Before her retirement as Senior Vice President at Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, Helen Sayles was responsible for global human resources policy development and implementation, including compensation, benefits, employee relations, human resource development, employment, safety/health, and HR operations. Helen’s responsibilities also included the development and implementation of the company’s real estate and administrative services strategy.
An active member of the community, Ms. Sayles has served as a past board member of Cambridge Family and Children’s Services. She was a board member for Center House, now a part of Bay Cove Human Services, where she served as chair of their Executive Advisory Board.
In addition, Ms. Sayles served as a board member for InRoads of New England and as a director of The Initiative for a New Economy. She helped found The Saltire Foundation and served as President of the Entrepreneurial Scotland Foundation USA. She currently serves as Chair of the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA and Trustee of The New England Historic and Genealogical Society.
Helen was born and educated in Scotland and received a business degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh before emigrating to the US. She received a CBE in 2014.
Q: Where are you from in Scotland?
A: I am from Ayrshire, in the southwest of Scotland……..the birthplace of Robert Burns. I was born in Kilmarnock and grew up in the small village of Fenwick, a few miles north of Kilmarnock and 20 miles south of Glasgow. It is known as a traditional weaving village and as the birthplace of the co-operative movement https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fenwick_Weavers%27_Society
Q: Can you share what event brought you to the U.S. and how long you have been here?
A: I graduated from University in 1972 and the UK was in a deep depression (high inflation, high unemployment). As a result, there were no jobs there for starting graduates with business decrees, especially for women. On a dare from a fellow student, I applied for a job as a nanny in New York City and got it!
Q: What do you most miss about Scotland? Anything that you have not been able to replicate in the U.S.?
A: Well, I don’t miss the weather, although the countryside is beautifully green there and it has a long growing season for plants. I do miss the people – I still have family and friends there. The thing I miss the most is an authentic fish supper and really good haggis. Apart from those, you really can get almost anything Scottish here.
Q: Could you expand on your current role and why you enjoy it?
A: After I retired from my professional career, I decided I wanted to give back and I focused on Scotland. I felt I had a great childhood and a great education and then I left, like many other ex-patriate Scots. Working pro-bono on behalf of two American Scottish organizations felt right to me.
Q: Did you choose New England or did it choose you?
A: I chose it. After New York, I spent two years in Colorado and loved it there. However, while the southwest is lovely: big, beautiful blue skies; skiing; and a distinct place in American history, it is also relatively new. I moved to the Boston are because it felt most like a European city to me – the river and the bridges, four seasons, the architecture and history and it was closer to ‘home’ if I wanted to go there.
Q: Looking back in time, are there any decisions you made that in hindsight you now view as defining moments in your career?
A: A few. They usually involved the courage to speak out, taking reasoned risks and listening to people.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to entrepreneurs in Scotland contemplating establishing a business in New England?
A: Come over here before you make the decision; talk to people here whom you trust and can help you navigate the best way forward.
Q: What message would you give to New Englanders thinking of expanding into Europe?
A: Make sure you do market research about the various regions to see what best suits your business and think carefully about timing of when to expand.