Claire Blackburn CA: Life in Lyon
Claire Blackburn CA, CFO and HR Director at Wizaplace, has always had a passion for language and travel. She tells Karen Chen how the tech sector has given her the opportunity to combine business with pleasure in her current home of Lyon
The desire to communicate with people from all over the world has always motivated Claire Blackburn CA, CFO and HR Director at marketplace platform provider Wizaplace. After completing a degree in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Oxford in 2007, however, Blackburn entered the world of finance on the advice of her late mother.
“My mum was a chartered accountant before later becoming an internal auditor,” says Blackburn. “She told me it was a good basis in life, and she was absolutely right about that. It has allowed me to do so many things.”
As her mother suggested, EY would prove to be the perfect training ground in both areas. “I learned so much in my first six months,” she adds. “It was mind-boggling because I didn’t come from a finance background.” Blackburn spent a total of six years at the Big Four firm, first as an auditor and then in fraud investigation and dispute services. The latter position, in particular, allowed her to flex her language skills and pursue her wanderlust, taking her to Portuguese-speaking Angola and then on to Paris.
The most pivotal move for Blackburn would end up being her relocation from the French capital to Lyon in 2013 to complete a one-year intensive MBA at Emlyon Business School. Blackburn has lived in the city ever since – and Lyon’s standing as the country’s tech powerhouse has completely changed the direction of her career.
“I didn’t seek out the tech sector, but there were so many different options available,” says Blackburn.
“For me, tech is a vast industry. It can be anything and everything. I went from working in reputations to the internet of things, and now to marketplaces. There’s so much scope, and I don’t feel limited. I know that I can still go on to do other things, too. Essentially, I got into it because it was an opportunity, and I stayed in it because it was a good opportunity.”
Of course, there’s the looming question of whether the sector offers equality of opportunities for women. “I don’t personally feel like I’m disadvantaged, but I notice it because I have to look at the figures, and there really aren’t very many of us. In general, women are paid less, and the women we have are less senior than the guys,” notes Blackburn.
“I know I worked a lot more hours when I didn’t have a child. It’s changing, there are more men who are taking care of their children, but it still comes down to women, unfortunately. Often, you will pick home life over work life because both would be tiring, so you choose not to take roles which are time consuming – and directorship roles are very time consuming.”
Blackburn has tackled those time-consuming roles head-on. Following a brief period as International Business Developer at Reputation VIP, she was promoted to Finance and HR Manager, then CFO six months later. She has since sought out roles that allow her to combine responsibilities in both finance and business, leading to her current employer Wizaplace, which develops online marketplaces and e-commerce management systems for clients.
The company, which employs around 60 people, had intended to expand internationally this year – but “the strategy has changed” due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite that setback, Blackburn says, “We’ve had a very good year… I think it helps that marketplaces help our clients service their clients virtually. We did not make our original budget, but within a week of the board telling us to zero all the sales in the reforecast, we sold €200,000 (£183,000) of annual recurring revenue,” she explains.
Still, Wizaplace is small enough for Blackburn to feel fully connected to the whole business. “I didn’t want to be classed as only a financial accountant,” she explains. “As a finance and HR manager, I realised that the finance person can have a big impact in a nice way, rather than just being the person that says ‘don’t spend money’.
“It is more strategic thinking and it can be more positive and constructive, which I really hadn’t seen when I was auditing or consulting. I find the discussions with everyone throughout the company – the ‘how does everything connect together?’ conversations – to be really interesting.”
Blackburn says that, in her journey to becoming CFO, she “missed going through small roles to get to the top” like many of her peers, but it is something that she sees as an asset at the smaller companies she has chosen to work for.
“I have a different basis compared to my friends who have gone through the ranks,” adds Blackburn. “It means that I’m not necessarily a very analytical CFO, but a more outward-facing one. I look more at the big picture. At the same time, because I’m still an auditor at heart, I still like to make sure my figures are good. So I have this mix between big picture and minute detail.”
Lyon (and surrounds) top 5
1. Festival of Lights
This takes place every December. I love how they play with the facades of buildings and deconstruct them in front of you. It’s amazing what can be done just with light.
2. Les Nuits de Fourvière
These are outdoor concerts that take place in the Roman amphitheatre each summer. We’ve seen a few French bands there as we live really close.
3. Au 14 Février
Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France with restaurants everywhere. Au 14 Février is a Michelin-starred French-Japanese fusion place in the village of St Valentin.
4. Fourvière hilltop
When our friends come to visit, we do a lot of walking. You can get some wonderful views of the town at Fourvière hilltop, and the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière is also here.
Burgundy is less than 100 miles to the north. It’s worth taking a trip to the famous vineyards and sampling some of the beaujolais wine.
Ticket to ride
Life in France has had its challenges. While she had a degree in Spanish and Portuguese, Blackburn’s French went only so far as A-Level when she first moved to the country, which meant settling into her new life was harder than she had anticipated. The importance of maintaining appearances also came as something of a surprise: “You’d never see a woman in her work suit wearing trainers – you don’t do it. I cycle with my helmet on and in heels – it’s just the way life is.” Ticket to ride
Having now spent nearly nine years in France – Blackburn celebrated receiving her French citizenship in April 2019 with a karaoke-style rendition of La Marseillaise – she enjoys making the most of the country’s foodie culture. “Eating is so important in France,” she says. “We have this thing called apéro, essentially an aperitif, but sometimes that becomes an apéro dînatoire, which means you don’t actually have dinner, you just eat and drink throughout the whole evening.”
The CA qualification has also proved enormously valuable for working in a new country. “Few people in France are chartered accountants until much later in life, so it’s quite different when I talk to our CAs or auditors. I automatically see a difference,” she explains. “They are confident because they are talking to someone who understands – the conversations we have are more pertinent rather than surface-level.”
While Blackburn’s young family has settled comfortably in Lyon, moving again isn’t off the table: “We wanted to move to another country. Our objective was September 2021 – now we’ve readjusted to 2022 or 2023. Ultimately, we have a desire to travel. It is more difficult to have a nomad life with a child, but there are so many possibilities in the world, so many nice places to be.
“Finance is something that translates really easily. Say I want to live on the beach in Portugal – I just need to find another company in Portugal. One reason I stick with finance is that it’s simply a great line of work for all the travel opportunities it presents.”
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