Category Archives: Stories about Ladies Who Impress

I write stories about Ladies Who Impress I meet

Interview with an inspiring teacher

Fiona Wilson

It occurred to me that in the three years of running Ladies Who Impress, I have not yet interviewed a school teacher. It’s about time I address this oversight. I spoke to a teacher, who chose to remain anonymous, and talked to me about her work, its challenges, frustrations and, of course, rewards.

I currently work purely as a teacher having spent the previous ten years of my career as a middle manager, including four as Head of Subject and six as Head of Department.  My current school is an international sixth form college.  It is fee paying but not academically selective.

 What were you passionate about as a child?

My greatest passion was sport, but I was also fascinated by the natural world, which led me to take a biology degree.

How did you fall into teaching?

I didn’t fall into it, I actively chose it.  In the summer after my first year at University I did “Camp America” and spent my summer teaching swimming.  This cemented my long felt desire to become a teacher.  Initially, I felt that I should do ‘something else’ before I became a teacher so that I could start the profession a little older and with a bit more life experience, but the pursuit of trying to find ‘something else’ was futile. All I actually wanted to do was teach, and so after a year of various odd jobs (including being a primary school art teacher), working in a school in Pakistan and some travel, I returned to University to do my PGCE [The Postgraduate Certificate in Education, a one-year higher education course, which provides teacher training in the UK].

What makes a good teacher?

A good teacher has many skills.  Academically, teachers must be able to explain complex ideas in such a way that students can absorb the information quickly and easily and spark students’ interest and curiosity.  However, I feel that the non-academic aspect of being a good teacher is much more important. A good teacher builds confidence, enabling their students to feel that they can achieve anything, regardless of their start in life. A good teacher demonstrates that he or she has time for the students and believes in them. Good teachers show that they care.  They listen and respond to what their students say.

Are you a good teacher?

Yes.  At least my students say that I am.  Whilst I am perfectly adept at the academic side of teaching, the bit that makes my students rate me highly is the ‘other stuff’, the pastoral care side of the job.  Of course, there are days when I think I’m a pretty terrible teacher, and nothing I say makes any sense – we roll with it on those days…

Can you share a story of a moment which made you feel proud of what you do? 

This is quite a hard question because the moments I am most proud of are perhaps not the most obvious ones. Of course, it makes me happy when students do well in their exams, but often it’s the little things which really matter: a card which said that my teaching had made them want to study the subject further; a student performing well when previously they had been crippled with nerves; a sports team going from never having played the sport before to winning a string of matches and developing the camaraderie and ties that a good team has. These little things make every day different and make me proud to be a teacher.

Do you ever get questions from your students which make you think “I have no idea what’s the answer, I’d need to look it up.” If so, how do you deal with that?

Yes!  That’s a brilliant moment.  It happens more often than you might imagine. Sixth formers often come up with questions, which make me think.  I have no issue with being honest when I don’t know something. I have built their trust and they are happy for me to come back to them.

We hear a lot from teachers complaining about endless paperwork. It must be de-motivating – how do you deal with it?

Administrative tasks are frustrating when they don’t seem to promote learning. Since I have to get on with them, I have to convince myself that the paperwork is important.  Education these days is largely about accountability, and I find it so very wrong. If instead of spending time on proving that we had done something, we were actually teaching, our students would do a lot better!

I am very lucky that I currently work in a school where this isn’t a particular problem, but my friends and former colleagues are drowning in paperwork. Accountability is good, but there should be a greater degree of trust. Research shows that the very best form of feedback is verbal feedback. It allows you to have a dialogue about the piece of work, and it’s interactive. But verbal feedback has no evidence, so teachers are asked to indicate when verbal feedback has been given. The authorities seem to care less about students’ progress and more about the “verbal feedback given” stampers, which have become ubiquitous.

Do you agree that British schools are more about schooling than education? 

