By Dana Tudose Tianu

Romanians worlds over have emigrated and became successful abroad. But fewer on this list are those who have made such a strong impact on their adopted country’s society, mentality and culture at the national level. Dana Denis-Smith is an exception.

Born Dana Armean, in Agnita, Sibiu County, Dana Denis-Smith moved to England in 1995, right after graduating high school. An ex-lawyer working in the City of London, she is the founder of Obelisk Support and of the First 100 Years project, which builds awareness about the impact and contribution of women in the legal profession in the United Kingdom. In 2010, she was selected as one of the 35 most inspirational business women under the age of 35 in the UK. 

Just last year, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Law awarded by the University of Worcester and was named Legal Personality of the Year by Lexis Nexis. What she has accomplished between 2010 and today is extraordinary and worth sharing. 

DTT: Could you tell us the story of how you moved to England and ended up becoming one of the country’s most respected women in business, entrepreneurship and law?

DDS: I went to England right after finishing high school, in 1995. I was a journalist and I was also a student at the “Lucian Blaga” University in Sibiu. I left with a Reuters scholarship for journalism and ended up doing undergraduate studies in international history at the London School of Economics. I decided not to go back to journalism and so, on September 11, 2001, I started law school, part-time, because I was already working at the Economist Group in London. In 2005, after I finished law school, I began working as a trainee lawyer at Linklaters in the City. But I realized, early on, that I wasn’t meant to practice as a full-time corporate lawyer. My entrepreneurial personality, combined with my need for freedom of expression, which comes from my journalistic background, led me to take the leap and start my first company, a political risk consulting firm, called Marker Global, in 2008. 

DTT: What made you change industries in 2010, from political risk assessment to a platform that pools together hundreds of freelance lawyers, looking for flexible work?

DDS: The idea for Obelisk Support was born in India, in March 2010.  At that time, many businesses were developing offshore outsourcing centers. Obelisk was resolving a social need, as well as building on a market trend. I realized that many women lawyers working in the City gave up their time-demanding careers once they became mothers. So, on the one hand, Obelisk provided the opportunity for professional reintegration for those women who needed to cut back on their work hours, on their city commute, and increase the time they spent with their family. On the other hand, we were asking big clients (Fortune 500 Companies) to start bringing back home the work they had been outsourcing in India or the Philippines. They would still save costs and have top British lawyers, whom clients may have even worked with in the past, do the work for them as freelancers. 

Socially, I felt it was a waste of precious resources for ex-City women lawyers to have to give up or change their careers once they became mothers. 

DTT: How did clients first respond to your new entrepreneurial idea? How did you change perception and biases? 

DDS: Initially, market response was negative. Companies claimed they couldn’t give us work because of data confidentiality. Sending out work that freelance lawyers would do in their own home, rather than an office, was an issue at the time. The first 6-7 months, I mostly got “no” for an answer. But with each “no”, we did more research, learning what were the intellectual and perception-related obstacles that kept clients from giving us work. We resolved them, one by one. We were four people working at Obelisk in the beginning. Now the platform has hundreds of freelance lawyers and top clients who put their trust in us. 

To change the future, first celebrate the past

DTT: In 2013, you came up with another idea, again with a big social impact – the First 100 Years project. How did that take shape?

DDS: In November 2013, I discovered a photograph of the partners of City law firm Herbert Smith, dating from 1982. In the middle of the group of 50 or so men, there was only one woman.  That photograph made me wonder when exactly women had begun having the right to practice as lawyers in the UK, and, to my surprise, it was 1919, following an Act of Parliament. I started the First 100 Years in 2013, as a history project, creating a visual history of women’s path in law, and educating the current generation of women lawyers about their predecessors, who fought for their right to practice. We have a digital museum, guided walks and several events. 

You can find out more information about Obelisk Support and First 100 years at: 

www.obelisksupport.com

www.first100years.org.uk

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