Jessica Southworth had just left school with 10 GCSEs and was starting college when she was faced with a major decision. How was she going to tell her mum that she was pregnant?
Or rather, what was she going to tell her mum? ‘I’m pregnant and cracking on with my course’ or ‘I’m pregnant and dropping out of college’. She decided that she couldn’t deliver two pieces of devastating news so stayed on to see the course through.
Today, 14 years later, she is Director of Sales at Hotel Football in Manchester, a proud mum and, last year, the winner of a Top Female Role Model Award.
The decision she made all those years ago, and Jess would admit her stubborn streak played a part, would form the basis of how she dealt with the challenges, prejudices and opportunities that followed.
She says: “For me, college was about staying blinkered, like finishing a project that I had started and didn’t enjoy.
“Making the decision to study at university, was simply because it was perceived that I couldn’t do it, as I was a parent. Although this was coupled with difficult shift work, it taught me a great deal about resilience.
“Being able to dig deep and develop grit, helped me to stay focused on what I needed to do. In hindsight, although it was for ‘me,’ it was probably more to do with proving people wrong.”
Jess’ first lesson was one of prejudice, and not from the sources she expected. Whilst her female course tutor wrote her off, expecting her to drop out, it was her male tutor who proved supportive in helping get her through the course.
Shunned by her female friends and made to feel like she had ‘let the side down’, it was two devout Muslim boys who stayed friends and helped her throughout the course.
When she came back in the September after giving birth to Saffron in June, she found she had been effectively removed from the course – her pass and login details no longer valid. Jess was made to feel that she had become a statistic as far as the college was concerned.
But she was determined to finish and gain a distinction. Those two years were really hard, Jess admits. She felt lonely at college and had no opportunity to acknowledge her ‘baby blues’.
True to her word, she left college with three distinctions and was shocked to learn that she had been put forward for a Queen’s Silver Jubilee award after two years of silence from her course leader. Support along the way would have been more helpful, she says.
Jess now felt at a crossroads, the father of her child (whom she later married) was still in the picture and forging his own journey as, unlike Jess, he faced no stigma in being a young father. She sought out advice on careers and further study only to find that the only support available was about claiming benefits.
“I felt written off again, but that it was somehow OK because I could claim benefits and housing.”
But she was having none of it and enrolled on a training apprenticeship where she had to find an employer willing to sponsor her. Enter the Hilton Hotel at Manchester Airport and Jess’s start in Hospitality as an 18-year-old mother of a toddler.
She told no-one at work of her domestic situation as she didn’t want to be seen as a liability, although in hindsight she admits she should have told them earlier than she did.
She would attend the University of Bolton and follow it up with a 3pm-2am shifts at the hotel – “there were a few tears”, she confesses.
Based in Operations, Jess worked in a close-knit team that helped her to finally confess to her struggles and she found both the support and acceptance that had been so lacking in the earlier years at college. She was supported during her studies and promoted, graduating at age 21.
Pregnant at 23 with Carlos and still unmarried, Jess felt judged again so left the industry for a year to try and work out what she really wanted.
But leaving wasn’t to be and she found herself back in the Hilton family when a former manager encouraged her to join the team in Liverpool and created a role for her. This was the fresh start she needed to get her confidence back and gain valuable experience across all departments, ending up in her spiritual home of Sales.
‘I am now at a stage in my career where I am turning what felt like a negative experience, into a positive one’
Fast forward and today Jess is Director of Sales at Hotel Football. She loves that they support her as a mother as well as an employee, displaying a new level of trust in allowing their staff to develop outside the day job.
“I am now at a stage in my career where I am turning what felt like a negative experience, into a positive one. Hotel Football has enabled that, we’re human and everyone’s story or journey makes for a great character and together we’re a dynamic and wonderful team,” she says.
Jess chairs the Female Hospitality Network for Manchester, is an Ambassador for the charity Girls’ Out Loud, winning the Top Female Role Model Award in 2019 (and what a great role model she is)
She also thinks her mum has finally forgiven her!