Yes.  It is all about getting the kids above the C grade bar.  Or, if they are cleverer, getting an A*.  The syllabuses are huge, time is tight and classes are large. There is no time and no encouragement to take a lesson to develop a proper answer to an interesting but slightly tangential question. We all want to get the students to think independently, but the reality is that the pressure for results is so high, that allowing students to think for themselves is ridiculously high risk.  Instead, teachers spoon-feed in ever increasingly creative ways so that the students are guaranteed to do well.  The wheels then fall off at University, or for some at A-level.

What do you need to vent about? 

There is a lot written about the lowly position of England in the global education system. In response the government sent some people to China and Singapore to try and establish what it is that makes these countries so good. Objectively, Chinese students should not be so successful with crowded classrooms and lessons taught in an autocratic style. But the fundamental point is surely about the position of education in society and the status of educators and the school in general.

As an Oxford graduate, I am frequently asked by my students: “Why are you a school teacher if you went to Oxford?” Many parents tell me: “I was no good at x so I’m not surprised that *child’s name* isn’t either” or “I hated school myself, so I don’t like forcing my child to study.” Teachers in the UK are not ranked very highly and the school itself is often viewed as a chore.

I don’t mean to say that teachers should be automatically revered, but I do think that we need to work on improving the attitudes of the majority to education. Schools need to work with parents to be perceived as safe places. If schools and parents work together, then progress can be made.

If you were the Education Minister (and assuming you had the real power), what would you do?

Remove league tables. The league tables provide an invidious way of ranking schools based purely on attainment.  Sadly, there are so many ways in which schools can inflate their results, e.g. resits or pushing subjects with very high pass rates.  League tables create the pressure to get good results, and the pressure is increasing.  With budget cuts student numbers are crucial, and you don’t want to be the school with the lowest results in town.  This means teachers bend over backwards to get Johnny the C grade, but Johnny himself can end up being totally disengaged in the process. He would learn how to pass the exam not the subject itself.  I once taught in a school that had excellent maths results.  Really truly outstanding.  The maths department were rightly proud of their achievements.  However, when I came to the bit of my course that requires maths, I discovered that whilst the students could follow a process to answer a GCSE maths question they had absolutely no concept of what numbers meant or how to apply them to other subjects.  It was frustrating, but when I raised it as a concern, I was told to leave it alone.  How  was that helping our students in the long term?

What is your greatest achievement?

Being selected for the Blue Boat and winning the Boat Race [the annual rowing race between the Oxford and Cambridge universities]. Not for the singular act, but due to the extended period of commitment and perseverance that it involved.

What are you good at?

Baking 🙂

Also, winning the trust of the students and forming relationships which then allows me to help them achieve more than they thought possible.

What is your weakness?

Chocolate…

What would you advise your 15-year-old self?

Be brave and say “yes” to every opportunity offered to you.

If you could do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would it be?

(A) an Ironman; (B) set up my own business; (C) re-train as a counsellor and (D) climb something really tall, like Kilimanjaro or something in the Andes.  The list goes on…

Wildlife documentaries director Anne Sommerfield

Anne in Kerry

Anne Sommerfield is an award-winning freelance film director and producer behind Meerkat Manor (BBC and Animal Planet), Animals in Love (BBC) and other wildlife documentaries. Her latest series, The Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough, will be aired soon on BBC1.

I met Anne in 2014, when she produced the Ladies Who Impress film Maybe I’m Crazy But...This time I interviewed her about her own story and the latest series with David Attenborough.

How does one end up filming a wildlife documentary with David Attenborough?

It definitely helps to have an almost unhealthy obsession with wildlife!  Atlantic Productions, who developed the idea for the series along with David Attenborough and the BBC, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in taking on the project. It was not a difficult decision to make.  

Is it a dream job?

For me, it is the very definition of the dream job, because I’ve wanted to work with David [Attenborough] for well over a decade. His films inspired me to step into the world of storytelling in the first place. Of course, that’s not to say my job is a walk in the park – no creative endeavor ever is..!

