Tag Archives: career change

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 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.

Interview with personal stylist Esther Zimmer

Esther Zimmer came to a Ladies Who Impress celebration in April 2014. She has since become a member of the Ladies Who Impress Club and a friend, supporting both my mission to celebrate inspiring women and my journey as a solopreneur.

At the beginning of the interview I say that Esther’s story is inspiring. It’s not just in reference to her successful transition to a sustainable lifestyle doing what she loves: our conversation touched upon a couple of important questions: “Should women be judged by their looks?”, “How to turn your passion into a business?” and “How to carve out a niche in a crowded market?”. Esther did not arrive at her answers overnight, but spent months finding her own take on the styling industry, eventually finding her purpose and translating it into creating value for her clients. I am a big fan of conscious businesses and organisations: they truly stand out.

To find out more about Esther and her services, please visit www.estherzimmer.com.

Cath Bishop, former Olympic rower and Chair of CUWBC

Image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

Image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

On Saturday 11 April 2015 history will be made on the river Thames. For the first time since 1829 (first men’s race) and 1927 (women’s first race), the famous Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities will see men’s and women’s crews competing on the same day on the same stretch of the river between Putney and Mortlake in London. The Boat Race attracts 9 million viewers in the UK alone, and it is broadcast all over the world – it is a big deal. Whether you care for the sport or not, it is a tremendous step forward on the feminist agenda. It is a massive achievement for women’s sports, gender equality and the future. When glass ceilings shatter, only sky is the limit for women who are up for it.

On the eve of this important page in history, I met with a former British Olympic rower Catherine (Cath) Bishop, who is currently chairing the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC).

Catherine Bishop

Cath has had an incredibly diverse career. She studied German and Russian at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she first got persuaded to try rowing. It was a sense of camaraderie that attracted her to the sport. After university Cath competed in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympics. In 2004 she won a Silver medal, rowing in a pair with Katherine Grainger in Athens.

Cath studied for Masters in International Politics, got PhD in German and joined the Foreign Office. Just months after the Olympics she went to Sarajevo, which was the beginning of her career as a diplomat. Her next posting was to Basra.

“Iraq was the epicentre of the Foreign Office – everything was influenced by what was happening in the Middle East. I decided I had to see it for myself. We lived on a military base in sea containers; it was pretty rough and the danger was real. It was some experience.”

After Iraq, Cath moved to London.

“I found it hard to adjust. People worried about appraisals at work and getting rejected whilst bidding for houses in Fulham. I was just pretty glad I could take a shower every day!”

After rowing for Britain for a decade and working for the Foreign Office for 11 years, Cath set up her own consulting business, specialising in leadership and team performance. She helps corporate clients develop resilience of their teams, achieve high performance under pressure and make the most of human talent.

“Business world is a bit messier than the world of athletics, and we are not talking about matters of ‘life and death’ in air-conditioned offices, but I draw parallels from Basra and sport to help improve performance in the corporates.”

In her capacity as the chair of the CUWBC, Cath volunteers to help student athletes make the most of training opportunities whilst at university. It’s her way of ‘giving back’ for her own rowing experience as a student, which had changed her life.

Cath explains that with BNY Mellon becoming the main corporate sponsor in 2012, student rowers got access to better coaches, training facilities, body conditioning and nutrition advice. BNY Mellon is a parent company of Newton with Helena Morrissey, a gender equality champion, at its helm. Helena Morrissey made a call to increase funding for women to make it possible for them to compete on equal terms with men this year.

Helena Morrissey changed the game for female rowers. “At the first women’s race in 1927, The Times reported that “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath” to heckle the crews. In 1962, in a letter to the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, the captain of Selwyn College at Cambridge wrote: “I personally do not approve of women rowing at all. It is a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility (if you are rowing properly, that is) and physiologically dangerous.” He added, “Wouldn’t you rather be playing tennis or something like that?!”” Cath remembers that in her days, women would not dream of training together with men. Now the crews go to the same training camps in the summer and have access to the same nutrition and other specialists. On 11 April 2015 women will race the same course as men. Perhaps in ten years’ time we won’t even think it was a particularly big deal.

A polyglot, an Olympic athlete, a diplomat, a motivational coach, a mother and a chair of women’s university boat club, Cath is an inspiration (her allegiance to the Cambridge blue notwithstanding..!). I asked her some personal questions, and this is what she shared with us:

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? I’d say do not waste time worrying about what others think, and do not worry whether you might fail or not – you will, and that will be an important part of any future success.

What are you good at? Pushing myself, leaving my comfort zone, always seeking improvement  at whatever I do.  Oh yes, and drinking champagne!

