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How one woman's tragic loss of two children enabled her to chase her dreams

Harri Gravelle has sadly lost two sons to an under-researched bacteria strain, and is now working with the NHS to pioneer new treatment that could save other babies' lives. In 2020 she had her first children's book published in memory of her two boys. Harri also runs an executive search firm called Blackgold, specialising in the oil and commodities industries.

Here Harri tells The Female Lead about growing a business whilst experiencing such tremendous tragedy, and how her losses have enabled her to chase her dreams...

1) Tell us about your background... where you grew up, what you studied and what your career has looked like so far?

I grew up in Falmouth in Cornwall with my parents and younger sister and it was as idyllic as it sounds. Having nothing to compare to it, I had no idea how lucky I was growing up so close to the sea in such a beautiful place.

I attended Southampton University and studied Journalism, which I enjoyed very much but still had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. My parents urged me to start looking for a job before graduating so I applied to Pareto Law and was invited to one of their assessment days. I couldn't believe my luck when they offered me a job.

I didn't really understand the recruitment industry until I started working there and after two years I was hired by Michael Page which was another great experience. I then joined Commodity Appointments which introduced me to the oil industry. Sadly in 2014 I was made redundant.

After seeking advice from my network I was unanimously encouraged to set up my own business by a group of oil traders and Blackgold was born.

Running my own business has been by far the best thing I have ever done from a career perspective, and will no doubt be one of the greatest achievements of my life. In 2019 I had the privilege of hiring our Head of Research, Jo Burns, and the company has continued to grow.

2) Where does your interest in headhunting stem from?

There are so many head hunting and recruitment companies in the market and nearly everyone has had some contact with at least one. I decided early on that the way to set myself apart was to bring human qualities to my professional world.

Discretion is so important - in this line of work you are dealing with incredibly sensitive information so proving you can be trusted is a large part of being successful. You also need to be proactive. All companies want to hire great talent - it is up to the head hunter to show them where the people are and make them accessible.

3) In 2014 you were made redundant - what impact did this have on you?

The redundancy came as a huge shock. I'm sure anyone who has been through it will agree that it's a very difficult process. I'm a big believer in champion builders in business - something I have been taught by my incredibly supportive husband Richard.

A business champion is someone who truly understands your cause and feels accountable for helping you to become a success. The group of traders who encouraged me to start my own business all went on to become clients and have developed into great friends.

By being open about my redundancy I managed to secure the support of some of the industry's most influential people. I really believe that showing a level of vulnerability encouraged more people to want to give me a chance. As soon as I told new contacts I was building my own business from scratch, they regularly went out of their way to help me.

4) You specialise in commodities, helping firms hire traders, analysts, risk specialists and operators - which are all typically male-dominated roles. What is it like working in this area as a woman?

So many industries are male dominated, and working with men is great. What's important though is having a balance, which the oil industry - like so many others - is working hard to rectify. I do think the professional world has taken great leaps even within the last five years. We are waking up to the importance of hiring the right person for the role regardless of gender, race, physical ability or background, which is fantastic.

I chose to run my business the way I run my life: I will only invest time and energy in those who give something back in return. The beauty of working for myself is that if someone treats me badly I can choose not to work with them again - which I have done. Being in a position to make that decision is empowering and it means that the business relationships that I pursue are my choice.

I think we can get too hung up on being a woman in man's world. It's our world too - there is space for us all to make our mark.

5) As a business owner, a mum, and a woman, you speak first hand about the importance of putting people first - tell us about your ethos and where this stems from?

As a small business, long term connections are so important to us, so placing candidates in companies where they will thrive is a win for everyone and the only way to do business. The goal is always to gain repeat business and partner with clients in the truest sense.

This comes through treating everyone with respect - not just looking at process as transactional. Whoever you are talking to, regardless of their title, rank or company, is just a person. They will have their own motivations, agenda and insecurities. Remembering that has hugely helped my confidence in approaching some of the most senior people in the industry.

There is nothing more human than making someone feel comfortable. Empathy is the first step towards building trust.

6) In 2016, you tragically lost your first son, Rupert, when he was just 23 hours old. Although you have since welcomed your rainbow Felix, you then lost your baby Valentine at 19 weeks gestation on 14th February 2020.