How did you become interested in wildlife? 

I have always been fascinated by wildlife. In fact, my parents take great pleasure in whipping out old family photos of me as a child, always posing with animals. There is one particular favourite shot of me, dressed in hilarious 80’s attire, trying to creep closer to a goat…The goat whisperAt secondary school I loved biology, and once I began studying zoology in university I was totally hooked. In the current climate of the endless horrific news stories and reality TV overload there’s something about sharing humane stories. Natural history is truly worth appreciating. Wildlife TV is the equivalent of yoga: it’s good for the soul.

Is freelancing difficult or you would not imagine working any other way?

It was a challenge to begin with, not knowing if your luck will run out or if the calls for jobs will keep coming but now I love it. It gives me creative freedom. 

With the rising tuition fees, do you imagine you would still study biology or not? What would you advise ‘A’ level students in terms of choosing what to study at university?

Yes, I would definitely study biology again. It’s not an essential qualification for getting into wildlife TV, but it’s about passion. My advice would be to find whatever you are really passionate about and go with that. The people who succeed in this business are not necessarily the most talented filmmakers, but they are the most passionate ones and the most determined to tell the stories they love.

I think it’s worth knowing that “talent” can be cultivated.  You can learn on the job and hone certain skills, but you absolutely cannot fake real passion, and there is no substitute for it.

What is your greatest achievement?

Working for the BBC is always a privilege, and the current project with David Attenborough is truly an honor. I’m still pinching myself. But I am most proud of the first film I had ever directed, There’s a Rhino in my House. It sounds mad, but it is a beautiful story about a family in Zimbabwe, who fought to protect the endangered rhinos. The film helped to raise awareness of the conservation issues in Zimbabwe, and we even raised some money for the family’s conservation project. 

What are you good at?

It’s a terrible question to ask an Irish person! I’m good at sniffing out a story and realising the emotional potential of a film. I tend to put my heart and soul into every film I make and I think that helps. 

What is your weakness?

Perfectionism can be a problem for me… I tend to labour for far too long over scripts and sometimes I wish I moved on quicker and came back to the polishing part of the process later. 

What would you advise your 15-year-old self?

Be nobody else but yourself. Not everyone will get it. That’s ok. Mean people are really sad people in disguise. Read more. Read everything. But whatever your read, read Oscar Wilde.  Most importantly, if you really want to be a goat whisperer, be a frickin’ goat whisperer!

If you could do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would it be?

I’m guessing bank thief is not the sort of answer you’re looking for..? As clichéd as it sounds, I really am doing what I love. The risk of failure is an important part of life and of any creative project. When we fail, we learn a big lesson about ourselves, and that’s a lesson worth taking. 

The Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough will be aired soon on BBC1.

 

 

 

From Moldova with ambition: Stela Brinzeanu

Stela

I meet Stela Brinzeanu at the corner of Highbury Fields and we find a café nearby. This is the first time I meet and interview a person born in Moldova, a tiny Eastern European country with a population of just three and a half million. It is a former Soviet republic, famous for its wine. Now it is a struggling economy, which depends on its agriculture and migrant workers, earning money abroad to support their parents and children at home. “We are the Skype generation”, explains Stela. “Many children see their parents just once or twice a year, and they rely on the internet.”

Born in a small village, called Mereeseni, 40km from the capital Chișinău, Stela too uses Skype to call her parents, but it’s still a relative novelty. “We used to write long letters to each other, and they took a month to arrive. My parents did not have a computer or internet until 2013.”

Stela’s father shoots clouds for living. His job is to spot thundery clouds and break them up before they may damage the crops – fruit, vegetables and grapes – with hail.  Stela’s mother is a nurse. Growing up in a tiny village, Stela nevertheless benefited from the Soviet school system, which allowed her to enrol into a Chișinău university to study English and Italian. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, opportunities in Moldova were few and far between. Moldovan citizens, annexed from Romania by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, were hoping to be reunited with Romania, but in vain. Stela decided to try her luck in London, taking advantage of her Romanian ancestry (which enabled her to work legally in Britain).

