5 minutes with... Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk Support CEO

The 35 Women Under 35 alumna is using flexible legal talent to bring outsourcing back onshore.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 23 Feb 2018

What does Obelisk do?

We provide very high quality legal work to large corporates or law firms that might struggle with resource or have projects they can’t service. We are trying to find a new way of working for people that normally cannot work 9-5.

These are highly qualified legal professionals who have left the career - like a new mother or an older person with caring responsibility - who still want to work but need more flexibility. We bring back outsourcing from offshore to nearshore by leveraging the talent available here.

Where did you get the idea from?

It was the discovery that there was this wave of outsourcing legal work to India. When you’re an entrepreneur you question everything and I was puzzled; I had been a lawyer and I knew that there were lots of very good people who were currently not working back home in the UK.

A lot of the barriers around why they weren’t working were to do with confidentiality and security. I thought if companies are sending work out to India because they are concerned about security why wouldn't they use one of their own. I thought if the client needs flexibility and a better cost and still very good quality then there is an answer here at home.

How has Obelisk grown?

I started with nothing and have had no investment. I gave the company £500 starting capital from my own bank account. So it was just a laptop and £500 for marketing and design. Shortly after setting up I fell pregnant and had a very slow start after that.

We had two waves of set-up of the company. The first couple of years were linked to my personal circumstances and not much happened; we had maybe £20,000 turnover.

‘But in 2012 after I had started to focus full time, we got Goldman Sachs as a client and very quickly got to a quarter of a million. At that point I thought that this really required infrastructure and was able to self fund the growth from that. Over the next five years we had over 1000% growth, so it's been quite crazy.

Is there a strong social message to what you do?

It is a business that is addressing some raw social problems that seem to be taking their time.Even now we see more many more older people, older men being pushed out of law firms. Very highly skilled people that end up being discarded in some way or another. We are trying to say that you don’t waste people skills.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Historically it was just getting the brand some kind of recognition on the market. Traditionally the legal sector likes reputation and longevity and I wasn't a senior lawyer setting up a new firm. I was unknown in the sector and didn't have a personal brand to attach.

In the early days it was not being considered a charity I was often asked if we were a charitable foundation trying to help some women. Making sure that it is a business that has purpose but is still scalable and profitable was a challenge.

What is your background? How has this affected the way you run Obelisk?

I was born in Transylvania, Romania and grew up under communism so never really envisioned myself as an entrepreneur or business woman. 

My professional journey has never a straight line - I was a journalist with Reuters before going into employment law. I learnt from journalism that you can trust people and I apply the same principle now. I trust that my colleagues are professionals and will do the best job without having to over monitor them.

In 2010 you were included on MT’s 35 Women Under 35 list. What did the nomination mean for you? 

I was nominated when I started my first business in political risk. Getting on the list made me take myself seriously as a business person. I suddenly thought if people are saying I am good I must be.

It also included me in a group of people that were like minded. There was a sense of club to it that was really empowering, you know you can go to them for help, everyone has tips and connections that they can share. For me that was really important as I hadn’t been part of that during my first business.

Nominations are now open for MT's 35 Women Under 35 2018.

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