In Conversation: Antonia Romeo
“Be a player not a victim, you’ve got to put yourself out there and be a player, and make yourself relevant in your career and be enthusiastic.”
I met with Antonia Romeo in early 2016, just baby steps into her new role as Her Majesty’s Consul General for the Department of International Trade (DIT). Antonia’s role was to encourage UK/US trade and be an ambassador for the UK. During Antonia’s time as consulate general (Antonia has since been promoted to the Permanent Secretary for the DIT in London), she made a huge impact and was a fantastic ambassador for promoting the creative arts in the US. What I particularly admired about Antonia is her passion for the arts and fashion, and bringing that into her trade role. I’m excited and hopeful to see if the new consul general for New York brings the same artistic energy to the consulate. It seems kind of crazy that in 2016, Antonia being the first female consulate general, it shows us how far we have come, but also still how far we have to go to work on equal rights for females within the workplace. Inspired by Antonia’s journey, we met at the British Consulate so I could hear more about being a Brit in New York, her powerful position, and how her role is being affected by Brexit.
How does it feel to be named the first female Consul General in New York? To me it was just a case of being the person who got the job, I understood that a lot of what the consul-general spends their time doing depends on their own interests. Within the scope of promoting the UK in the US, and in New York and the tri-state area, you’ve got to choose all the time about what you’re going to focus on, and which sectors you’re interested in. I would be spending a lot of my time on economics and trade issues, but also some of the creative arts areas. There’s something about being a woman that might have led me to a deeper interest in some of those areas.
Tell me about your passion for the job, and balancing long work hours…I think the only way to do the job, is to love the job so much, and be prepared for your family to enjoy the diplomatic part of the job or else it’s just not doable. If you don’t enjoy it, you’d be constantly feeling as though you wished you weren’t doing it, basically.
Your job is also the Director General of Economic and Commercial affairs, what exactly does that entail?
I run the economic and trade investment relationship between the US and the UK for the British government. I essentially worry about trade exports from the UK into the US, in fact across North America. So I run the North American arm, of our sort of foreign commercial department – the department for international trade. I worry about exports from the UK into North America, I worry about inward investment from North America into the UK.
I’m all about encouraging American companies and Canadian companies to keep their investment into the UK and grow it (obviously this is changed a lot post Brexit in a way). We’ve had a lot of big successes on this front recently, with the announcements from IBM opening four new data centres, Google, Apple’s new HQ, and then other companies like McDonalds.
I spend a lot of my time talking to business out here to keep their investment in, and also we do a lot of promotion of small and medium sized, in particular, UK businesses looking to increase their footprint in the States, we help them export.
How do you plan to rocket boost the UK to US trade? I think, obviously we’ve got a great starting point, we are each others biggest trade partners already. So 20% of our UK export go to US. I think that we’ve got to have a big focus on smaller to medium enterprises, We’ve just launched something called ‘Exporting is Great’ which is a one-stop shop for UK exporters to be able to, as it were, sell their wares or their services abroad. And doing things like that, becoming increasingly digital in responses that make life easier for companies to export.
What would your advice be to start-ups who are interested in exporting? Well we have, the Department for International Trade, is essentially all about increasing the number of exporters.
We could rocket boost our exports if we could get all our SMEs to export. We want to make it as easy and seamless as possible. I would say start by going on Exporting is Great, the website, and then get involved, because there’s a whole department now, it’s the place where we want exporters to go to get advice and to get help.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of the DIT what would you say is the main reason people should click onto the website and check out what you guys do? Wherever, whichever country you want to invest into, there will be a team based there, our teams will your life easier – it’s a resource that exists to help you as a UK small medium enterprise (SME) export. We can help you as well work out where it is you want to export to.
Being a Brit that’s moved over to New York, do you still buy British brands? Much more so. I, basically I don’t buy anymore, I don’t really buy anything that isn’t British anymore.
Do you appreciate British design more so after moving to New York? I should say that I would also buy American. My job is, my job is to promote British brands, and so I take that job really seriously, if I was ever doing anything promotional, if I was ever having any event, I would only wear British.
I might also wear American because I’m here in New York, and also especially if it’s an American company that’s got an investment into the UK, then that’s also someone I want to promote because I want them to grow their business and I want them to grow it in the UK and employ more people back home.
Tell us more about your favorite designers and brands…
I’m quite big on all the British brands. My new favourite brand is Preen. Jenny Packham, Roksandra Illnic. Peter Pilotto – and what he does with colour, is really phenomenal, it’s like wearing a piece of art!!
Within your current role, can you see cultural trends emerge as a response to politics? I think people are looking for positivity, and definitely trying to do things as sort of celebration, celebrating things is important. I threw a party when Nick Serota (who was head of the Tate) announced his retirement, he was coming out here and I threw a party essentially to celebrate his life and achievements, he’s done extraordinary things, the Tate is our biggest British gallery or series of galleries, it’s huge franchise, they’ve got a load of staff, they’ve really digitized, they’ve worked that agenda, I think what he’s done is extraordinary, and that’s part of the future, this exciting future, that we’ve got in the art world. I think that’s true in New York, if you look at what they’ve done with the Met Breuer, for example, I think that’s brilliant, there’s so much positive stuff to look for if you want to look for it, as it were, and it’s all about sort of harnessing it and turning it into a positive story, and that can be fashion, but it’s also art, it’s music, it’s everything in the creative industries.
What are your favorite art galleries in New York? I love the Met, and I also really like MoMA. I studied at the Victoria and Albert museum for a while in the UK, and was very much about the idea of objects as art – although I’m a bit more of a visual art person rather than a ceramics person, I do think that seeing and understanding the objects. Objects can be beautiful, and can be as much as a piece of art as something you hang on your wall.
Has there been a point in your life when you stepped back and realized you are achieving your dream? I’m constantly amazed. What I always say to people when I talk to people about leadership, or challenges of being a woman and what it’s like to become senior in any organization, is you’ve got to accept some serendipity, and there are things that happen to you sometimes, and you might just be lucky, you want to put out good karma, and then good things happen, and that’s partly about having big dreams. I definitely don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything like what I would like to do. But I do feel like you’ve got to celebrate the things as they do happen. Pride is a really important thing, you’ve got to feel like proud to go to work, proud for what you’re doing, proud for what your job is.
What advice would you give to people at the beginning of their career journey? You’ve got to be enthusiastic, you’ve got to be prepared, there’s a mantra that I have always thought was really useful and interesting, is ‘be a player not a victim,’ like you’ve got to put yourself out there and be a player, and make yourself relevant in your career and be enthusiastic, and you’ve got to not worry about the pay off in the short term, as the whether or not, this is going to, you know “what if I try to do X and they take it off me” – none of that matters, like no one should care who has the idea if it’s a really good idea, you’ve got to think about the energy that you’re bringing. I think if you’re graduating now just being bold about what you might achieve. Be realistic as well, of course, there’s no point in leaving university and thinking I’ll go and be chief executive of this huge company, or maybe there is, maybe I’m just not being bold enough. Tenacity is something that it took me a while to learn, I just observed in what makes success, what is really important in people who do difficult things, and when you get very senior you do a lot of difficult things. Tenacity and courage and resilience, sometimes things just happen and weren’t meant to happen but you just keep going. That’s really important, having that courageousness, if you want to do leadership that’s really important. Courage is the most important thing.
Illustration by Cristina Polop