London appeared to be everything Mereeseni was not: liberating and full of opportunities. Stela got a job as a waitress, signed up for a computer course, worked to improve her English. Soon she started to interpret into and from Romanian. (Romanian is Moldova’s official and spoken language). Later Stela studied media and TV production at the University of Westminster, still supporting herself with part-time jobs. She’s worked in TV and publishing, before finding her passion for writing.

“In Britain, if you want something, you can get it, regardless of whether you have connections or not. If you keep your head down and work hard, I believe you can achieve whatever you want.”

Stela misses Moldovan vineyards, home-cooked traditional mămăliga (polenta), sarmale (dolma) and friptura (pork stew), but today she calls London her home.

She works three days a week for a charity and devotes the rest of her time to writing. Stela has already written and self-published a book, Bessarabian Nights, about human trafficking from her native Moldova. Now she is working on her second book.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us how lucky we are…

What is your greatest achievement? I’ve made life for myself in London, against all odds.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Hold on to your dreams, no matter what.

What are you good at? Cleaning! I am a bit OCD about that. I also make mean polenta cakes!

What is your weakness? Impulsiveness.

What would you do, if you knew you would not fail? Study quantum physics.

If you’d like to find out more about Stela, please visit her website www.stelabrinzeanu.com.

A story of Tamsin and her family

One day Tamsin woke up and made up her mind. Tamsin, who grew up in South Africa and England, has always wanted to live in the country and have a dog. It’s just that her dream always seemed out of sight. The stars did not align. The timing was not quite right. Her job was not paying well enough. And, of course, she needed just the right partner to move to the country with. You know, the dog-loving type.

Years went by. London underground in the heat of commute was as dismal as ever. Jobs and men came and went. “What am I waiting for?”, thought Tamsin and searched for Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, a website she’d been browsing for hours at a time. The charity, which on average takes in 13 dogs and 9 cats every day, is an animal rescue centre which aims to rehome unwanted cats and dogs. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home was established in 1860 by Mrs Mary Tealby, who was concerned by the number of animals roaming the streets of London. The Home was then known as “The Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs” and was based in Holloway, North London. It moved to Battersea in 1871. Today they care for over 8,000 pets.

Tamsin 1

This is where Tamsin met and adopted Dexter, a Siberian husky with soft black-and-white fur and clever dark eyes, mischievous under his thick white eye-brows. It is his fourth home. Huskies, explains Tamsin, have a very well developed pack instinct and thrive in company. Soon Tamsin also took Lola, a snow-white husky with unimaginably beautiful white-blue eyes. Lola is a bit naughty but also very affectionate. Sometimes Lola still flinches when someone touches her head.

Tamsin 3Tamsin 2

The trio lives in Surrey in a rented house right near the heath. Tamsin gets up before five and takes her huskies to London for doggy day care.  She picks Dexter and Lola up straight after work and they commute back to the country. Her previously busy social calendar is now empty but there are long walks in the woods, playtime and cuddles. Lola, who used to be skinny, is putting on muscle, thanks to the proper diet and exercise. Dexter is still battling with separation anxiety when Tamsin, ‘the head of the pack’, leaves for work. There is something surreal about Tamsin suddenly having a family but there is nothing wrong with deciding one day to be happy.

Tamsin 4

Interview with Dr. Helen Johnson of Goddess Acumen

Dr. Helen JohnsonI met Helen Johnson at Oxford sixteen years ago. But it’s Doctor Helen Johnson now, which is partly why I’ve asked her for an interview. I was looking forward to speak to her about her academic work and this important milestone which must have taken a lot of time, patience and sacrifice to reach. It turns out that Helen, like any other woman, wears a lot of hats. During our conversation she puts one on, plays with it for a while, swaps for another and piles yet another on top. Women, the unsung masters of juggling and multi-tasking, never cease to amaze me.

