In our regular #MyFirstMcJob series, those at the pinnacles of their careers remember back to when they were at their very beginnings
Hi, Zoë! Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Zoë Allen, founder of Artistic Statements, a bespoke art installation business specialising in commercial spaces. I'm the conduit between the property and art world, and commission artists and creatives on wow-factor art installations.
What was your #MyFirstMcJob?
I was a dinner lady at Wellington College in Berkshire, when I was in sixth form.
How did you get that job?
My parents kept saying: “We’re not going to pay for your social life.” My dad tore a clipping out of a newspaper and said: “The boys’ school over the road are looking for a dinner lady.” I lived in a nice-ish village, and most of my friends worked in Waitrose, so initially I wasn’t keen, although I expect that was me being a snob! Then I thought: “Boys school? That could be fun!” It was a boarding school, so I’d work from 5 to 8pm, which was perfect because I could still go out in the evenings.
What did you have to do?
Help clean up from lunch, get all the ketchups and sauces, lay the table, help get the kitchen ready and prep the big dinner counter. The boys would come through and I’d serve their baked beans and whatever. They’d come back with their dirty plates and I’d put them in the dishwasher.
How long did you work there?
What were the perks of the job?
Getting to flirt with what we used call the Welly boys! It was this beautiful school on a beautiful estate in Berkshire, with this grand dining hall. Most of the dinner ladies were more traditionally plump and middle-aged, so the boys were quite excited to have a 16-year-old local girl working there. I went to the local state school, a completely different world to boarding school. It was funny watching the shy 14-year-olds quietly scraping their plate, then the cocky ones going: “Hi Zoe!” It was always a bit of a giggle.
Did you give extra portions to boys you fancied?
Of course! I actually dated a guy for a couple of years and he said: “Oh my God, all the guys absolutely fancied you!” I used to get love letters. Or there would be a pool competition and the forfeit was the loser would have to come in his boxer shorts, stand on the table, and read a love poem to me. I remember they were all cheering my name and this poor 14-year-old – who is still probably mortified to this day – had to read a love poem in front of everybody.
What skills did you learn as a dinner lady that you still use today?
I've got a big brother, so I’ve always wanted to lark around with the boys. I do think that helps now that I work in a very male dominated industry. The property world is 90% white, middle-aged men. I learned a sense of self-confidence self-belief as well as how to deal with guys. All the Welly boys spoke so eloquently, so that probably helped with my communication skills as well.
Are you still in contact with any of the people you worked with?
Yes. A couple of the chefs, and couple of the guys.
Why is alumni important to you?
Networking is everything to my business and always has been. I've come from a sales and business development background, then set up my own business five years ago. I’m constantly networking within the property industry and have been a huge believer in LinkedIn from day one. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Connecting with people who can vouch and trust you is really important.
What would happen if you went back and did a shift being a dinner lady today?
God knows. I'd probably start a food fight!
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?
That’s a really hard question. I’d want to say something along the lines of: trust that things will work out. I’ve always wanted to have adventures and experiences, but I also had a lot of uncertainty over where to go to university and what career I would take. So it would be nice to trust that I would make it.