What is your greatest achievement? Good question – I don’t really see anything as a ‘great achievement’; I have always tried to do my best, and I’ve had some fabulous opportunities that have let me put myself to the test in various situations. Possibly my greatest achievement is that I have never given up, I have always kept trying, even after failing, and even after making lots of mistakes.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? Write a bestseller.

Who inspires you? Lots of people – people who volunteer (and get no glory, recognition or thanks) to help those who are disadvantaged, disabled, suffering and generally neglected as the ‘losers’ in our society.  Big name role models would include Hillary Clinton, Katherine Grainger, Daley Thompson – anyone who has shown resilience, success under pressure and always had a good sense of humour.

Kresse Wesling MBE, co-founder of Elvis & Kresse

Elvis & Kresse_024

Kresse Westling was born in Edmonton, Canada. She studied Politics and Chinese in Montreal, before travelling to Hong Kong where she worked in venture capital. Kresse has always been interested in environment, and her first own venture was a start-up, producing biodegradable supplies for the catering industry. Kresse met her now fiancé James Henrit (nicknamed Elvis) and moved to the UK.

In 2005 she attended a course on sustainability where she came across the London Fire Brigade. She learned that after 25 years of service, fire hoses were scrapped, rather than recycled. The couple came up with an idea to ‘upcycle’ discarded fire hoses into high-end lifestyle accessories. Elvis & Kresse was born.

On politics… Elvis & Kresse is based in Kent, and I thought that we lived in a constituency of Nigel Farage! I told Elvis I was going to stand as an independent MP! It turns out Farage’s constituency is further away, and realistically I do not have time to take politics seriously with all the projects we are taking on at the moment. Still, I get very passionate when someone mentions UKIP!

I needed a new challenge… My first business, producing biodegradable supplies for the catering industry, was successful and profitable. The trouble is, it became boring, I needed a new challenge. When I heard a story about fire hoses being simply dumped into a landfill after use from the London Fire Brigade, it bugged me. I got home and told Elvis we had to do something about it! Elvis is a product designer by background. We thought long and hard about possible ways to recycle the hoses: we brought a heap of them home, cleaned them up; we considered using them for roof tiles, but the cleaning process is too laborious to be cost-effective.

Our ultimately successful idea was to create a range of luxury accessories: belts, iPhone, iPad and laptop covers, washbags and wallets. Each product is really well made – I can guarantee a wallet won’t fall apart a year later. The business took off. Cameron Diaz was photographed wearing a white dress and our red belt in Vogue. Consumers are after unique accessories; they want quality and they want a story.

We also give 50% of our profits back to the Fire Fighters Charity which tells you something about operational margins of luxury products!

We are ‘designers backwards’… IKEA has recently approached us about helping them with creating a range of products from their customer returns. I’m immediately thinking: what’s the best possible way to re-use this or that element? Designers are not trained that way – sustainability is an optional module in most design schools. I am not a designer, of course, I read the New Scientist, not fashion mags.

I want to change the whole world into a circular economy… I want to change how people think about their clothes, furniture, houses, food, waste, etc. There is a story to every product: if you no longer need your garden table, what can you do to write the next chapter of its journey? I love rescuing discarded materials. Elvis & Kresse HQ is built using many upcycled products. I want to inspire the whole world to do just that and find the best possible way to recycle things.

On MBE… It came out of the blue really. I got a letter from Her Majesty, which got my future in-laws very excited. I was awarded MBE for the services to corporate social responsibility. I am pleased, of course, because it helps me to get my sustainability message across to schools and universities, business forums and professional networks. There is not enough being done for tackling waste problems in the UK, yet alone, globally. I want to change that.

Elvis & Kresse is a social enterprise, providing employment, looking after the environment and giving back 50% of their profits to charity. If you’d like to support Elvis & Kresse, please have a look at their range of sustainable, beautifully crafted products. I am a fan!

KresseWestling_landscape copy

A story of a milliner, Claire Howeson, Penmayne of London

Claire Howeson

Claire Howeson thinks that perhaps she was born to be an entrepreneur. Her father had a cheese business, and she remembers imagining that she too would one day run her own company. As it happens, Claire went to study biology, then law, before becoming a solicitor.

In her own words, Claire craved something creative. She came across a millinery course and signed up. Every Monday after work she went to learn how to make hats. She learned the basic skills – and patience.

Claire Howeson

Claire Howeson with her hat block and the very first hat she had made

Whilst still practising law, Claire began thinking of taking her hobby a little more seriously. At that time wedding hats and occasional hats grew in popularity. “Making hats is extremely labour-intensive, so I had to find a way of how I could scale it.” It was then that Claire looked into fedoras and trilbies.