Helen has a BA in Philosophy and French from the University of Oxford. She briefly entertained an idea of becoming a barrister before finding herself interested in public policy and justice. After getting a Masters degree in Policy Studies in Edinburgh, where Helen spent a lot of time volunteering with women’s organisations, she met Professor Roger Matthews of the School of Social policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent.

Under Professor Matthews’ supervision, Helen has spent nearly four years on research and her thesis, which aimed at helping women leave prostitution in an effective and sustainable way. Helen explains: “I interviewed thirty women who have either already left sex work or were thinking of leaving it. I realised that while current social policies in the UK address the immediate needs of those women, such as shelter and short-term emotional support, in the longer term, they are on their own.” Helen worked on putting together emotionally intelligent services to help vulnerable women build up self-esteem, confidence and trust. “When you make big changes in your life, it is common to feel stuck after a while when you are struggling to integrate within the new community. It is also very important to feel you are doing something meaningful to help with establishing a new identity.”

Listening to Helen talking about women who went through sexual violence, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness, I cannot help but think that anyone could benefit from looking at changes in an emotionally intelligent way: pursing a career in a new field, retiring from work or recovering from a debilitating illness require more than a leap of faith. I am also interested in understanding one’s identity so I ask Helen about hers.

“I am a freedom fighter, a goddess and a surfer!”

In addition to that, Helen is also an entrepreneur and a holistic practitioner. Her work on the PhD was psychologically draining, and Helen discovered the benefits of yoga, meditation and EFT. EFT stands for Emotional Freedom Technique, a psychological technique which clears negative symptoms through tapping. A problem may be physical (e.g. a headache) or emotional (e.g. feeling nervous before an interview) but EFT is said to be effective in ‘clearing it out’. “My professional and personal lives converged”, explains Helen. Alongside her academic work on emotions of disistence, Helen trained as a neurolinguistic practitioner, earned a certificate in EFT and mastered hypnotherapy.

Helen founded Goddess Acumen, where she helps women find a sense of balance in every aspect of their lives. Using holistic techniques such as EFT, neurolinguistic programming and personal coaching, Helen helps her clients let go of their limiting beliefs and reach their full potential. Goddess Acumen is a playful way of representing female energy through Greek goddesses, described by Jennifer and Roger Woolger in their book The Goddess Within. To illustrate, Demeter stands for motherhood and nurture, Aphrodite symbolises sensuality, Athena is a warrior and also a goddess of intellect and wisdom. (To learn about all six goddesses, click here.) What Goddess Acumen is trying to cultivate is that we feel happiest and perform at our best when our energies are in balance. Inevitably, it is not easy to achieve, but even identifying our weakest links is a start.

“Even the most driven women need to nurture themselves, otherwise they may run out of steam or burn out”, says Helen. I find myself nodding.

To learn more about Goddess Acumen and its holistic services, please visit Helen’s website

Interview with Alex Hely-Hutchinson of 26 Grains

Alex Hely-HutchinsonI meet Alex Hely-Hutchinson in the Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden where the 25-year-old entrepreneur opened her first 26 Grains café. It is a temporary venue but it’s impossible to imagine a better location for a health food joint, cooking up fresh porridge from a variety of grains, milks and scrumptious toppings: oats with hazelnut butter and almond milk, summer berry smoothie bowl with granola and bee pollen or tomato, coconut, avocado and halloumi brown rice bowl for a savoury tooth. It’s the middle of the afternoon but the café is busy. I notice the customers like taking pictures of their bowls – they are indeed the prettiest bowls of breakfast staple I’ve ever seen in what’s swiftly becoming London’s porridge mecca.

