If you had sat me down two years ago and told me that I would be part of a business that trains Nigerians in Business and Enterprise, I would have not only been amazed at the radical difference from my life at the time, but I would have seriously wondered about your sanity :).
From the age of 19, I was a qualified live-in nanny looking after 3 children under 5. I was working up to 60 hours a week and earning £460 a month… I loved my job; loved the children; loved waking up and looking out of my bedroom window to the early morning mist kissing the Chiltern grass.
My employers worked in London – she was a TV executive and he was a lawyer. I watched how they walked bleary eyed out of the door at 5am without uttering a word to anyone and then walking back through the door at 8pm still looking bleary-eyed and still in silence. Their £1.2 million pound house was not going to pay for itself, after all!
Their weekends were filled with paperwork, filter coffee bubbling away, dinner parties, and the phone ringing as play dates were put in the diary. You were also certain to hear the weekend au pair screeching at my boss in her broken English to stop walking on her clean floor with his dirty boots on, and the Labrador chasing the 18 month old, gently nipping at her nappy, wagging its tail furiously.
This was their idyllic family life.
The thing was that if you scratched just under the surface, stress raged. My employers barely saw their children and I know that they felt guilty about the lack of parent interaction as they over-compensated at the weekends by giving into the demands of a 3 year old and her obsession with chocolate. Similarly, bedtime routines went out the window and even the Labrador breathed a sigh of relief when he saw me, as if to say “no more venison and cheese, just plain old dog food please!”.
Chaos would then resume on a Monday morning when everything I had put in place the week before had been successfully pulled apart. One Sunday night I walked in to the kitchen to find my boss with her head in her hands. She told me that they could no longer afford to keep me. How could this be? They were both high earners; the house, the two range rovers… It transpired she had lost her job 6 months previous and was going in to London everyday with her husband “to keep up appearances”.
That was the first time I was made redundant and I don’t know what shocked me more – the loss of my work, not being able to see the children, or the fact that this woman was more interested in keeping up appearances and having such a miserable life in the process.
Over the following years, I continued to nanny for families and then worked in nurseries until I eventually got married, had a child, and moved into a house in suburbia, but I still had this nagging voice in my head that I wanted to achieve more. I initially had support from my then husband, so took on a role as childcare tutor. The feelings I had back in the early days of nannying came flooding back and my enthusiasm never waned (even when there was pressure every quarter to make sure the learners passed, I thrived).
As time went on, and the childcare industry boomed, I went in to work early, marked paperwork at home, and swapped late night emails with fellow tutors. I didn’t realize at some point that I had lost my role as mummy somewhere along the way – the nursery saw more of my daughter that I did – I barely saw my husband as his own job took him all over the country.
In my heart, I knew that one of us had to free up time for our daughter and, at around this point, luckily, I believe, I was made redundant again.
We went on to have another daughter and I took on a job that allowed me to work term-time only: all my energies went in to my daughters, making sure that I saw them in the morning and the afternoons – spending time with them in the school holidays.
After 17 years my marriage ended and I walked away with my two daughters into a rented cottage. The support from my family and friends at the time was invaluable and going to work each day made it all the more bearable as I felt that I was back in control of my life.
For the first time in a long time, all the decisions I had to make, I made alone. I felt liberated, happy and scared at the same time. The children were happier because I was happier… and I was happier because I saw how happy they were.
Then, in 2012, on the first day back at work after the Christmas holidays, I walked into the staff room to be told by my employer that my position was being made redundant.
At this point my life did that whole slow motion bit that you see in films: it didn’t seem real. My first thought was how was I going to support my children, pay the rent, pay for all those things you do with your kids and not really think about it.
Times were a-changing, there were fewer and fewer jobs that could fit around my children, I applied for positions but got turned down as I was ‘over-qualified’ which is the most frustrating (and probably most dishonest) answer to why you aren’t offered a job.
Now, as all this was going on, I had met my new partner and he was in the throes of setting up his business. When we first met, he had a mobile phone dongle for his laptop and spent his time visiting free WIFI spots to send and receive emails. The cottage I was living in didn’t have internet as I would get annoyed with technology so if it wasn’t there, I couldn’t get frustrated by it.
For a year, my partner lived off cheap noodles and was forever mapping out places with free WIFI for him to use. He was “bootstrapping” – something he told me I had been doing myself for the last year as I relied solely on my own resources and knowledge to build this new life for myself.
After many discussions and coaxing I finally agreed to become his business partner. With my tutoring background in the education field, he said I could use my skill base to great advantage. But this meant becoming self- employed.
From when I first started working at 15 through till I was 36, I had always been a payroll number; always working by someone else’s policies and procedures. So I took the plunge and called the tax office and they talked me through the process. Once I understood it, I was very at ease with it all.
Now I’m certainly not saying this was the easy option: the past 18 months have been a roller coaster ride. My third child came along, we moved house, and there have been times when I thought it might be easier to go back in to the public sector.
But I’ve stuck at it, with the support from my partner whose always there with a cuppa and advice when I’m juggling with paperwork.
The point I’m trying to make is that I firmly believe that you shouldn’t stick with something if it makes you unhappy – embrace change. If you have support from people that love you, you can accomplish anything. I won’t deny that Spark Global Business isn’t going to be hard work, fun work, and fulfilling work but as long as you can see the good you do for other people whilst still having time set aside to be with the people you love… then that’s a great job, yes?
A former troubleshooter for local government, Michelle Williams would work with failing schools to effect turnaround. As Operations Director of Spark Global Business, she is responsible for the operational aspects of a business focusing on advice, consultancy and training. Michelle is also Operations Director of SEEA, ensuring the ongoing development of this social-impact program.