Janine Irons MBE

Janine Irons MBE, Co-founder and CEO of Charity, Tomorrow’s Warriors

Charity Tomorrow’s Warriors believes in a world where opportunities for participation, ownership, and leadership in music and the arts are available to all, and its CEO Janine Irons is a woman with a purpose. With three decades of service to the music industry as a joint leader and founder of the acclaimed and respected talent development organisation, she has always been a passionate advocate for excellence, equality and an inclusive approach in the design and delivery of music education.

Through her work, she has delivered alongside co-founder Gary Crosby OBE, against considerable odds, a unique organisation that with its focus on black and female talent and those facing socio-economic barriers, truly gives back and significantly contributes to the progress of young talent progression, diversity & social mobility in the arts in this country.

Photo credit: Fabrice Bourgelle


Describe a typical day for you?

Since the lockdown and all the way to today in Tier 2, it’s just been wall-to-wall Zoom and Teams meetings. My day starts with me getting a coffee and sitting at the dining table, checking the diary, and getting straight onto Zoom. I check in with all the members of my team we are spinning lots of plates with multiple projects. We’ve just started to resume our live events programme after a six-month hiatus, which really hurt us financially. So it’s great to be able to think about production and programming live again, speaking to our Head of Special projects for our forthcoming events as we slowly return to live music.

I also check on the status of our current appeal #IAMWARRIOR, which we launched at the end of summer via crowdfunding page http://www.gofundme.com/IAMWARRIOR2020 with the call for those who love music and care about nurturing the next generation of talent to join the movement to give young jazz talent a bright future.

I usually put in a call to at least one supporter who donates money to Tomorrow’s Warriors, checking in to see how they are doing. At the moment, we have a supporter who wants to leave a legacy to us, and we’ve been working out how they would like to leave a gift in their will to us, it means a lot when people support us in this way.

My daughter went to Uni last month, so it’s very different now at home. We have an empty nest and it’s great, but the days go so much slower because I don’t have her around to engage with and just be her mum. I’ve been let off mum duties and although I do miss her, as we have a lot of fun, I do appreciate the space too, and not having to keep picking up her trainers in the hallway!


What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

From just the two us, Gary Crosby and I in 1991, to 29 years later, having taken Tomorrow’s Warriors to where it is now, a respected and award-winning organisation, is thanks to our amazing team. It has certainly been a journey building credibility as a black-led organisation. It has definitely been an uphill battle, so it’s wonderful to see the organisation get the respect it deserves. We’ve worked hard and it was a real labour of love.

It has also been a huge honour this week to be recognised by the music industry, by Music Week who chose me among 20 women to be among its Women In Music 2020 Roll Of Honour. It was wonderful to receive so many well wishes from friends and supporters in the industry. The Queen awarded Gary Crosby his Queen’s Medal for Music last summer, he also received the BASCA (now Ivors Academy) Gold Badge award in 2017. But this one is really special, because it’s for women and Tomorrow’s Warriors focuses on supporting and championing the under-represented black and female musicians in UK Jazz from the grassroots upwards, growing the rich cultural diversity of the scene. The industry needs to bring more women through and highlight their work and achievements, so this means a great deal.

But the MBE in 2006 was unexpected but absolutely huge. I had no idea I had been put forward and I nearly fainted when I got the letter in the post. I thought it was for Gary. I saw the letter on the mat and read it still half asleep. It wasn’t until I got to the end, to read ‘I remain your obedient servant, madam’, that I had to do a double-take.  I was totally flabbergasted. My dad was there and he and Gary and my daughter came through to ask what happened. It took me a moment to get the words together. It made my dad really proud.

Also, having a child, who’s now 20. I had her just before my 40th birthday. Luckily we had her then as I went straight into menopause! I think running a business and touring internationally while being a mother was an achievement!  There was no maternity leave, a week after coming back from the hospital I was back in meetings, albeit on my living room floor planning a tour. When she was only a few weeks old, we had an important reception I needed to be at. I had to go with a baby literally on my breast, and I had to keep nipping out to give her sustenance. Usually while working I would sit there with the phone at the ear and the baby at the breast, and sometimes get it the wrong way around!  I have a lot of respect for career women having children, just doing it all, and doing it themselves, it’s really hard.


What’s in your handbag/ satchel?

I have an Osprey and a Radley handbag which contain my life. Everything from lots of keys, for the house, the car, and for the office. I have lots of little keys for old office pedestals and I can’t remember which ones are which, and I’m too scared to throw them away, so I keep them all on my office keychain! I also have some hand cream by L’Occitane, a bottle of Chanel Chance, pens, my iPhone, a phone charger, paper notebook, compact mirror, Chanel lipgloss, reusable travel coffee cup, a metal bottle of water, and a lense cloth for my glasses. I keep my laptop in my Jaeger tote bag alongside any papers for meetings.


