Founder and CEO of Key4Life – a UK Charity that reduces the rate of youth reoffending by providing an innovative rehabilitation programme to young people in prison and those at risk of going to prison.
Can’t start the day without: I always like to have five minutes of meditation and a bit of yoga.
Best read of all time: I think Eckhart Tolle’s The Power is Now is a really good book in terms of getting us all to live in the present moment and not always be focusing on the past or worrying about the future.
A quote you love:“Your past doesn’t equal your future.”
Top music track to get you pumped for the day: I love ‘Nothing Compares to You’ by Sinead O’Connor.
Non-negotiable that you block out time for regularly: Family.
Most afraid of: Losing what I’ve got. Whether it’s your family or your work or something you’ve built up.
Go-to for fun or letting your hair down: Nothing beats a good party! I love being back in Ireland, my home country and a good party.
Thrivher Survivor Moves
Today you’re fulfilling a vision and a mission. Thinking back to the first time you thought of taking this patH, what made it a reality?
For me, it’s kind of been two-fold. When I was young, I faced a lot of challenges. I come from a nice family, but my father was very strict and struggled with alcohol. I didn’t feel secure or grounded and in my later teens I started rebelling. I didn’t do as well as I could have in my exams and I spent all of my time partying.
After school I spent a year in Paris and I got caught up in a bad scene there. Coming from a place like Ireland, I was very naïve and trusting of people and unfortunately that led me into trouble. In one instance in particular, I had a horrific experience coming back from a nightclub. I got into what I thought was a minicab, but I was mistaken and it became clear that I was being abducted. The driver assaulted me, before driving me back to Paris. When I was finally let out of the car, he told me I was lucky to be alive. As you can imagine, that experience really frightened me and knocked me out of kilter for a long time.
That sounds incredibly tough, how did you overcome and move forward from this HORRIFIC INCIDENT?
I didn’t address what had happened to me I just kept on with my life. I took a secretarial course at the Sorbonne in Paris and then I went to Oxford to do a secretarial business course. My father told me I had to get my life sorted and not to come back until I had a job!
Unfortunately my rebellious streak re-emerged and I went off the rails again. I just wasn’t prepared to settle down and this destructive behaviour carried on until I was about 20.
Very luckily, I came across a woman who was looking to recruit a secretary for a successful woman in London called Julia Cleverdon. I didn’t think I stood a chance, but went to meet her PA who took me to see her where Julia was giving a talk about children’s affairs. She was amazing and thankfully gave me the job - it was a big turning point for me in my life.
It shows how the people in your life who inspire you to be a better person are so important. Julia sounds like an excellent role model in that turbulent time, how did you evolve from working with her?
I learned so much, even though I was a useless secretary! I soon realised I didn’t want to make a career out of it and I had itchy feet for more, so I went travelling.
I worked in one of the Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying in Calcutta. During that week I had the most incredible experience – I had a vision. I just kept getting the message that I was never going to make big money, but that I was here to help change the world and make it a better place. I was still very young and didn’t really understand what it meant for me, but I truly believed it was my calling.
What aN EXTRAORDINARY experience and self-discovery of your life mission, what steps did you take to answer this calling?
Next, I went to Australia to work for Ken Done AM, but the effects of my hedonistic lifestyle had caught up with me and I became very ill. When I eventually got back to Ireland I had to have an operation to remove half of my lung and I was out of action for quite some time.
When I recovered I returned to work for Julia in her new venture, called Business in the Community – a big corporate social responsibility charity. The HRH Prince of Wales was the President of the charity and in 1989 he developed a fantastic program called “Seeing is Believing” to give influential people a close-up view of what life is really like for underprivileged people in Britain.
I was at the right place at the right time and was given the job of running the program for The HRH Prince of Wales - it was an incredible opportunity. We’d take people to visit housing estates and homeless projects - we went into the toughest, most impoverished places in Britain. I met incredible people, but most importantly, it was about taking them out of their ivory tower and showing them the problems of Britain. It wasn’t about simply throwing money at these problems, it was about how they could make a difference practically, within business. We regenerated housing estates, built homeless shelters - did some wonderful things.
I was at the right place at the right time and was given the job of running the program for The HRH Prince of Wales - it was an incredible opportunity.
When did you decide to take the plunge and branch out independently?
Seeing is Believing is an amazing program and I ran it for five years. Unfortunately, I don’t do things half-heartedly and I reached burn-out. I’d never had depression before, but all of a sudden, I stopped sleeping and was plunged into the darkest period of my entire life. I literally went from being a pretty normal - albeit stressed - person, to total burn-out.
I had a whole year out and then eventually I returned to work at Seeing is Believing. I carried on working there for about six months until it became clear to me what I wanted to do.
I literally went from being a pretty normal - albeit stressed - person, to total burn-out.
I was so passionate about homelessness as an issue and had been deeply moved by the sheer number of homeless people I had witnessed during my work for Seeing is Believing. It felt so wrong to me that so many people ended up living on the street, so I decided to set up my own program within the Prince’s organization. I launched ‘Business Action on Homelessness’ in 1997, with the aim of getting more businesses in Britain to support the homeless. However, soon into running it I visited a homeless shelter in Bristol and witnessed three men using heroin. I realised then that we were inadvertently creating a revolving door and a new approach was needed.
Was it difficult changing the angle of your newly established model?
On my way back to London I had one of those incredible lightbulb moments and thought of providing work experience opportunities to homeless people. I approached lots of top companies – BT, Reuters, Virgin Records – and put fourteen homeless people onto the programme, which consisted of two days of training followed by work placements for two weeks. Out of the 14, 13 completed the program and did really well. Following the success of the pilot program, Marks and Spencer offered us half a million pounds and one thousand work placements!