26Grains

I ask Alex what inspired her to set up 26 Grains. Alex studied Economics at Trinity, Dublin. Students were encouraged to spend a year abroad, and she chose to go to Denmark. Alex fell in love with the Danish lifestyle, food, Copenhagen’s sense of community and the concept of hygge, meaning “cosyness”, “comfort”, “camaraderie”. She experienced it first hand in Danish cafés where friends meet to enjoy steamy bowls of porridge cooked with various grains and always topped with spices, nuts, berries or fruit compote with unapologetic flare. What a contrast with boring “oats, milk and sugar” combination Alex was used to at home!

Back in Britain, Alex spent the summer working with Jenny Dawson and her social enterprise Rubies in the Rubble making chutneys from discarded fruit and vegetables from London’s wholesale markets. After graduation Alex got a job with a health food brand Rude Health helping founders with PR and communications. The experience at food start-ups helped her make up her mind to launch a venture of her own.

“There is a great sense of community among women working in food from entrepreneurs to bloggers to women who simply love food and help spread the word about new projects”, says Alex. She started with pop-ups offering 26 Grains at independent cafés and other venues, catering for events before opening her first own shop in Neal’s Yard in June 2015.

“If there is something I’ve learned in the 11 months prior to opening my own store is that things don’t all happen at once. Everything takes time.”

Her patience paid off: even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, customers flock to 26 Grains for a bowl of porridge. Alex is already masterminding next steps: improve brand awareness, write and publish a book of 26 Grains recipes, launch a retail product, perhaps. “My priorities right now are quality and consistency”, says Alex, which makes me think I am interviewing a seasoned businesswoman, wise beyond her age.

I ask Alex what she likes best about her business and she tells me about the relationship with customers. “It’s really humbling to see people making time for a freshly made bowl of porridge in the morning. They don’t mind waiting and we like chatting to them.” It’s hygge again, a sense of community Alex is determined to ingrain in London.

I also try to probe into the challenges she has encountered as a budding entrepreneur. “I am inherently bossy by nature so I sometimes find it hard to let go and let my team get on with their jobs. But it’s been a learning experience, I reckon I am a better boss now.” Alex also confessed that she found it hard to be on her own. “Sometimes I think it would be good to have another person who is similarly invested in the business and has the same vision for it. There is so much to do like being the face of the brand, speaking to the builder or a supplier, being an employer and thinking ahead that I wish there was someone I could share all these responsibilities with.” Luckily, Alex knows a lot of people her age who have similarly started their own businesses. “Apart from my family, there is a lot of support through shared experience among my peers.”

We talk about women in business and Alex says that she tends to consider everything twice before making a decision, while a man would just go with a hunch. Sometimes it feels to her as a waste of time; “I wish I just bit the bullet”, but on other occasions it pays to take time and weigh all options. “Ultimately, running your own business is the best school and the most rewarding experience whether you get it the first time or not.”

What is your greatest achievement? Probably seeing a customer coming back – it’s a really special experience to see someone return for another bowl of porridge because they liked it the first time. I also served about 250 bowls of porridge to people who slept rough last November to raise money for Centrepoint [UK’s leading charity for homeless young people].

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Do it the way you want the first time. Stop doubting yourself, stop making lists, just go for it.

What are you good at? I don’t know… I am good at sweeping the floor! Oh and I can guess what a customer will order from how they look.

What is your weakness? I am not so good at pulling the trigger when making decisions.

What would you do, if you knew you would not fail? I’d become a popstar! (Laughing) No, I’d do something to engage children in cooking and appreciating healthy, wholesome food.

To find out more about Alex and 26 Grains, please visit www.26grains.com

Meet Sophie Blondel who swapped Paris for rural Normandy

Summer in Normandy is peculiarly familiar. The sun is capricious and is frequently hiding behind the clouds. The rhythm of life here is punctuated by the sea and its tides, painting fascinating, melancholic landscapes, starting with a fresh canvas every morning. The village of Regnéville-sur-Mer in Lower Normandy is a quiet place with an unlikely grand church and ruins of a medieval castle. Every Friday in the summer the castle is bustling  with people coming to shop and eat at the farmers’ market, listen to a band or watch a play. I came to Regnéville-sur-Mer to visit my friend and former colleague Sophie Blondel.

