Business matters by Denise Roberts

Where the underdog comes first

Denise Roberts speaks to Karen Bailey, the first Black woman to set up a law practice in Birmingham City Centre

Whether defending an admissions appeal against a local school in Birmingham, or a whistle-blower against a multi-national corporation in Bosnia, solicitor Karen Bailey is most likely to be found siding with the underdog.

Her fighting spirit sometimes got her into sticky situations at school, but “being a lawyer enables you to fight using different tools, in a sociable way, not with your fists,” said Karen.

When Karen founded Bailey Wright & Co Solicitors in 1996, she was the first African Caribbean woman to set up a law practice in Birmingham City Centre. Like most people in her profession, she is driven by a strong sense of justice, although these were not ‘the high and mighty reasons’ that initially led her to law.

No, it was something else. “Somewhere in the Bible, teachers are listed next to prophets, but looking at my parents (both of whom were teachers) and how boring they were, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be like that’, so I decided to do a law degree,” she explained. “Besides, people said I needed some discipline and law is described as a discipline.”

Her initial perception of the profession was one of glamour – largely due to her first day of work experience, where she “went to court in the morning and went to a wine bar in the afternoon”, but the more she learnt, the less shallow and more serious and appealing the work seemed.

One of her most notable cases is that of Kathryn Bolkovac, the UN police officer awarded damages of £110,000 after whistleblowing on UN and other peacekeeping officers, who were involved in a sex trade that saw girls as young as 15 smuggled into Bosnia and forced to work as prostitutes. It was later made into a film (The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz and Vanessa Redgrave).

“With just a few good people you can change the law if the law is not right, and that is a complete privilege,” said Karen. “You don’t have to be a big corporation to win – just to know what you are doing.”

Karen was one of the victims caught in the Mumbai terrorist attacks, an experience which, she said, strengthened her faith: “Whether I can’t find a sock or I’m short of money one week, I seek divine guidance, and you also have the energy of those who have gone before you.”

She mentions names like Mandela, Gandhi and Malcolm X as role models, but however ‘boring’ her parents may have seemed, Karen’s mum – who (before she passed away in 1993) encouraged her daughter to set up the savings policy used to launch the business – has been a huge inspiration.

“At the time she said, ‘You never know, you may want to set up your own practice one day.’ Mum also bought me a picture of Malcolm X. Beneath was a quote: ‘To be truly free, we must first create our own economy’.

“I had a combination of Malcolm staring at me, encouragement from my husband, a matured savings policy…plus, I was always saying ‘Black people should do this and that’ so, although I was terrified, I said, ‘Let me put my money where my mouth is’ and I decided to take the plunge.”

Today, she has a team of three in addition to her husband, and says, “If you love something it doesn’t seem like work, but you still have to work hard at it.”
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Finding your competitive advantage

In business, core competency describes the set of behaviours that make you different from your competitors. It’s likely to be comprised of small behaviours that add up to your competitive advantage. What are the key behaviours that make up yours? Here’s how to find out:

Try tracing your customers’ journey from initial contact to service or product delivery. Carry out a survey.

  1. How closely do the results match your own assumptions? Where can you make changes or improvements?
  2. Products: How are they created? Where do you source raw materials? Are there ethical issues around this? Do you have a minimum standard?
  3. Route to market: What about packaging, transportation of products, delivery timescales and such like?
  4. What do your clients or customers care about? Environmental issues, working conditions, youth opportunities, family values? Can you build that into your offering?
  5. What about quality: How do you determine that? Do you only use people of a certain calibre? Do you have visible quality standards in place?
  6. Service expectations: Do you have a minimum response time? Do you compensate clients or customers for delays or for failure to deliver on promises?

Give your business a boost

After a successful 2014, this year’s Women In Business Expo moves to Birmingham City Council House, with a packed programme that promises fun alongside business. As well as speakers, workshops and exhibitors, there is a catwalk fashion showcase on the day, plus plenty of opportunity to network.

Organised by Headz Up Business, the Expo is aimed at both business and professional women, and takes place on Friday 19th June 2015 from 10.30am to 1.30pm at Birmingham City Council House, The Banqueting Suite, Victoria Square, Birmingham, B1 1BB. Entry is free and more information can be found at

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