I ran that program for 10 years. Then, in 2006 we were looking at the fact that around 30% of the rehabilitated homeless would end up back on the streets, even though they always said all they wanted was a home and a job. When asked, it was always because their demons had come back to haunt them. I reflected upon my own pain and past issues and it was clear to me if the underlying causes aren’t addressed, they will only come back time and again. It’s a vicious circle.
I reflected upon my own pain and past issues and it was clear to me if the underlying causes aren’t addressed, they will only come back time and again. It’s a vicious circle.
After more than 20 years with Business in the Community, I had to leave. I needed to focus on my children, so we, as a family, decided to move to Somerset, England, where my husband was originally from.
Did you know at that time where you next wanted to focus your career?
When we moved to Somerset, I decided I wanted to found a new charity, which would help people unlock and release their pain, in order to move forward in their lives. I went in search of a lot of different methodologies and came across NLP, Neuro-linguistic Programming. I went to Spain to test the method and had an amazing breakthrough with it. I then returned to the UK and tried the method on some repeatedly homeless people – again we saw dramatically results. From here I set up a brand new charity called the Warrior Program.
The model, which was essentially a three-day program with some follow-up, was initially for the homeless, and then grew to work closely with military organisations to help soldiers with PTSD. That was a real revelation, to see these people changing with amazing results.
In 2011, I left Warrior, I didn’t like the direction the charity was being taken. I could see that these soldiers and ex-service personnel needed more than just a three-day workshop; they needed a far more holistic model.
How did you feel about leaving your job and the charity you had grown from scratch?
It wasn’t an easy time. I really struggled with not having a purpose and I felt a real sense of emptiness. Strangely, I kept thinking that was part of my journey – I was being told to slow down and restore my health and energy, which is what I did.
I kept thinking that was part of my journey – I was being told to slow down and restore my health and energy, which is what I did.
I struggled with depression again during that time, but then I began to notice that the only time I would feel good was when I was with my horses. I really felt as though they were having a direct effect upon me. So I went in search of someone who could shed some light on this, and I found a woman who was trained by people in America, who brought horses into prisons. From there I decided I would research the power of horses and how they affect people. We started developing some techniques which developed into a brand new model.
Essentially it’s based on three principles: unlocking pain; employability and on-going support. I took it to a prison in 2012 and we were given 23 young men between the ages of 14 and 18 to work with – what I didn’t realise was that they were some of the toughest gang leaders in Britain. When we walked into the room, it was made immediately obvious that they didn’t want us there. Then the horses arrived, the dynamic totally changed, the men were terrified but at the same time wanted to earn the respect of the horses. It was such a revelation – we finely understood a way we could really reach those men. That was the starting point of establishing the programme Key4Life. Then we began our work – unlocking pain, one-to-one sessions, providing them with tools to help themselves and introducing mentors.
We were given 23 young men between the ages of 14 and 18 to work with – what I didn’t realise was that they were some of the toughest gang leaders in Britain.
So far our results are speaking for themselves – if a young man has been through our programme, he is 4x less likely to re-offend and 4x more likely to be employed a year after his release.
What were the top practical steps you took in getting this mission off the ground?
I would say talking to a lot of people and really preparing myself. By preparing myself I mean, listening to my unconscious mind, tuning in to myself and really being true to myself about what I wanted to do, why and how. In doing this I was able to gain the clarity I needed to move forward. Spending that quiet time and putting plans together is so important. Some days I work 17/18 hours, but when I find that quiet time, I just tune in and I find my answers.
Some days I work 17/18 hours, but when I find that quiet time, I just tune in and I find my answers.
Have you had any failures in business, which ultimately helped you progress?
There have been many but all my failures have always helped me progress. I think that when things go wrong, valuable lessons are learnt.
What’s the best “pinch me now” moment you’ve had in your life to date?
I’ve had some really good moments. I couldn’t believe when Prince Charles gave me an MBE for services to the homeless. He did a private ceremony for me at St. James’ with my parents, which was really lovely - that was a big moment, almost disbelief!
My other “pinch me” moments are when I see my young men (whose lives are in pieces when I first meet them) in a suit, going off to a job and being really happy in their lives. They’ve turned their lives around and that’s what this is all about.
THRIVING AND KICKING
What piece of career or life advice do you wish you’d been given in your twenties?
There are several things! First of all not to worry about materialistic things, they mean nothing. Finding your inner compass and having peace within yourself is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Too many people are constantly chasing things and always rushing. If you’re young and you’re setting out, you’ve really got to get into who you are.
Finding your inner compass and having peace within yourself is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Love yourself. Respect yourself and honor yourself. Know who you are. If you don’t know who you are in life (and I didn’t know who I was for a long time), you will be pushed around and you will constantly look for recognition and thanks from other people, when really that all comes from within.
If you don’t know who you are in life (and I didn’t know who I was for a long time), you will be pushed around and you will constantly look for recognition and thanks from other people, when really that all comes from within.
My advice to young people is to really be patient. Be careful that whatever you do is aligned to your values and that you are making a difference, because I think the world we live in now is about making a difference. The world is going through a massive change at the moment and it’s the simple things in life that matter. Don’t lose sight of the importance of looking after yourself, your family and your relationships with your friends.
Don’t lose sight of the importance of looking after yourself, your family and your relationships with your friends.
For women who want to make a positive change in their life but don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them?
I think you need to always be open to other opportunities. If you don't know how to make the jump initially, look at workshops, networking events, courses, to start putting yourself out there. You never know who you’re going to meet until you start talking to other people outside of your industry or outside of your company. It’s the same as trying to date or meet somebody, you’ve got to get out there and the opportunities will open.
If you don't know how to make the jump initially, look at workshops, networking events, courses, to start putting yourself out there.
If you'd like to find out more about the brilliant programme you can find more information here: Key4Life