Castle    Market

Sophie worked as a Chief Financial Controller in a large media company in Paris. Her work was frighteningly complicated and demanded a lot of time and responsibility.  Sophie was very good at it, despite its pressures. She also found time for tango and swimming, movies and friends, making the most of what Paris has to offer for about 20 years. At the same time, Sophie has been studying shiatsu.  In Japanese, “shiatsu”  means “finger pressure” . It is a holistic physical therapy, which works to strengthen the body’s natural ability to heal itself. It is based on  manipulating body energy, ki, as it flows through a network of body  meridians.  After 4 years of study and a trip to Japan, Sophie earned a professional certificate from La Voie Shiatsu, a school accredited by the French Federation of Traditional Shiatsu.  Earlier this year she quit her high-powered finance job in Paris to move to rural Normandy and practise shiatsu.

I remember our conversations at an industrial-size Nespresso machine in Paris. We were both stressed, hyper-caffeinated, stiff from spending too much time sitting in the office and working through countless spreadsheets. We took pride in our work and our ability to handle pressure, we were loyal and professional, but inwardly thoughts were beginning to creep in: “Is this really what I want to do?”

In Sophie’s beautiful garden in Normandy I asked her what prompted her to consider career change. “It’s my values that have changed. I’m proud of what I have achieved in Paris and I loved living there but increasingly I’ve become disenchanted with my life and I wanted to change it.” Sophie moved to Normandy because this is where she had grown up. Her parents still live here. “I came here often, I used it as a retreat to help me relax and re-balance my energy. I have come to live here because I wanted to change my lifestyle, not just my career.”

Sophie Blondel

Just a few months after moving to Normandy, Sophie looks completely different. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but she radiates happiness. We make dinner from the fresh produce we’d bought at the market, we go to the beach, we take long walks and meditate. We realise we have a lot in common, now that the professional masks are off.

Sophie tells me about her new work. She has regular clients in the nearby Granville and is now looking for permanent studio space. Over the summer she has also been  offering her services at a local caravan camping site. One morning while I was writing a blog, Sophie went to work. She came back with triumphant “I had four clients today!” Many people would look at Sophie and conclude that she is just another professional who ‘down-shifted’ once she’d made her money. I see a woman who isn’t afraid to challenge herself, to take a leap of faith and embrace fear. In her previous role, her job was to take account of other people’s initiatives and performance; now she has to be bold and creative, like any entrepreneur, learn about marketing, be her own boss.  “I’ll give myself a year or two, and then we’ll see.”

There’s no guarantee your new idea will be a success, but you can give it a shot and try your very best.

What is your greatest achievement? Changing my life

What are you good at? Let me think… I am good at seeing the beauty in things.

What is your weakness? Lack on self-confidence…

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Don’t chase someone else’s dreams.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I would like to travel the world and learn about healing practices of different cultures.

Sophie practises shiatsu in Granville – for details, please visit her website.

Interview with PR expert Anji Hunter

Last week I recorded an interview with Anji Hunter, an expert in Public Relations both in politics and in business. Anji worked for Prime Minister Tony Blair MP from 1987 to 2002, in opposition and government, becoming Head of Government Relations in Downing Street (1997), where she was the key liaison with the Cabinet, Civil Service, the Labour Party, Opposition Leaders and other governments. Anji was once described as “the most influential non-elected person in Downing Street”.

Later she became Group Director of Communications at BP before moving on to join the world’s largest PR firm, Edelman. as a senior adviser.

We talked about her career, but also addressed some questions close to all of us: “Can women have it all?”, “Do women help each other enough?” and “How to ask for a pay rise?”…

Please leave a reply above or a comment via Facebook below – join the conversation!