“I don’t do things by halves.”

With that Claire set herself on a mission to bring back beautiful hats as everyday accessories.

Claire left her corporate law firm in the City to study with milliners Edwina Ibbotson and Noel Stewart. She learned how to make hats but also about wholesale trade, supplies and other aspects of the hat-making industry. After six months at the end of 2012 Claire felt ready to launch Penmayne of London

Penmayne of London hats are shaped by hat-blockers in the UK and then hand-trimmed and finished by Claire and her small team in her London studio.

“I have a tendency to run before I can walk…”

Claire started selling her fedoras at Christmas fares to test the concept, and before long Penmayne of London hats appeared at Wolf & Badger, a store, showcasing independent designers. Before she had a chance to catch her breath, Harrods invited Claire to pitch to them.

“What I have come to realise is this: you cannot learn whether you are good at something or not, whether you like it or not, before you try.” 

I watch Claire brushing a beautiful fedora trimmed with a wool braid and laugh: she says that sometimes she misses her law office. She explains: “I miss being told “Well done” on occasion, leaving the office at 6p.m. and switching off. You don’t get that as an entrepreneur.” It is true. But it’s the spark in Claire’s eyes that tells me her ‘leap of faith’ has been worth it. Claire Howeson hat

Julia Dobson, co-founder of Village England

Julia Dobson is one of those women you’d be happy to cross the mountains or start the business with – she has bountiful energy, a true sense of vision and an ability to think on her feet. She is also a multi-tasker, something that comes, perhaps, with becoming a mother, and Julia is a mother of two. As I caught up with her at Best of Britannia fair in London’s Clerkenwell, Julia was fixing up an overhead lantern to create a spotlight effect over her collection of stunning leather bags, Village England.

With background in managing luxury brands, such as Celine and Acqua di Parma at Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy and inspired by such mentors as Robert Bensoussan of Jimmy Choo (now CEO of L.K. Bennett), she has been mulling over starting her own business for a while. She shared her thoughts with a Eddie Knevett, then Head of Accessories at the House of Fraser, and they discovered they had shared similar values and thirst for entrepreneurship.

Image credit: Evening Standard

Image credit: Evening Standard

Eddie and Julia wanted to create something different – beautiful, top-end quality yet practical and affordable accessories, inspired by a uniquely English sense of style.

“I really care about the quality and attention to detail you get when you buy a luxury brand, but when I left my job to start my own business, I quickly realised that without a brand funded clothing allowance but with two children and a start-up, my perspective had changed: I still wanted quality and style, but I wasn’t prepared to swallow the prices anymore – I just had other things to spend my money on. Like school fees. When Eddie and I looked at the market, there was nothing that I wanted to buy for the money I was prepared to spend.”

“You’ll find a great selection of Village England bags at £250 with some items priced at a higher end. We’ve managed to achieve reasonable pricing despite designing much needed pockets every woman needs, buying amazing Italian leather and finishing our bags with luxurious lining.”

Julia and Eddie actually started the business just after Julia’s second son was born. She was amazed at her ability to simultaneously type, Skype and breastfeed, but equally, she discovered that “doing your own thing” cuts out a lot of “politics, pointless meetings and chatter”, leaving Julia and Eddie focussing on developing their brand and products.

Village England brown

Village England has been inspired by craftsmanship, farmers’ markets, the importance of community. Our customer is a woman who values quality and style but lives in a real world, which means she should be able to throw her bag on the back seat of a car or take it on the Tube.”

Later I caught up with Julia’s business partner, Eddie, who designed a beautiful wooden display to showcase the bags at the fair. He told me about his design vision for the brand.

“The design of our bags and accessories is infused with an English sense of style: eclectic, understated and colourful, but in a subtle, rather than a loud way.” 

It seems incredible that the brand was launched just a year ago. Village England is available in select House of Fraser and Anthropologie stores, and the bags are also sold online via the company’s website. Julia and Eddie have launched their second collection Autumn-Winter 2014, grew a team and have delighted many happy customers. Clare Balding is a fan.

burton-agnes-square--170x170   Aysgarth    Datchet-Orange-2-170x170

Lili Millar, a woman who never stops


Lili was born in Bannockburn, Scotland, a site of the famous battle where the Scots won a landmark victory over the English in 1314, as Lili proudly slipped into the conversation. She studied Film and Communications in Edinburgh, before moving down to London. It went like that:

“My brother lent me his kit bag, I got a train to London and found a place in Brixton, which was a cheap area to live in after the riots of 1985.”

