and starring women can’t bring in big audiences. Women’s shift into the cultural spotlight in this way can be seen as a further catalyst in the fight for equality. 

But while there have been advances for women, we’ve also had setbacks. From the violation of women’s rights around the world, to the economic crisis resulting from the ongoing war in Ukraine, to new sanctions around dress in Iran, women are still fighting inequality on all fronts. And, as Alice Williams MBE, Founder and CEO of Luminary Bakery, explains, gender-based violence and disadvantage is still here on our doorstep in the UK.

“Over 100,000 women living in London are unemployed… one third of women in the UK have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner,” says Williams. “These experiences erode women’s confidence and limit her belief that she can have a different life post those experiences.”

Building confidence can come from community, from empathy and from trust – and as female leaders we have the power to shape our community and environment to inspire others.

Sairah Ashman, Global CEO, Wolff Olins

Williams was one of three incredible speakers I recently hosted for TEDxGreekStWomen, at an event which focused on celebrating and championing inspirational women, advancing their ideas and building a diverse and more inclusive future.

The overarching TEDWomen theme this year was “walking forward with confidence”, something perfectly encapsulated by Williams’ work with underprivileged women on the streets of East London. Her work helps socially and economically disadvantaged women by using baking as a tool for employability and entrepreneurship – something she was inspired to do after working with disadvantaged women in Thailand. 

Rebuilding confidence through community – and baking 

One conservation, with a sex worker in East London at a dingy bus-stop back in 2012, particularly stuck in her mind, she said. “I remember chatting to one woman who was in her late forties, talking about how much she hated doing this for money. I asked her if she’d ever tried anything else… and her response has stuck with me all these years since - she took a moment and said: ‘I don’t know how to, I’ve been doing this since I was 13’.”

Meeting women in such circumstances made Alice determined to offer them some alternative to rebuild their confidence. She and a friend who was volunteering to cook at a hostel put together an idea to start teaching baking to see if it might be an accessible vocational skill for women to learn. One graduate of the scheme has even gone on to found her own restaurant. “We believe women truly can change the direction of their lives,” she said. 

Leaning into the power of empathy 

Alongside Williams were Jessie Mei Li, the actor and star of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, and Natalie Campbell MBE, the Co-CEO of Belu Water, Co-Founder of global consultancy A Very Good Company and an independent candidate for Mayor of London.

Li shared some thoughts from her own experience as a neurodiverse actor from a biracial family and growing up without positive role models of East Asian women on screen. In a world in which social media polarises opinion and “there is zero room for grey areas or nuance”, she believes art, film and TV are more important than ever to drive empathy.

“Authentic representation is really essential,” she said, highlighting that in much mainstream entertainment, “it feels like social justice issues are shoehorned in with little regard for authenticity and nuance”. She also noted the importance of avoiding stereotypes in depictions of everyone – including white men.  “I like to sometimes imagine that I’m an angry straight white man, and there’s been times when I’ve been watching some viral tv show where a minority protagonist is victimised by the mean old guardians of the status quo - and inevitably these nasty bigoted white male villains are made to look cartoonishly stupid and evil,” she reflected.

We could all do with a little more empathy to those who are different from ourselves, she believes. Because “empathy is the first step to tolerance, and we need that more than ever right now. With enough patience and empathy, you can find your way to changing someone’s mind.” 

Trust in yourself and in others 

Finally, Campbell spoke about the power of trust – an issue especially pertinent to the current times in which trust in institutions like politics and the police are being eroded. Natalie described her experience as taking over as a CEO of a B2B water business just before lockdown struck in 2020. “I went from running an organisation that was successful…to not knowing if that business would exist.”

She explained how her team had to put their full trust in her - despite only having met her once - so that she could enable the business to thrive, recreating its purpose and building it back to profitability. Having created a framework around “four Ps” – purpose, people, product and profit – she aligned her team to help build the products and services that meant Belu could return to profit. “In order to build trust, I was giving them something of myself and they were giving me something of themselves,” she said.  One action she took was to make her (female) COO her co-CEO. Trust, she said, is an “invisible contract” and we all have a role to play – including trusting ourselves.

“For me, the power of trust is that I trusted myself as a CEO,” she reflected. “I trusted that if I shared the power in the business, Belu would go faster, further together.”

Building confidence can come from community, from empathy and from trust – and as female leaders we have the power to shape our community and environment to inspire others. Getting external training can also help, as can support from others.

As Alice Williams said, confidence is “built by a combination of bravely trying something new, and then external validation when you do. Sometimes, we need the people around us to give us that perspective – it’s that extra validation not to give up.”

This is one area where women can have a superpower – drawing on ‘softer’ strengths like empathy and compassion rather than behaving like an ‘Alpha’ CEO and pretending they have all the answers. Sometimes, it’s better to admit that you don’t.

As Brené Brown, American professor, author and podcast host, once said: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity."

Not always a popular concept in what can feel like a cut-throat business world, but one that opens the doors to new possibilities, ideas and outcomes.

Guest Author

Sairah Ashman

Global CEO Wolff Olins


Sairah Ashman is Global CEO of brand consultancy Wolff Olins, where she oversees the business direction across its offices in London, New York and San Francisco. She’s passionate about working with ambitious leaders to help their businesses become great brands in world, the kind of radical and category-defining brands that represent something special for the people who buy from them and the people who work for them. She works across a wide range of jobs, helping to push creativity and challenge the work internally. Sairah is an alumna of Harvard Business School and Goldsmiths University of London, where she recently completed a Masters in Digital Sociology. She’s also an active supporter of The House of St Barnabas, working to break the cycle of homelessness, and a regular TEDx host and speaker.

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