Kelly-anne Watson: On being a female leader in the student housing sector

March 8, 2023

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To the women leaders of today

To lead as a young woman
My aspirations lofty,  
Empire-building, a dream that never ends.

To inspire, to challenge, to stand  
For what is right, not what is easy  
In a world where sisters are few and far between  
Our bond grows stronger, our voices louder.

With empathy and passion, we lead  
Outnumbered, but not outmatched  
Our presence a powerful remedy  
For the imbalances that once encumbered.

I hear you, my sisters  
Few at the top of the ladder  
But we must discuss, we must persist  
If we are to shatter the glass roof above.

Today, we celebrate  
The achievements we have made  
A long way yet to go but we are fierce, we are strong, we belong.

Let us stand together, proud and loud  
For the women we are, for the women we will be  
May our spirits never falter, our voices never be silenced

What is your story?

I am Kelly-anne Watson, a 28-year-old Managing Director at The Class Foundation. I currently live in Amsterdam and enjoy traveling and exploring Europe. I grew up in a town in the North-West of England with my single mum, who is a mental health support worker, and my younger sister. Despite not having much growing up, we had a tight-knit family that looked out for each other.

Although it sounds cliché, from a young age I always aspired to be a role model. When I was 10, my teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grow up and I answered the prime minister. Even if my peers did not agree, I was always someone who stood up for what I believed in, I suppose you could of say I was a bit of an activist growing up.  

Unfortunately, due to a challenging childhood, I struggled with school, and was later diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Despite this, I was determined to be successful and became the first member of my family to go to university. Whilst at university in Leeds, I met some of the greatest people with whom I shared experiences which have shaped me into the person I am today. I wasn’t lucky enough to have much financial support during this time which meant working two jobs alongside my studies.

One evening whilst walking home through a park near campus, I was followed and jeered at by a stranger. After informing the police and sharing the story of the incident on social media, I discovered that this was an ongoing problem with some students even experiencing violent assaults. It had been on the council’s agenda for years with seemingly very little action taken. This outraged me, I needed to do something. I started a petition to force the council to act, gaining over 4000 signatures in 4 days and attracting media attention. Seeing the response to this sparked my interest in politics as a way to garner change within the community.

Shortly after, I was nominated stand as an elected representative at our university. I managed to gain the support of my peers, winning the election two years in a row, holding the position of President of Welfare & Community. It was during this time that I was introduced to the workings of the student accommodation sector and was connected with Unipol, where I became an active trustee.

I went on to work under Unipol CEO, Martin Blakey, for 3 years as his right-hand woman. I worked on everything, building and implementing the student experience strategy across 16 sites, managing the ResLife Programme, creating the first mental health clause for the National Code, consulting on multiple multi-million-pound PBSA buildings, facilitating sector-leading training, coordinating large data and research initiatives, being an assessor for the national code tribunal process during COVID, and being a property manager for 120 postgrad families. A real baptism of fire.

During this time, I also started a Young Professionals Network, a group aimed at creating a space for the next generation of business leaders to network, collaborate, and learn from each other. Within a year we’d gained over 2000 members, reaching almost 7000 by the time I left the UK.  

In 2021, The Class reached out and offered me a position as Programme Curator. The organisation’s mission and methodology really resonated with me.  Without hesitation, I happily accepted the role. This was the beginning of a new journey for me, so I packed my life into a single suitcase and landed in Amsterdam ready to shake things up. Although that journey is still unfolding, I feel we’ve achieved so much at The Class in a short time. We’ve expanded our network and reestablished ourselves as a key voice in the student accommodation landscape.  

Personally, I’m learning and growing every day. In my new role as Managing Director I feel a heightened responsibility to deliver on our mission of innovating student living and believe we can do this by deepening our connections within the community. We’ll bring sector leaders around the table to create a sphere of influence which is difficult to ignore.

What is your leadership style and what would you like your legacy to be?

I try to bring a positive attitude to every situation I'm in. I believe that energy, passion, and compassion can inspire others and make a real difference in people's lives. Building a strong community network is important to me, and I strive to create fairness and transparency in everything I do.

I'm not afraid to challenge the status quo and approach things from a different perspective. Being a disruptor can lead to new and innovative ideas that can push boundaries and drive progress.

For me, success is not just about personal achievement but about the success of my team. I believe that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with and that bringing others along on the journey is crucial. While I am competitive, I only compete with myself to be the best version of me possible.

In terms of my legacy, I want to be remembered as someone who inspired others, particularly young women from underprivileged backgrounds. I want to be a role model who showed that people with learning difficulties, especially those who often go undiagnosed, can be in leadership positions and make a real impact in the world.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

For me, International Women's Day is important because it reminds me of the ongoing struggle for gender equality but also celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women worldwide. It’s an opportunity to highlight the contributions of women in various fields and to advocate for their rights and empowerment.  

I’d love to share some inspirational women who have supported and/or inspired me over the last few years.  

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Maggie Childs, a media maker, entrepreneur, and armchair economist. From the moment we connected, I was in awe of her energy and spirit, which felt like it could power a thousand people. Maggie always had the best stories to share, and I admired her fearlessness in tackling challenges and supporting young people and their vision for the future.

Sarah Jones, Partner at Cushman and Wakefield, a woman whose intelligence and kindness make her one of the smartest and sweetest individuals I have ever met. I always loved how Sarah would sit alongside the investor big wigs, and still managed steer the conversation toward being human centric. We first worked together at l on the Accommodation Cost Survey, and now we are collaborating on our European research. I am thrilled to be working alongside her again and have her as a friend.

Caterina Maiolini, Agency Partnership Manager at and former Global Community and Partnership Manager at Salto, has also made a significant impact on me over the past two years. Cate is one of those people that is unapologetically herself and this instantly made me feel connected to her. Her approach to community building and supporting those she loves around her is undeniable. I am grateful for her mentorship and friendship.  

Adina David, Executive Director at MGT and formerly Greystar, impressed me with her ability to captivate a room when she moderated a panel at the TCF conference in 2021. She is also an ambassador for women in real estate and is passionate about making a difference in our sector. Every time I look at her Linkedin profile she working on a project or attends an event I resonate with.  

Then there is Nichola Verity, Deputy CEO of Unipol, who was an excellent mentor and helped me identify the type of team player and leader I wanted to be. Nikki was a hands-on manager who took the time to check in with me, make me feel appreciated, and challenged me to think about my future. I will always appreciate the time she spent mentoring me.

Finally, I cannot end this article without showing gratitude for my two wonderful colleagues Mell Goff and Arunima Dey here at The Class. You both continue to support me on this crazy journey, always showing passion and drive to succeed in our mission and vision. Working with you is nothing short of inspiring. I am lucky to have you alongside me every day, and cannot thank you enough.  

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