Lili got a job with the Red Wedge, a collective of musicians and artists, working to engage young people in politics and to support the Labour Party. Lili made banners and posters, met lots of interesting activists and took part in political marches, her own heart synchronised with the quick pulse of London.

In the following years Lili dedicated herself to art. She did a foundation course at Central Saint Martins and kept studying art until she joined a bespoke furniture making workshop.

Her next reincarnation, if you permit me to borrow this theological term, was becoming a booker in the entertainment industry. Lili lived on a boat in Chiswick, booked stylists and make-up artists for commercial fashion shoots and roamed around Soho.

At some point she discovered yoga, visited and fell in love with India and did a yoga teacher training course. I met Lili in 2005, when I was just trying out different styles of ancient discipline and different teachers. I knew I had to look no more. I thought Lili had been practising yoga for decades, and at the same time she was trying out new postures and breathing exercises, experimenting and challenging her class, which is what I liked.

“I see yoga as a craft. I never stop learning it, and I soak up inspiration from my students.”

Lili has now been teaching yoga for 15 years but she cannot help but keep reinventing herself. Over the last few years she fell in love with cycling and indoor spinning. She now specialises in personal training both on a bike and on a mat, putting together rehabilitation programmes for clients, overcoming sport injuries.

Over the last few months Lili and her business partner have been working on a new project and have come up with a range of underwear for female urban cyclists. In Lili’s own words, Bike Nicks are sporty, but nice. Lili has also designed unisex bags for yoga mats.

“Yoga is my path but I like to keep challenging myself. I’ll never stop.”

At that point my jaw dropped because Lili is showed me her foil – that’s right – she is currently studying fencing.

“Fencing is so graceful, I love the fluidity of it and you’ve got to stay focussed all the time. Lots of Russians and Eastern Europeans are doing it – you should try it.”

As soon as Lili finished talking about the differences between foil and sabre, she launched into filling me in on her longer-term plans. In no particular order, they include travelling the Amazon, crossing Siberia and taking part in the Burning Man.

“Women are just not pushing themselves enough. Don’t let your fears stop you!”

That was Lili Millar, a Lady Who Impresses.

If you like to connect with Lili, please have a look at her blog.

Lili in a wheel

Michaela Jedinak, stylist and dress designer

Michaela Jedinak was born in Czekoslovakia, but her family moved to Germany when she was a child. Perhaps, being an immigrant shaped her ambitions: she wanted to become an actress, a barrister, work for the UN and have her own vet practice – all that by the age of 30! At the very least Michaela wanted to travel so after graduating with a law degree, she moved to Prague where she worked for the Cosmopolitan, then to Italy where she learned product design and finally to Britain, where we landed a role in advertising.

Michaela’s sense of style was inherited from her mother, who insisted that she should never looked scruffy, put on occasional wear on Sundays and be aware of her body shape when choosing clothes. It came to her as a surprise that women in Britain would rather spend money on celebrity fashion and try to dress as Kate Moss than find quality clothes that would accentuate their personal styles.

“It was strange to find that there was no professional wear in the UK that would be durable, comfortable and truly feminine.”

Encouraged by her husband, Michaela trained as a stylist and spent the next three years helping women navigate the world of fashion. To supplement her income, she worked as a sales assistant at Escada, where she previously shopped.

“I sacrificed my comfortable lifestyle but it was worth it. I learned a lot and hatched a dream to create my own range of dresses for women, matched to a variety of body shapes.”

Michaela thought she lacked authority, so before she turned to product design, she founded a website, Joy of Clothes, offering style advice, styling tools and shopping recommendations. It took her two years of coding to build a virtual styling avatar, allowing women to create a model for their body shapes and try on different looks online. With Joy of Clothes fulfilling an educational mission and becoming one of the most successful styling websites globally, Michaela felt ready to design her dresses.

She found high quality Italian wool, a small factory in Britain, designed seven dresses matching seven female body shapes and launched her collection of “desk to dinner” dresses online. Each dress (priced at £495) is made-to-order within seven days and is aimed to create a “signature look” for a professional woman.

Just one year on, Michaela Jedinak dresses are worn by such TV personalities and businesswomen as Fiona Bruce, Arianna Huffington and Cilla Snowball. The brand has been praised by the Wall Street Journal, Grazia and The Times, and Michaela launched her second pleat collection with flattering tailored fit.

Behind every great, stylish product, there is a Lady Who Impresses!

Michaela Jedinak with Arianna Huffington

Michaela Jedinak with Arianna Huffington

Fiona Bruce in Michaela Jedinak

Fiona Bruce