Interview with artist Kristjana Williams

KSW Portrait Sep 2013Welcome to Kristjana S Williams studio! True to the spirit of its owner, it is full of vibrant colours, delicate patterns, fabulous maps and magical creatures…

Kristjana Williams was brought up in Iceland. She first studied Electrical Engineering in Iceland but maths wasn’t her calling. Her passion was art, something she had felt was not viable enough to pursue seriously. But when Kristjana had come to London, she enrolled in a design course with City Lit (which offers evening and weekend adult learning courses). And then she got into Central St Martins to study graphic design and illustration at the age of 25. It’s fair to say, Kristjana never looked back.

Today she is a equally successful as a fine artist and a commercial designer collaborating with such brands as Fortnum & Mason, Heal’s, Liberty, Paul Smith and Cole & Son.  Kristjana exhibited her work at London’s V&A, Design Shanghai, created art work for the Connaught Hotel and is currently working on her biggest commission to date: a giant map of London for the Shard.

It’s a five-metre map of London with Kristjana’s signature colourful collages, exotic flowers, historic characters and pieces, juxtaposed against black-and-white Victorian engravings. “The work that goes into scanning, printing and cutting all the patterns is incredible”, explains Kristjana who has three more designers in her studio to help her. I am leafing through the Victorian engravings book of royal menagerie from the 18th century, while marvelling at the contrast between the sleek outside image of Shard and the delicate design, paying homage to London’s history, being created by Kristjana for one of its interior bars.

Studio

In addition to the Shard commission, Kristjana is also working on a ceramic range for Fortnum & Mason, which will be out for Christmas 2015.

“I love that I don’t have to pigeon-hole myself, say, as a fine artist. I can also making a living by doing commercial work that is also affordable to the general public: prints, wallpaper, cushions,” says Kristjana. “I also love collaboration. It’s a fantastic experience to work with craftsmen such as upholsterers, furniture makers, embroiderers.”

Kristjana’s love for colour goes back to her childhood in Iceland, where she craved light, colour and magic during long and dark Scandinavian winters. Quite unlike traditionally calm and understated Scandinavian design, her work is always vibrant, vivid but also delicate in its attention to detail.

Flamingo

What is your greatest achievement? Apart from my children, it must be The Connaught commission. It was a true labour of love. The brief was to capture the spirit, richness and magic of the unique Mayfair hotel. It’s a two by three meters collage artwork with traditional Victorian etchings, which took six months to create.

What are you good at? Coming up with ideas. My only problem is that I never seem to have enough time to realise them all…

What is your weakness? I want to do everything… I get a fine art commission which is an enormous project in itself but at the same time I also take on commercial projects I am excited about so it becomes overwhelming. I think this thirst has held me back as much as it has pushed me forward. Now that I am forty, I am finally better at pacing myself but it’s been a journey and a half…

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Calm down! Be less anxious… I also wish that I saw the opportunities available to me as a creative, because I did not see them as a 15-year-old. My creative drive was strong, but I could not see it as a profession, only as a hobby.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? Go to the Moon! That’s the first thing that popped into my head. I don’t really want to go into space. I’d rather get a diving boat especially designed to travel deep down to the bottom of the ocean and explore the world at the core of our planet.

MaskTo find out more about Kristjana’s work, please visit http://www.kristjanaswilliams.com

 

Interview with Jane Olphert, founder of Haleo, making the world a healthier place

About a year ago I offered subscribers to www.lifetonic.co.uk to meet me for a coffee and use me as a sounding board for their business ideas. This is how I met Jane Olphert and got to hear her incredible, inspiring story. We have kept in touch since, and finally I get to share Jane’s story with you to celebrate the launch of her website: www.haleo.co.uk!

Please visit Jane’s website and sign up to her newsletter for diet and lifestyle tips, spread the word about the healing properties of vegetable foods and ideas for making the world a healthier place.