Friday 28 November 2014

Brave new {career} world

Kathleen O'Callaghan

Published 21/04/2013 | 05:00

Helen Seymour left a successful career in marketing behind for writing.
Teresa Lowe quit RTE to become a barrister
Jennifer Kavanagh swapped law for trampolining
Mary Mitchell O’Connor swapped teaching for the Dail
Sarah Harte gave up law to become a novelist.

Have you come to the end of the road with your job but are too scared to change career tracks?

 

Teresa Lowe quit RTE to become a barrister

'A change is as good as a rest," the old adage goes, and, as a nation of flexible personalities, we are quick enough to change our country of residence, our houses, our wardrobe style, spouses, political leaders, health insurance, hairdos and even our brand of cars.

However, when it comes to changing our careers, we tend to dig our feet in and stay put. Many women feel defined by their careers, whether they are committed to corporate banking or determined marketing executives. Self-image is bound up with their work choices and career paths, and many are loath to part with that key element of their personal identity.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor swapped teaching for the Dail

The work we choose is closely linked to our self-image, sense of worth, status and our acceptance in society. We tend to identify ourselves and others in terms of our occupations.

Recently, however, more Irish women – through necessity or inspiration – are willing to take a gamble and try out the road less travelled.

It is refreshing to read of people throwing caution to the wind and swapping their permanent, predictable job for a whole new careerscape devoid of definitive salaries, promotions or success.

But what drives them to take that initial step?

Sarah Harte (42) made a courageous leap from her dependable, pensionable job as a solicitor to take the rocky road of novel writing.

"I worked for five years as a solicitor in A&L Goodbody and loved my time there," says Sarah, "but I always wanted to be a novelist, ever since I was a child. However, I was too practical a character to pursue my dreams. Having attained the points for law, I felt I had to be a solicitor.

"In the back of my mind, I was always seeking a way to follow my writing dream without giving up on the day job. I read about Maeve Binchy and how she would get up at 6am and start writing. But I was getting up so early anyhow, it was impossible to find more hours at the start or the end of the day.

"Then, one day, I just got the courage to do it. I handed in my resignation to A&L 10 years ago and I remember leaving my job that Friday and having a great sense of freedom to write at last."

Sarah enrolled in a Masters in journalism at DIT, Dublin, to give herself a grounding in the writing world.

"It also helped to bridge the emotional gap between leaving my desk in a large firm on a Friday and ending up at the kitchen table in front of a blank screen on a Monday," she says.

Sarah is married to the restaurateur Jay Bourke, who owns Eden – relaunching soon as Nede – and they have a son, Conn. The downturn in Jay's fortunes due to the recession made Sarah even more determined to succeed and she has now managed to get two books published, 'The Better Half' and 'Thick and Thin'.

Her agent, Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown in London, has been a great support.

"Writing is entirely less lucrative than corporate law but, on the plus side, I like the freedom of wearing nice casual jeans and a jumper rather than a suit, tights and shoes," says Sarah.

"If I was to miss anything, it is the camaraderie of the office. I find it lonely sitting at home writing on my own, so I often sit at a desk in my old office now. I am delighted I made the change and euphoric that I managed to get published."

Theresa Lowe (50),  left the world of entertainment to follow her long-term desire to be a barrister. In her 20s, she worked in RTE as a continuity announcer and presented the popular quiz show 'Where in the World'.

At the back of her mind, though, was a nagging desire to study law.

"I finally made the break by studying in King's Inns at night for four years while presenting 'Where in the World', and I eventually got called to the bar in 1997," says Theresa.

"I work mainly in personal injuries and High Court bail. I have a small steady practice, and it is all doing fine. It wouldn't have been possible without the support of Frank, who minded the kids when I was studying."

Theresa has four children and is married to one of Ireland's best-known pianists, Frank McNamara. They live in Co Meath.

"You need a lot of support to reinvent yourself. It was a difficult move," adds Theresa. "I went from earning modest money to earning zero for a while. The legal work is also unsteady and unpredictable. A lot of people are struggling at the bar right now as work has dried up.

"I went from the comfort of secure contracts in RTE and monthly pay to nearly nothing over those few years. Most cases take years to complete, so it's very tough at the start. I have a small practice, but it's mine; I've earned it and I love it.

"I've also written a children's novel recently called 'The Stone of Clonfinlough. This is a real ancient stone located in Co Offaly, where my father was born. It is quite a dark and gothic book and the stone acts as a portal for heaven or hell. I'm hoping to get it published as part of a trilogy."

Maybe this will be the portal for a new chapter in her career, too.

Jennifer Kavanagh (30), has just invested in 45 trampolines to set up her very own Jump Dance studio. It's a big change from her work as a legal executive in a busy law firm in Dublin.

The purchase of two poles will also help her to get into the swing of things as she is a pole-dancing instructor, too.

Jennifer was born in Cabra, Dublin, and studied law in Trinity, where she was inspired by her lecturer Ivana Bacik. On graduating, she got a job in a criminal law firm as a senior legal executive and a trainee solicitor.

"I loved the area of criminology and was also very into debating," says Jennifer. "Ivana was all into empowering women and I was also influenced by Justice Susan Denham.

"I grew up in an area which was deprived, but we realised the value of education; my mother sat her Leaving Certificate at the same time as me and got all A1s – and she had six kids at the time. She works with children at risk in the Ballymun Job Centre.

