One of my favourite things about hearing the stories of creatives is that so many of us have shaken off the shackles of a corporate job. While it may have been a great job with an attractive salary, when you have a desire to do something different, these aspects don’t stop you feeling trapped or your creativity being suppressed. If you are still in that position but spend your days dreaming of being your own boss, then find inspiration in the following stories. Sarah Birchall, owner of kidswear brand Cub and Pudding, shares her own story before speaking to five other women who have never looked back since leaving the corporate world in their wake.
A familiar memory to many of you may be the moment mid-teens when you sat with your school ‘career coach’ to deem what you wanted to do with the next 30 years and beyond.
I remember a tick-box questionnaire, the answers of which were no doubt heavily influenced by whichever boy band I’d been listening to and if the guy I fancied had been on the bus that morning. My lazy answers landed on an ‘admin’ career – worryingly premonitive and certainly not inspiring enough to challenge any vague aspirations I had for my future vocation.
Is it any wonder then that many of us reach a point in our lives, mid-career when the light-switch turns on and illuminates just how (tick as appropriate) unhappy / bored / restless / lost we feel in our jobs and the realisation that this could be all there is until we drag ourselves over the finish line to retirement. Yet, it seems in the past few years that the ability, support and confidence to change careers in your 30s and over is becoming a welcome and inspiring reality.
My own story is of a frustrated corporate life as the PA to the Head of a city bank. I was long overdue a ticket out of there but had no options of how or what would spark my escape. It was a chance meeting with a life coach three years ago who gently took me by the shoulders and shook the life back into me. Dressing my two children (then 1 and 4) in unique and wonderful ways, had always given me a thrill and meeting someone who opened my eyes that I could turn a passion into a new career was a life-changing moment.
I had no retail or fashion experience, just determination and excitement at a new future to drive me. Initially, I spent my evenings inhaling knowledge where I could find it and reaching out to those with the insight to guide me in the right direction. It took a year to launch my unisex kidswear business, side-hustling one day a week with my parallel world of expenses and meeting schedules.
January 2020 was the moment I’d dreamt of – I left my PA job for good and started running Cub & Pudding (IG: @cubandpudding) full-time. Twenty years of desk work under someone else’s helm and I’m still living in a surreal but brilliant bubble of self-employment thrill. My teenage self wouldn’t believe it….
I’m not alone, thankfully – I’ve chatted with some fellow small business owners about their foray into career change and what it’s meant to them.
Naeema Anjarwalla and Aniqah Moawalla – QÄSA QÄSA
Naeema and Aniqah set-up QÄSA QÄSA, a contemporary homewares brand sourced from East Africa, after leaving behind jobs as an IT governance analyst and Company Administrator at a London art gallery.
Naeema: “I felt frustrated about not enjoying my job, but at the same time the realisation that I could walk away and do something on my own terms was exciting and gave me a sense of relief. I thought about it a lot and went through a period of self-doubt as I’d always had a stable career so it was bittersweet and a difficult decision to make.”
Aniqah: “I started to try to think of what I really wanted, how it was possible with my niche qualifications. I dallied with a lot of options but realised that what really motivated me was working with communities that needed support and doing this in a creative way. Naeema and I wanted to set something up in East Africa where our heritage lies. We felt it was a region that wasn’t well represented here, and there were plenty of communities that needed the support.”
Naeema: “We started from scratch and taught ourselves absolutely everything. It was a huge learning curve, but the knowledge and experience we gained from doing it ourselves was invaluable and we still continue to learn every single day.”
Aniqah: “Life now feels more exciting, we have projects we work on, we have artisans to support and we can see the impact we have on them regularly. We see our purchases filter money to sustainable cotton and silk farming industries, women’s education, advocacy rights and refugee support. It’s incredible to have the power to change people’s lives from a different continent. And it’s been a wonderful way to connect with the country my parents grew up in.”
Nena Foster – NENA FOSTER FOOD
Nena worked in public sector consulting, working on projects for the NHS and other UK and EU public institutions, before starting up her eponymous food brand. She now teaches people how to eat better, offers online cookery classes for kids and adults, as well as developing & testing recipes.
