With two decades of experience in construction, Michaela Wain has always been passionate about attracting more women to the industry. She tells Nadine Buddoo why the BBC reality show has been a game changer for her mission to promote gender equality
Viewers of BBC’s The Apprentice will be familiar with the competitive challenges, squabbling candidates and scathing critiques from Lord Alan Sugar and his aides. With this year’s winner set to be revealed later this month, the current cohort of contestants will undoubtedly be considering what life after the show will bring.
For former The Apprentice candidate and business owner Michaela Wain, the show was a useful stepping stone but not the starting point for her success.
Wain started her career selling advertising for a construction magazine and admits she quickly hit the “glass ceiling” within the business. “I decided to start my own magazine when I was 25,” she says. “I guess that’s where my journey really started.
“Over time, the business expanded into more of a marketing agency. One of my friends asked me to do some marketing for him, but instead of taking payment I decided to invest in his business. From there, I have invested in several other businesses within the construction industry.”
As well as her role as managing director of the publishing and marketing business, she is an ambassador for Women in Construction – a not-for-profit organisation that promotes gender equality in construction.
Despite her 20-year career in the industry, Wain says she is still excited by the people she meets on a daily basis. “There is always something new and something to learn, whether you’re speaking to people about net zero or the need for more diversity across the industry.”
Through her work with Women in Construction, Wain has the opportunity to work with lots of people from different demographics. “But I know that’s not commonplace across construction,” she admits. “In general, if you’re working on a construction site, it is still very rare to see a woman or a black person or a Muslim person, for example. And that really needs to change.”
Wain believes male allies have a crucial role to play to help attract more diverse talent to the industry.
“We need to approach it [male allyship] in a manner where we are pointing out all of the benefits of diversity, not just the potential problems,” she says. “The reality is that a diverse workforce means you have diversity of thought. You have different skillsets that you wouldn’t typically find.”
There is always something to learn, whether you’re speaking to people about net zero or the need for more diversity across the industry
As well as acknowledging the importance of male allies, Wain understands the value of building a strong network of women within the industry.
Through Women in Construction and the subsequent Women in Construction Awards, which seeks to celebrate the achievements of women across the industry and the companies and people who support them, Wain is dedicated to promoting the benefits of a more diverse workforce and supporting the next generation of new talent.
For those women embarking on a career in construction, Wain has some sage advice. “The main thing is to have confidence in your own abilities because the construction industry, especially on sites, can be brutal whether you’re a man or a woman,” she says. “The culture on site and the ‘banter’ that takes place, which is very rarely funny, can be soul-destroying.
“That’s why having a network of other women or male allies who can support you through your journey is so important. Perhaps you feel a bit on the back foot or lonely at times, so to be able to share those experiences with somebody who understands or somebody who has also lived those experiences can be hugely reassuring.”
Wain speaks from personal experience when she underlines the importance of industry peers and mentors. Following the experience on The Apprentice in 2017, when Wain reached the final, she has remained in contact with Lord Sugar’s aide and fellow businessman Claude Littner.
“I stayed good friends with Claude [after the show] and he has helped me a lot and given me some great contacts,” she says. “He is just an amazing, generous, kind-hearted man. He’s probably my favourite.”
Reflecting on her time on The Apprentice, Wain recalls the gruelling schedule and the pressure of competing on the show. She believes many viewers are completely unaware of how intense the process can feel for candidates.
“It is renowned in the media industry as being one of the most difficult shows to be part of. There are no TVs, there’s no radio, there are no phones and you don’t have your own bank cards. You can’t talk about the tasks unless there’s a camera person there to record it,” she says.
“You can’t even go to the toilet by yourself, so a producer follows you around. It’s a really intense environment. There’s very little sleep and you are constantly recording.
“Viewers see the candidates making what seem like really ridiculous mistakes, but actually if you were in that intense environment and cut off from your family, your friends and your support network, I think most people might make incredibly stupid mistakes too.”
Despite suffering from social anxiety prior to joining the TV show, the experience ultimately provided a huge confidence boost and a high-profile platform from which to discuss the issues Wain is passionate about. “It was a complete game changer because I found this new confidence in myself as a person,” she explains.
“I’ve just been more relaxed around people and been myself. I swear a lot and I talk the way I talk – I can’t put on an accent,” she laughs. “But I think this kind of brutal honesty just helps to build trust, which is important in business and in life. Ultimately, when people trust you, they are more willing to engage with you on those bigger issues, like diversity.
“I have learnt that the key is to be unashamedly myself, and always be confident in that approach.”
Michaela can be heard discussing Equality in Trade in her BiGDUG podcast.