"I loved law when I started off and I had a good salary and plenty of promotions along the way, but when the recession took hold the opportunities were not so evident and there were longer hours and fewer staff. Pay cuts were followed by redundancies, and my chances of furthering my legal education diminished. I was six years there in total."

"However," Jennifer continues, "I always loved dancing. I was teaching hip-hop and pole-fitness dancing at night. I had set up two dance classes back then – Pole Position, which was about pole dancing, and Jump Dance, which takes place on your own trampoline.

"I was a bit nervous about splashing out on 45 trampolines, but there is great interest in the class and I keep the costs down, so classes cost €10 an hour or two for €16."

Eventually, something had to give.

"Trying to keep the two careers going was getting too tough," says Jennifer, "so I decided to leave the law firm last October and pursue the dancing full-time. I also did a diploma in advertising and marketing online and I hired two studios in Ashbourne and Cabra for the classes. I do a lot of hen parties and fitness workouts, as trampolining burns a lot more calories than jogging."

Does she find the experience invigorating or stressful?

"At times it is daunting, as there are lot of bills," she says.

"I got 4,000 advertising leaflets printed up and I am posting them myself to keep costs down. The good news is that I am breaking even and I also sleep really well after all that jumping around."

Mary Mitchell O'Connor (54) is the lively blonde TD who was once a teacher and a school principal. She is originally from a farm in Co Galway.

"Our family always realised the true value of education and this motivated us all to move into good careers. If you want to change your life, then education is the key," says Mary.

"My first post was in Skryne School in Co Meath, a mixed primary school that I became principal of in 1992. Then, I applied to the Mercy Convent in Glasthule in 1999 and became principal there until 2011. I loved teaching, but I always had a keen interest in politics and current affairs."

Mary has two grown-up sons and is separated from her husband.

"Personally, I have been through the mill and seen good times and bad times," she says. "When I was working as a principal, I was also a PD councillor. I never shied away from work as I like to be busy. The good thing was, by 2009, I had reared my two sons, so I decided to join Fine Gael, as you don't have any real power to effect political change as a councillor.

"I got elected as a TD in 2012 and the next day I resigned as a councillor and took a career break from my job as a principal. So I still have the door open to return."

Mary's entrance on to the political arena was dramatic. She surprised staff and amused the public when she made her Dail entrance by accidentally driving her campaign car on to the pedestrian plinth in the Dail carpark and down the steps, making front-page news in the process.

"Oh, that was so embarrassing. I will never forget it," she laughs.

Does she miss teaching?

"I guess what I miss about my last career is the sound of children playing in the yard. In the Dail, you hear grunts, grumbles and sighs," she says. "I know I can't change the world, but I can do something worthwhile for a few people as a politician.

"I also do a lot of work for business associations to promote jobs in the constituency. Thousands lost their jobs in the construction industry and need to upskill.

"I also do a lot of work for breast cancer and suicide prevention. I completed a Masters in education and a life-coaching course, which really stands to me now. I always think of Eleanor Roosevelt's words: 'A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she is in hot water.'"

Helen Seymour (44), has just published her debut novel, 'Beautiful Noise'. It was launched by pal Bono, who even sang the Neil Diamond number that night, too.

Helen is from Howth and went to Sutton Park and St Patrick's Cathedral School. After school, she did a secretarial course. However, she was interested in marketing and started a career in the industry at 21.

From 1989, she worked in Saatchi & Saatchi, Watermark Direct, Dimension and Redstar. The work encompassed campaigns, brochures and direct mail for big brands that included Vodafone and Coca Cola.

"By the age of 26, I was director of the Watermark company," says Helen. "I worked really hard and also had a great social life. In 2000, I decided to set up my own company with my business partner Gerard Beshoff. But I felt something was missing and I had a really strong desire to write a book. I guess I was getting a little cynical about marketing boxes of tea and bags of crisps. Everything you come up with is controlled by the client and this is quite frustrating if you are creative.

"Then I got into the Sellafield campaign with Ali Hewson and Bono, and we sent 1.5 million postcards to Tony Blair asking him to shut down Sellafield. Charity had a sense and purpose. I was headhunted by a large UK charity just when I knew I had come to the end of the road with marketing and I couldn't go any further."

The big charity job fell through, so Helen went on a break to visit a friend in Martha's Vineyard, where she did a writing course.

"It was an amazing experience – I had that incredible feeling of electricity coursing through my hands like adrenaline," she says.

"It was then that I knew I wanted to go home and write the book. I moved in with my mum back in Howth and I got a job waitressing to earn my keep in the Oar Restaurant in Howth, where I still work today. It's a brilliant place and I love the staff there. It took me three years to get the book finished."

Marianne Gunn O'Connor, the renowned agent, loved it and signed Helen up. Although HarperCollins also came on board, Helen decided to self-publish to maintain more control over her work.

The girl sporting a mohican on the cover of 'Beautiful Noise' is Julie Madden, a friend of Helen's who died aged 24 in a horse-riding accident. Her death left Helen numb and yet her spirit emerges in the persona of Iris in the book.

"She is not Iris, but there is a sense of her captured in the character," Helen explains.

Her book, set in the world of pirate radio, has also been optioned by Irish director John Moore, and she is writing the screenplay herself while continuing to do waitress shifts at the Oar.

"My job doesn't define me, nor do my circumstances. I have been lucky, bloody lucky. It's not to do with being brave. I am fortunate."

 

This article originally appeared in Weekend magazine.

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