Lorraine always felt like the token black manager in the workplace. Now she’s defining her own success.

One of my first roles was a wages clerk. But when I found myself with the big grand job title of Head of Personnel six months later, I didn’t feel I deserved it. I’d been thrown into this role when my boss left and never quite lost the feeling. It never once occurred to me that I got the job because I was good, because I had an MA in marketing and real talent.

I had a few jobs in the City that I loved with a great salary to match. I was in charge of business development/marketing and recruitment for law firms and it was fast paced, furiously hectic, unbelievably challenging and stimulating. I was client facing, conducting client reviews, running events, sharing my marketing prowess and working alongside partners and their teams. The days started early and finished late. I loved my work but that ‘I am not worthy’ feeling was always there.

When my dad became unwell with Parkinson’s and Dementia everything changed. I gave up my job in the city. Mum dying when I was 16 meant that Dad had become both mum and dad to me and my sister Maureen, so giving up my job to become his full time carer was a no-brainer. It was time to give back. 

Finding myself at the age of 49 having to manage on a carer’s allowance of £62.50 a week was a real eye-opener. After six months I was exhausted – but somehow never broke. In fact I had never been richer. I spent hours of my time fighting the NHS and social services to try and get Dad more help. Eventually I moved him out of his home, adapting my garage so he could live in a downstairs flat. I enjoyed the project of creating his new home, my first experience of property refurbishment. It was soon to serve me well.

Whilst caring for dad I got an email from someone I knew from Church, a lady called Delores who said she needed someone to help find accommodation for the looked-after young adults she was responsible for in her business. I found myself emailing back “Yes, I can do this,” even though I had no idea if I could. The thought of getting involved in such a project excited me, and I knew it was something I could fit around looking after dad. As it turned out she’d sent it to the wrong Lorraine, but the lady it was meant for couldn’t take it on. So a mistaken email and a gut feeling led to a whole new project – and eventually a totally new career.

My new role meant walking boldly into estate agents and persuading them to let flats to these sometimes troubled 16-21 year olds. This meant guaranteeing that we’d cover the costs for any damage and somehow this, plus my explanation of why these young people deserved a break in life because of their difficult start, was enough to see us end up with quite a few properties on the books. I think those estate agents liked the sense of doing something meaningful to help young people. 

After a few months I found I had a real itch for getting more involved in property. It was a thrill to help change lives. How else could I get involved? Delores felt the same way, so we started going to housing auctions. In fact the very first one we went to we put all our money into one property, planning to refurbish it and sell it on. We made so many mistakes!

It was when we bought our third property that we thought ‘Actually we’re getting quite good at this”. It made us feel bolder and we set up our own company. Then when my sister spotted a piece of land that was available to buy in our area, I saw it as a sign. I thought about how we could knock down the old garages on it and build flats on there for people that needed them. How I could give back to my sister who’d done so much for me all my life, by giving her and her son a great flat to live in. My gut told me to go for it. Of course Delores and I had no development experience when we put in an unconditional offer up against all the seasoned developers. But incredibly our offer was accepted. 

There was just one problem: we had no money. We had to raise the £480K for the land in a hurry and we barely had £4.80 – all our money was still tied up in the first property we’d bought. Somehow we cobbled together the deposit, and then had to push through the sale of our third flat. We learnt so many lessons along the way but we secured the land. Then the planning, financial and development journey began. 

We’ve hit many challenges and the odd crisis. It turned out the land was an old bomb site and needed to be piled before we could put the foundations down. The soil underneath was clay which caused further problems and the house adjoining the land had no foundations so we had to pay for hers too. Then £150k and three months later we were hit with COVID19 and lost almost three more months. It was only last week that the block and beam arrived and was able to be fitted. This week saw the timber frame arrive and I cried! Having lost so much time and money, at last I could see something finally happening. 

There have been so many ups and downs, but somehow my gut and a genuine will to make it happen have seen me through. I knew my impostor syndrome was a thing of the past the moment I got to name the road, a name that will now show up on Ordinance Survey maps – that was a defining moment. Fountain Gates has been a blood-sweat-tears project, but I’m so proud to see it finally taking shape. 

All the hard-won lessons I’ve learnt have now led me to becoming a mentor for would-be property developers, to pass on my knowledge and help them through the journey. I’ve realised that actually I can do anything with the right mindset. Giving back is the key.

Looking back to my former career, I’ve realised that when I kept getting offered increasingly elevated roles in the corporate world, I always believed that there was no one else to do the role and that’s why they chose me. It never once occurred to me that I might actually have been good enough – otherwise they would have recruited externally.

The problem was, all the places I worked were predominantly white. I sat around board tables, the only woman surrounded by white middle aged men. I could never shake off the feeling that I was the token black woman – that me being there was a box ticking exercise to show the company was inclusive.

A recent survey showed impostor syndrome affects a staggering 62% of people at work in the UK and can be indicative of a problem with the work environment, places which are not psychologically safe, with no space to fail. That rings true for me.

Now I look around me and think “Look at what I’ve done”. I took a leap of faith, gave up my job and cared for my dad until he passed away. I’ve bid at auctions, moved mountains, cleared a bomb site, won planning permission and I’m now building on a plot of land that I have named. 

I wish that little wages clerk I once was could have known that things would work out in the end.

Lorraine Thomas was named in the f:Entrepreneur #ialso100 list of female entrepreneurs for 2020.