Life in perpetual motion

Ian Florance talks to Fiona Price about putting a background in psychology to use in diverse settings

The majority of psychological undergraduates work outside mainstream applied and research psychology. Does psychology help them? Does initial training disappoint? What does training prepare or fail to prepare them for? What sort of jobs do people who are interested in psychology excel at?  

Fiona Price was heralded as ‘first woman of finance’ in Harpers & Queen and has received three national business women’s awards. She’d also rowed for Wales and competes in endurance horse racing. I ask Fiona about her background. ‘I come from a Jewish family, one in which education was seen as a means of getting on. It sometimes seemed as though I was in perpetual motion with school and all the extracurricular activities.’

Fiona spent a year in Australia before university to work at an ‘extreme’ outward bound centre for teenagers. Why did she choose psychology to study? ‘I was interested in people and human behaviour. My grandmother was a psychologist, and the subject seemed to be a catch-all which met my interests.’ And did it surprise you? ‘It seemed like a waste of time then, but I thought the same thing about the MBA I did straight afterwards. I found higher education too theoretical, formal and uninspiring.

‘My psychology course was too divided up into discrete units – cognitive, perception, developmental, etc. All psychology degree courses should teach practical skills. It would be useful if there were also a compulsory element in all higher-education courses that taught vital life skills too, such as dealing with stress, money, health and nutrition and coping strategies. The proverbial shit will hit the fan at various times in your work so it’s best to be prepared! One of the key things that marks out “successful” people is how they manage themselves. Although I didn’t see the value of a psychology degree, it was at the beginning of a never-ending quest to understand people, our life and times, the world we live in and the world beyond – a journey which is both personal and applied.’

Fiona does acknowledge an upside to university. ‘It gave me the opportunity to follow all sorts of interests. I joined the riding and skiing club, and was captain of the boat club. After the undergraduate degree, I came to London to study for an MBA at City University as an excuse to train with the GB rowing team. This led to me competing in the 1986 Commonwealth Games for Wales, winning the Home International in a coxless four and taking silver twice at the National Championships in a coxless pair.’

Towards female empowerment

‘Doing a condensed, one-year MBA was a tough period in my life. I was training three hours and cycling up to 20 miles a day, burning the midnight oil to write essays and studying for exams. I was the only student who hadn’t been in a workplace and that was a distinct disadvantage. I came out of the course knowing two things – I was “maths phobic”, and almost certainly unemployable.’

Fiona speaks of wanting to create her own experience. ‘This was in ’83 and there was no outplacement structure. I didn’t want to go into a bureaucracy… I wrote letters to companies and got nowhere before applying to one of those cheesy “Be Your Own Boss” adverts. It involved selling financial products. It was challenging. The starting point was approaching my own friends and trying to sell to them. But I quickly got recommendations, found I was good at it and worked hard and enthusiastically.

I also realised that the financial sector was a very unethical place and saw an opening for services which were professional and empowering.’

After three years Fiona had been promoted to branch manager, but decided to leave and do her own thing. ‘I raised what was then a lot of money and in 1986 set up as an independent financial adviser firm in Covent Garden, with a partner and around 10 staff’. Going into the finance sector seems an odd career choice for someone who described herself as maths phobic. ‘I could understand the numbers if they were applied, if they related to something real in someone’s life. That’s one of my characteristics: I found it easier to learn about psychology in the real world rather than the theoretical approach of a degree course.’

One of the shocking aspects of finance that Fiona had identified was its inherent sexism. ‘The early and mid-1980s saw the start of women’s business and professional networks throughout the country, and in London particularly. I was a member of many of these and meeting so many successful women confirmed a number of the things I’d begun to think. Many of them were scared of numbers and finance, as I had been. Most men talked jargon, thinking they knew more than they often did – women favour plain English and create an environment which empowers others rather than reflects their own sense of self-worth and ego. So I started to gain a lot of women clients through these networks, and was increasingly motivated by creating
female financial empowerment through independent financial advice. So I decided to set up entirely on my own to focus on this market.’

Over time Fiona found herself doing more and more media work. ‘Anybody seriously involved in the media understands that they have more chance of success if they offer a total package – up to writing an article for a journalist or providing both questions and answers on any given subject for a TV or radio researcher. This strengthened my interest in plain English. And I became more and more fascinated in the media and in particular in broadcast.’ Among many other activities Fiona founded a professional network for women working in the financial sector, supporting around 1500 members nationwide and running an annual national award.

‘After 18 years I sold the business, which then employed over 30 people. I really wanted to be in mainstream TV on the presenting side, but despite pitching many ideas it seemed to be a closed world. So I built my own site called Diva Biz and interviewed around 80 leading British businesswomen on camera. Web was an alien business to me and I didn’t know enough to make it work financially – it may have been impossible at that time! So I was headhunted to be MD of the fledgling Horse and Country TV, which led me to mothball Diva Biz.’

A passion-led business
All the way through the interview, Fiona stressed the importance of what she terms  ‘passion-led businesses’. It’s clear that for her this is not a meaningless piece of jargon. Caring intensely about what you do – whatever that may be – leads to certain ways of behaving, not least a desire to communicate what you do to as many people as possible and a commitment to learning how to do things rather than relying on others.

Fiona describes equestrianism as her ‘guilty secret’ for a long time, but the TV job seemed to give her an opportunity to turn her private passion into business. ‘But I didn’t believe HCTV could make it work as a 24/7 Sky channel at that time. I felt web was the way… So, having said I would never set up my own business again, there I was raising money for yet another start-up. I launched in 2008 after 18 months of preparation.

‘I’ve always loved the part where you sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start developing an idea from scratch. I’m less good at maximising the business success in its mature phase, a number of years along the line. Financial returns are not my main priority. Making a difference to people’s lives is. I also have a low boredom threshold.’

Fiona describes the technical side of making videos of top equestrians working with their horses as ‘challenging’, but some five years after launch, she has made around 900 videos. ‘While filming and editing seems a very different skill to anything I’ve done before, I wrote and edited hundreds of articles in my first career, so I was used to reducing content to its most succinct form.’

Does your interest in psychology translate into your interest in animals? ‘Yes, people and animals are a complex puzzle of mind, body and soul. Also, animals live in the moment and mirror your mood, which is always educational! My interest in equestrianism is part of my personal voyage of discovery. Currently, I compete in the sport of endurance riding, racing over distances of 120K in a day, so the challenge of preparing yourself and the horse for that is very focusing.’

Underlying everything is Fiona’s desire to answer the broader questions in life. ‘I got interested in spirituality at the age of 17 when I went to Australia for a year out. I loathe anything evangelical… organised religion takes away the power of individuals to do their own thinking. So I’ve created my own eclectic approach to spirituality.’

Fiona wrapped up our interview saying something extraordinarily valuable. ‘You spend the first 10 years of your working life learning more about what you don’t want. And the majority of your lessons come from your failures and mistakes rather than your successes. If you are prepared to tackle them, you’ll find your own path.’ 

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