You decided that you were going to be honest about this at work, sharing the reason for your absence with your clients - why did you choose to do this? And what impact has it had?

I actually didn't tell many people in my professional life about losing Rupert. Work was such a great distraction for me that it became a means of escape in the early months. Obviously some people knew I had been pregnant so I had to tell them but I didn't share my loss with any new contacts, largely because I didn't want to break down in a professional setting or be viewed from a perspective of pity.

Of course having Felix is such a joy that I regularly talk about him to anyone who will listen - people never mind hearing good news.

I was 19 weeks pregnant with Valentine and had gone for a routine check. I was told there was a serious problem and that I was going to lose the baby. I couldn't believe it after having lost another son just 4 years previously. I was due at a new client pitch that afternoon which I obviously could no longer attend.

I decided to be honest with that client about my reason for cancelling just hours before such an important meeting. What possible other reason could I give? The client was very understanding and volunteered that they would not speak to any other head hunters about their needs and would wait until I was ready to reschedule.

Ten days later we attended the pitch, won the contract and the company has gone on to become one of our most loyal and valued clients.

7) You talk a lot about applying the 'human touch' to business - tell us about this?

The pandemic has taught us so much, with the never ending necessity for kindness paramount. We are all just people doing our best to move forward and achieve our goals.

We all need respect. Keeping our communication simple and honest is at the heart of meaningful success. People need to feel listened to and understood. Taking the time to truly understand the goals and requirements for each person involved in making a deal is crucial to securing a mutually beneficial outcome. This is very much at the core of all our work at Blackgold and why we are considered true partners by our clients and candidates alike.

Show some vulnerability, pay a compliment and remember that whoever you're dealing with, they're just a person looking for the same things that you are.

8) What is one thing that you would like to see employers do to help create an honest and open dialogue at work which is more human?

Show flexibility. We all have lives outside of work and we should all be working to live, not living to work. You can be productive and still take breaks and time off. If people feel valued they will be significantly more motivated and productive so everyone wins.

The key is to bring real world communications to the work place to build understanding that can enhance trust and respect. We need to bring the needs of people in to alignment with the goals of a business to achieve a more fulfilling result.

9) Tell us about your children's book

When Felix was a baby and I was sleep deprived I wrote a children's book: Kidnapped by Grandma and Grandpa. It was inspired by my own grandparents who accidentally 'kidnapped' Felix when he was a baby. I had strapped him in to the back of my grandparents car and assuming I was also in, they drove off. They did of course return a few minutes later laughing heartily and the story became something of a family legend.

It was wonderful to secure a publishing contract and bring the story to life for them to see during lockdown. My grandparents have given me so much so it means a lot to be able to celebrate them in this way. The book went to print just weeks after losing Valentine so we were able to get a small tribute to him included.

I am personally donating proceeds to Tommy's special care baby charity as part of my sons' legacy to fund research that will help other families suffering similar tragedies. I was lucky enough to have the book featured in Prima Magazine in December which provided great awareness for Tommy's.

10) What's next for you?

I feel so grateful to still have a business after the catastrophe of the coronavirus, which is something I do not take for granted. I will continue to develop my business and likely hire more people in to Blackgold. I am also working with the NHS to trial treatments to prevent needless baby loss, a campaign I will never let rest. It's such an underdiscussed issue yet it affects so very many people worldwide.

Losing two children has removed any inhibitions I might once have had. For anyone who has experienced loss, the perspective it gives you really can be a gift.

Life is short and you only get one chance. You have to make things happen for yourself - no one else will do it for you so don't hold back.

Decide what you want, ask for help, don't waste time on relationships that take without giving back, and push yourself into doing things that scare you.

This article is for my son Valentine Rupert born at 19 weeks gestation on 14th February 2020 and for all the wonderful things he would have been.

More about the author:

Harri Gravelle lives in Hampshire with her husband Richard and their son Felix. She runs an executive search firm called Blackgold, specialising in the oil and commodities industries.

After having her first children's book published in 2020, she is in the process of writing a novel to help shine a light on the lesser-discussed subject of baby loss that affects so many people.

Harri is also a finalist for Business Woman of the Year 2020/21 in the National Business Women’s Award, which will take place on 14th May 2021.

Find out more about Harri's work:

Her book:

All images contributed by Harri Gravelle


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