Nena: “My days would often start and end with meetings – so many meetings. At any given time, I oversaw the running of four or five projects, with teams ranging from 3 to 30 people. There were people constantly needing and wanting things from me.
I realised on maternity leave after having my second child that I just couldn’t carry on. I was on holiday with my husband and a group of NCT friends, when the idea came to me to retrain. I have always loved cooking and have been vegetarian nearly all of my adult life (years before Ottolenghi and Anna Jones came on the scene and made it accessible to non-veggies). I was used to cooking for friends. I loved it. But I didn’t know how to make a career out of cooking.
I also felt ridiculous for thinking of retraining as I’d spent the best part of ten years studying and already had a fair few qualifications and I was pushing 40. I knew I didn’t want to be a restaurant chef, but still really didn’t know what kind of career I could make in food, even throughout my training. But I was desperate to do something I loved.
I worked 60-hour weeks and did the kitchen part of my training one day a week. I told no one at work because I didn’t want to leave my job until I had forged a clearer path. But three months after returning from maternity leave, I was put up for voluntary redundancy and I took it.
On my last day at work, I met with my boss, took some of my team out for coffee, cleared out my locker and was off. I went to Borough Market to cheer myself up and as I was walking around the market, I got a phone call from Anna Jones’ PA asking if I’d like to help her out on a shoot. I can remember that call so vividly and I took it as a sign that maybe I would be OK. My training took about 10 months in total, but the process of figuring out how to make a career took just as long, if not longer.
When I feel like everything is coming together – all the things that I love, my previous education and training and when something goes really well – I think this is why I did this! I feel much more like me – my career change has brought all my best bits to the fore.”
Rachel Walker – LITTLE BEACON
Rachel Walker was working as an Executive Assistant for a web development company before her textile hobby started to become a full-time prospect.
Rachel: “I found being on the phone all the time very hard as I’m much better to face to face. It inspired me to think bigger and I started dreaming of Little Beacon. I started making things and sharing them on Instagram and it slowly built from there. When I told my boss I was leaving he was very supportive – he even helped me build my website!
At the begin it was very exciting but as the business has grown there is more fear. As any small business owner would tell you, it’s a rollercoaster. I had my second child in 2019 so was on ‘maternity leave’ until January this year. Then we made the choice as a family to live off my husband’s wage so I could focus on Little Beacon. I now spend at least half of the day printing orders then stopping to have dinner & bath the kids. Then after bedtime, I try to plan and fit in all the back of house stuff.
It’s a joy as I absolutely love making textiles every day. I feel so grateful & lucky to be working from home around my kids. So, I definitely know the 9-5 life isn’t for me anymore. I’m more driven then I realised & I love learning new skills. I’m also still very much a dreamer so I am always thinking of new products & designs. The great thing about working for yourself is you have flexibility, but as it’s still very early days for Little Beacon, there are a lot of late nights and working on the weekends. But I’m so grateful and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Selena Mitchell – IGGY MINT PHOTOGRAPHY & STYLING
Selena was previously a Deputy Superintendent Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages before establishing her styling and photography business Iggy Mint, focusing on kids lifestyle.
Selena: “In my old job a typical day would involve conducting wedding ceremonies, cooing over new babies and registering their births & streaming through hundreds of applications for certificates for travel, school applications and new careers. I’ve always been creative. I made celebration cakes, designed hairbows and marquee lights but they were all elaborate hobbies alongside my steady income – then an opportunity came up to take voluntary severance (the longest 6 weeks of my life) and I leapt at the opportunity and used the funds to start up Iggy Mint.
I thought it might be too late to take a completely new direction – being in my late thirties with children – some of my friends were excited for me and others thought I was just insane! But it was my Business Coach Ruth Kudzi who helped me see what it was I should have been doing all along.
I probably work a bonkers number of hours in comparison to before – If I’m not physically working then I’m thinking about my next project but it’s ok because it’s my passion and I love it. My work-life balance, mental health and happiness have all improved significantly since I’ve started working for myself and I’m far more present for my kids – I can do the school run now and watch them perform in a play without seeking permission from anyone.