Inspire & Mentor with Marie Claire: The Mentors

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To celebrate successful women achieving great things in Britain right now, Marie Claire launched Inspire & Mentor in association with the Prince's Trust in 2010. Get to grips with the success stories of our inspirational mentors here - and get ready to meet our 2011 mentors

‘I left school at 17 with a handful of O levels and went to work as a production assistant on the first Sunday supplement at the News of the World. I didn’t think I could go into media, but I found myself working in media and publishing right at the beginning. From there, I went to work at Creative Review, the magazine for visual communication. My boss resigned after my first week there and I just stepped into her shoes!

I had always thought school was a big waste of time. I enjoyed geography and history, but I wasn’t really excited by very much else. My father died when I was seven, and that disrupted my learning a lot. My mum was Swiss and my dad was from Mauritius, so we didn’t have a large family around for support. I started working part-time in the local arts centre and at the local market when I was about 13 years old. So I’d spend up to 20 hours a week working. It all sounded so much more exciting than being at school.

I went to study PR and advertising at evening classes. I suppose I was trying to understand creative industries a bit better. I’ve always had a very strong sense of social issues and human rights, and I found it quite questionable how advertising and image work was being used to motivate people to buy stuff they really didn’t need or want. I thought it could so easily be used to promote social issues, or promote green issues.

I had always been very aware of social issues as my mother was a social worker and she was very passionate about Asians who’d fled from Uganda in the 70s. We’d go out and buy second hand furniture so we could help people settle in the town where we lived. She also supported people with disabilities and learning difficulties, and every Thursday we would have people over for tea. It was very interesting growing up thinking these people were not necessarily different, but that they had a very different perspective on life.

I wanted to see if I could run my own business and then apply what I had learned in the social sector. So I started running my own gorilla gram company for Valentine’s Day! It worked fabulously well and I broke even, so I realised that I could run a business. My boss at Creative Review, Chris Furey, both pushed me and let me get on with things while remaining supportive, which is what you need in a mentor.

Then I lived for a while in Tokyo – because I was learning Japanese – and I worked in the first Body Shop in Tokyo. I was inspired by people wanting to engage with the politics of it, which led me to start Global Village; a voluntary group and network, publishing information for people who supported and wanted to be active in green issues. Whether that was recycling, eating organic or volunteering for different groups.

In the second year of Global Village we started to import fair trade products, and we found that was the area we were really interested in; supporting producers and artisans through fair trade. It grew until we were running about 40 events every year and then had our own shops and stockists in Japan. People Tree was a part of that and for about eight years we had Global Village and People Tree running in our home. We had about 18 people in our house and it just became impossible to function! But it was really enjoyable. The living room, dining room and four bedrooms were turned into offices, while the garage became People Tree for our mail order business. I’d be putting the kids to bed at 9pm, and there would be five volunteers in the hallway guillotining leaflets to hand out the next day. The kids were even born in the house, with paper walls between whoever was in the office while I was giving birth! It was just madness.

Now, we have an executive board with some very high up people – one of them is Jane Shepardson who is now CEO of Whistles. Jane is someone I go to advice for an awful lot, and whose opinion and ideas I respect a great deal. She’s brilliant as she knows the fashion industry really well and helps me come up with some really exciting ideas. Fair trade requires you to think quite differently to how a usual fashion brand would work, so by getting together with someone who knows the fashion industry extremely well, you can come up with some ideas really work.

Image credit: Rex Features

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