What are your ambitions in life?

Get some sleep! I do tend to work through the night and it’s the only time I get to have some quiet time to think. I also can’t sleep when I know there are things outstanding, and my brain just ticks over and prevents me from sleeping. I’ve always been a night owl, my mum was too. Throughout the day, with the Zoom and phone calls, it’s hard to carve out the time to think about what I’m doing. Thankfully, I’m now putting some ‘Thinking time’ in my diary, so I can get some of that done and my team knows not to bother me! It’s good to have that discipline and set healthy boundaries, but sometimes it’s hard to stick to it because there is always so much to do. The deadlines just keep coming from different funding bid proposals. Different funders need different focus so I’m constantly juggling to make things fit.

We currently have an appeal going called #IAMWARRIOR, setting ourselves an ambitious target, especially in the current climate. We are putting all of our energies into trying to come up with creative ways to fundraise when we can’t rely on our live activity to showcase our work and our value. We have a target of £100k and that is just half of what we need to keep our young people’s Learning Programme afloat.


What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?

That there’s no money in jazz!

All jokes aside, hard work and rewards don’t always pay off commensurate to the amount of work put it.

The glass ceiling exists, I came from the city into the arts. Coming from a job in international banking in the financial sector into the arts sector, I have noticed that the glass ceiling still exists. The same goes for discrimination. But working at something that is hugely fulfilling cannot be underestimated.

In the city, it’s all about money and profile and the bottom line, but what I love about what I do now, is although I still get a thrill from negotiating and raising money, I know it’s not coming from greed, but coming from sheer passion to make a difference. I still enjoy working in a commercial way, but for a non-commercial cause. It is purpose and cause-related, rather than bottom-line related. I can also have lots of fun, knowing at the end of the day, what I have done will have helped to change someone’s life, in a way that commercial life just cannot achieve.


Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

Hopefully thinking about my succession, so I don’t have to work quite as hard as I do now and that I can help another younger person step up into a leadership role, with me stepping back a bit, supporting from behind the scenes.

I also see myself growing our programme so we can keep up with the rising demand, ideally so we can grow to get our own dedicated building. All that is in my sights for the next five years, making sure there is provision for all these talented young people, which is even more important now, in light of government cuts to music education.

I also see myself doing less creative producing and more fundraising and development, which is where my genuine passion is. I used to hate it, but I really enjoy it now.


What advice would you give a budding CEO?

I think self-care is really important. There is a lot I regret as a mother, having the business take priority all the time, especially one that is about developing other people’s children.  To budding CEOs who are also mothers, I think giving that time as a mother to your own child shouldn’t be underestimated. You can’t get that time back. It’s so important to all working mums going through this. Putting food on the table, being good at one’s job, as well as being a person of colour, I have felt the need to just work harder,  as I didn’t want to risk falling behind. So we tend to prioritise work over family. I would advise to make sure that they carve out that time. It is sacrosanct and I would recommend they hold it very dear.  Choose and be mindful of the sacrifices. Also as CEO, quickly find your trusted team, people who have got your back and you’ve got theirs because so much time and energy is wasted having to deal with the drama when things don’t work out. And finally, love what you do and do what you love.


What advice would you give a first time mother? 

Don’t do it!  I jest of course but I would say find a way to achieve a balance so that you can spend more time with your child. Find a way to give the right amount of attention to both family and work. Working with my partner in both life and business is uniquely challenging. It has required the whole family to be out on the road together, and my daughter has been there with us at the side of the stage from when she was tiny. I have been out there developing other people’s children, that is the fact of it. All that has had an impact on our child. We are immensely proud of her, but she has felt the impact of whose daughter she is. She has just started at Uni now studying popular music and wants to get there on her own terms, and unsurprisingly not in jazz music. It shows the character that she is.


Finally, happiness is…

Me on a beach in the Caribbean, or me with a delicious meal in front of me. I really love French food and wine and I would love to have a home in the South of France one day. In fact, I wouldn’t mind retiring there. Also family means a lot to me, always has done, because I come from a very small family. My siblings are in Australia, Jamaica, France, and around the corner from me. My parents were Windrush generation; they were also only children, so my siblings and I don’t have any aunties, uncles, or cousins.

Also, happiness will be a time when we don’t need to talk about racism or diversity anymore. It will be when we see real change, in social justice and equality and equity, when we start to take climate change more seriously. Happiness will also be seeing Trump not to make another term!

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