Tag Archives: inspiration

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?


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.




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.


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

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 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.

“Who Made Your Pants”? asks Becky John

Becky John, founder of Who Made Your Pants?

Becky John, founder of Who Made Your Pants? at the Women of the World festival in March 2015

Who made your pants? Whether your underwear has a M&S or an Agent Provocateur label, chances are, you have no idea where exactly it’s been made, who took care of the stitches and whether the company used the profits to give something back to the community rather than just to its shareholders. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favour of developing emerging economies and helping to raise the standard of living in poorer countries, but from now on I’m buying my underwear from a cooperative founded by Becky John. I hope to convince you to do the same by telling you a story.

Becky John has been an activist all her life. At 15, she organised a petition at school against animal testing by L’Oreal; a year later she collected signatures for banning Nestlé’s products sold at her school canteen to protest against their aggressive marketing of baby products. In addition to her passion for fairness and ethics in business, Becky has always been good at sales. Perhaps selling sweets at the Rugby Club at the age of eight had something to do with it.

In 2008 Becky realised that having a decent job in retail and a good social life just simply wasn’t enough. She wanted to make a difference, start a business, which would be fun, make the most of her skills and have a social purpose. Who Made Your Pants? is a lingerie company, with a core purpose of creating jobs for disadvantaged women. The cooperative, which was founded at the end of 2008 in Southampton, employs, trains and supports local refugee women.

Who Made Your Pants? makes gorgeous and comfortable undies for everyday wear buying surplus fabrics re-sold by large underwear companies at the end of each season. The quality of each item is exceptional (my pants have survived an industrial laundry treatment in Colombia!), the designs made from leftover fabrics are unique, but it’s the ethos of the company that really makes a difference.

“I love beautiful underwear”, says Becky “but the products we make are irrelevant. We could be making furniture or cakes, as long as it means creating jobs, investing in training, improving quality of life for the women involved.”

Who Made Your Pants? is still a very small brand, employing less than ten women. Each woman receives thorough training, counselling and general help. Some women are keen to improve their English, others are grateful for advice of how to register their children at school or how to manage utility bills. The profits are reinvested into supporting the staff. While Becky crowdfunded £110,000 last year from the existing fans and customers to help manage the company’s cashflows, she still needs to improve her sales to make the business sustainable.

“I hope that by spreading the word about Who Made Your Pants? I can build a loyal customer base, who would be happy to spend £15-£18 on a pair of high quality underwear, knowing that they are changing other women’s lives.”

WMYP1      WMYP2Needless to say, I am in. I hope that you too can support Becky by treating yourself to a new pair of underwear online.

On resilience “I have never doubted my course, but of course being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. I do think it helps to have a purpose. I always remind myself that I have a responsibility towards the women who had trusted me to help them. It gives me resilience. A failure is not an option.”

On challenging yourself “If you want to pick a challenge, make sure it’s a big one. My challenge is to connect women who buy pants with women who make them.

Asma is from Afghanistan and has been with us from the very start. She’s a very talented seamstress. Batol is from Sudan. Batol did a lot of cutting for us, but she was keen to learn the sewing machines and now she is brilliant at fiddly jobs like finishing seams. Sacdiya is from Somalia and has seven children. She often has beaufitul henna on her hands. Every piece we make has a story. Every piece we sell supports a woman in need.”

Becky is an incredible woman who is remarkably resilient and has a uniquely strong sense of purpose. I asked her about her achievements, aspirations and advice.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Don’t be blown off course – you know who you are. Carry on.

What are you good at? I’m good at organising, planning, big picture thinking and looking at tiny details (not at the same time!). I’ve been told I’m good with people and it must be true since I’ve always worked in retail.

What is your greatest achievement? Getting here. It seems I like setting myself deliberately tough challenges but I’m OK with that. I am very proud of what I have achieved with Who Made Your Pants?

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I’d launch Who Made Your Pants? in every country, providing jobs and and making ethical products.

Who inspires you? My team – phenomenal women who have been through so much and yet they appear happy and laugh all the time. I feel really privileged to be working with them.

For more details and to get your own ethical pair of underwear, visit www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk.

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.

Nancy Honey and her 100 Leading Ladies

Nancy HoneyLast year the Somerset House hosted a fabulous exhibition 100 Leading Ladies, a project which took Nancy Honey three years to accomplish. Nancy may have been working towards that project all her life. What she has been able to achieve is awe-inspiring. Over three cups of tea, Nancy told me her story.

Nancy Honey was born in the US and came to Britain in 1970s. She studied Fine Art, Graphic Design and Photography both in the US and in the UK. She has been photographing for more than 30 years and started exhibiting her work in 1984. Alongside art, corporate and advertising projects, Nancy has published four monographs: Woman to Woman, Entering the Masquerade, Poodle Parlour and, most recently, 100 Leading Ladies.

100 Leading Ladies… I have always been fascinated with what successful, high powered women had achieved throughout their careers. How did they manage to juggle professional and family responsibilities? I have deliberately chosen women over the age of 55 because of their accomplishments, but also because senior women are very much under-represented in the media. I wanted to change that by making portraits and hearing the views of older women. I wanted to include the voice of the younger generation as well, so I commissioned former The Times journalist Hattie Garlick to interview my subjects.

When I started my research for the project, I wanted to approach women I personally admired, for example, Barbara Hulanicki OBE, fashion designer and founder of the iconic clothes store Biba. As the project developed, it was incredible to discover so many women I have not even come across before in art and science, business and public service. I asked them where they went for inspiration, to think or just to relax. Such a setting reveals a lot more about a person than a photo studio. Some of my heroines chose the comforts of their own homes, others chose professional settings, providing fascinating backgrounds to my portraits.

Brave new world…  The research and the photography took me about two years. I funded it myself, selling my house and moving into a smaller flat in the process. The next step was to get funding for the exhibition: in addition to the portraits, I also wanted to put together a beautiful book, featuring the photographs and the interviews. I had no fundraising experience, no corporate network to access, so I had no idea where to start. I went to the Westminster Reference Library, where a helpful librarian gave me a UK Guide to Company Giving. Gradually I learned how the company funding worked; I researched then approached many, many companies that I thought were a good fit with the project. I hired an intern and an assistant to help me. I also did a huge amount of networking.  It took us a year to put together the required funding. Women push themselves, if they really want something.

Thirteen of Nancy’s portraits were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 and displayed in a small group exhibition of recent acquisitions. The complete work was shown at Somerset House in 2014. Her accomplishment lives in a stunning, timeless book, featuring photos and interviews, which is available for purchase online.

What have you learned from the women you’ve met? They were all incredibly passionate about their work. It is also true that many women had to make sacrifices to achieve what they have.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? I would advise her to try to look for a role model or a mentor. Although I had loving parents, there was no one in my life to look at who was the kind of woman I wanted to be.

What are you good at? I am good at organisation, managing complicated problems and taking on challenges. I love research.

What is your greatest achievement? My two children.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? At this point, I would build my own house.

Who inspires you? There are too many people to mention. I admire so many artists in so many fields, both young, old, alive or dead. There is so much to find out about and to be in awe of.

To find out more about Nancy’s work, please visit her website www.nancyhoney.com and www.100leadingladies.com