– Nicola Dibb
Nicola has worked in land development and construction in senior roles for over 30 years in the private and public sectors. She is also the Founder of Women in Social Housing (WISH) and is featured in 24 Housing’s Top 50 Power Players list, the annual list of housing’s most influential people, which is voted for by those within the sector.
It was an initial failure that set me on the path to my destiny in construction and affordable housing. I wanted to study Estate Management at Bristol Polytechnic but didn’t get the grades. After taking a year off, I retook my A levels and passed. Aged 18, I got a job with a Commercial Estate Agent in Welwyn Garden City who specialised in retail, office and industrial property.
Not wanting to give up on Bristol Poly I applied for a course at the Department of Surveying, simply called Housing. Although I filled in the application form, I did not send it off. It was my Mum who found and posted it as she wanted me to have the opportunities she never had. Bristol Poly rang up and offered me the last place on the housing course.
A Passion for Housing
I fell in love with housing from then! Always more interested in the development and construction elements of the course. I was chosen by Wimpey Homes to work for them on a 3 month placement as part of the course. Inspired by the experience, including working on one of the first shared ownership schemes in the country, I wrote my dissertation on ‘how the private and public sector can work together to develop affordable housing’.
This was the late 1980’s, a time that Housing Associations were beginning to develop more housing and Councils and Housebuilders were increasingly facing requirements to provide affordable housing on their schemes through Planning obligations.
After graduating, I went to work for one of the country’s leading providers in delivering private/public sector housing – Lovell Partnerships. I felt passionate about the projects I was working on, replacing damp and defective homes with brand new ones, working with Architects and Planning Departments and, ultimately, giving local people the chance to buy a small piece of equity in their own property.
Over the years, I followed my passion and worked for several housebuilders, contractors and a special time as Area Development Manager with Notting Hill Housing Trust in London. As I worked in the Home Ownership team, I had a wide remit from acquiring land, securing planning permissions, setting specifications, letting contracts, liaising with the internal sales and housing management teams and everything in between.
I loved it and noticed for the first time how many more women there were working in that organsation than the private sector companies I had experienced, even a few a senior level.
When I left Notting Hill to go back into the private sector, it struck me that there were very few women that I came across in my daily work. A lot of my Housing Association clients were men, all the Architects were men, all the Employers Agents were men. Where were the women?! In 1998, attending yet another networking event and being met with a sea of grey suits on entering the room, I felt my enthusiasm waning.
I was used to this by now – having to hold my own in intimidating environments of often being the only women in the room. I quickly got used to men forming an opinion of me based on my gender before I had even had chance to express a thought or offer my experience and professional credentials.
At one particular grey suit event, I did meet a small number of women that I had come across before through work and we gravitated together, attracting other women as we engaged in lots of chat about working in a male dominated sector.
The sheer number of shared experiences really struck me, and we talked and laughed about so many other things as well as housing – family, holidays, hobbies, politics… shoes! I realised how differently men and women networked and communicated, and so began the start of a truly amazing chapter of my life.
At the time, if you were a woman working in construction, project management or architecture or any of the other private sector disciplines that supported the housing sector, there was really nowhere to meet like-minded people who shared your values and experiences. I went home and thought how great it would be to meet up as a group with the brilliant, warm and inspiring women I’d come across that night.
I decided to organise a get together for all of us again very soon and thought it would be fun have a name for the group. My thought process was simply that we were all women that worked, in some way, in the social housing sector, facing the same challenges of being in a very male dominated environment …so Women In Social Housing – WISH.
It had a definite ring to it. Over the years, I worked for several more private sector contractors including Wates and Osborne where Debra Constance joined as Business Development Manager and believing in my networking idea worked hard with me to launch our little side project – WISH. Soon a vibrant networking group of women that worked for Housing Associations, Local Authorities and the private sector began to gain real traction in London.
WISH grew organically beyond anything we could have imaged and by 2018 there were 10 regions across the country. Our unique mission was to encourage more women into the housing sector and to support those already in it – supporting them to be the best version of themselves and give them the confidence to challenge gender bias and inequality back in their workplace.
In 2019 WISH became a formally recognised Community Investment Company with a Board of volunteer Directors, Debra as Chair and myself as Executive Director.
Meanwhile in 2012, because I was Business Development Director for a Construction Company who didn’t specialist in Affordable Housing, I increasingly felt I had become the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Long, unsocial hours whilst trying to bring up my son became too much so I decided it was time for my next ‘chapter’.
I reviewed all the contacts I had built up during my career and my time with WISH and thought that if I couldn’t make a business from that eclectic and diverse network, I had been doing something wrong all these years.
So, I decided to set up my own consultancy specialising in Business Development and Bid Writing, building on my unique perspective from both the public and private side during my corporate housing career. Today, and with the support of a team of exceptionally talented individuals, we now help a growing number of organisations win housing work.
It has been a long journey, but one I hope that inspires others to follow my lead, as with determination and tenacity, everything is possible.
MD of NDA
Founder and Executive Director of WISH