Sunday 22 September 2019

Father and son share a noble vision

College lecturer Peter Robbins is a huge fan of his son Will, who strives to help impoverished children in Zambia

Peter Robbins and his son Will are both innovators: Photo: Mark Condren
Peter Robbins and his son Will are both innovators: Photo: Mark Condren

Andrea Smith

Peter Robbins is desperately proud of his son Will, and he has every right to be as he's a very special young man. After all, there are very few teenagers who have founded a not-for-profit clothing enterprise to raise funds to build a school in Zambia. "Will has exceptional vision and grit," says Peter (54). "I think there must have been a mix-up in the maternity ward and he was actually the love-child of Elon Musk and Sheryl Sandberg, but I'll hold on to him, with great pride, until they come looking for him back."

Will (18) was inspired to begin his not-for-profit enterprise Kabwear, when he travelled to Zambia with Gonzaga College to work with Habitat for Humanity. The students visited Sables Nua orphanage in Kabwe, and witnessing innocent children roaming the streets and living off scraps of food galvanised sixth-year student Will into action.

He founded Kabwear, which sells fabulous and extremely cool €35 hoodies in black, white and pink, and all profits go towards building a secondary school in Kabwe to improve local children's lives through education. Will is hoping to raise €60,000 by next year, helped by his friend Oisin Pairceir, whose designer brother, Jordan, helped to bring Will's hoodie sketches to life.

While Will is clearly bright and altruistic, he has obviously inherited his dad's flair for innovation and entrepreneurship. Peter is head of the department of design innovation at Maynooth University, and will take up a new position as assistant professor in the business school at DCU in January. He also founded the Innovation Foundation.

When he was 30, Peter met his art teacher wife, Aine Curran, at a funeral. "I decided to try to win her affections, thinking that my life would be immeasurably better if she were in it," he says. Happily, he succeeded, and they now have two children, Sophie (20) and Will. Aine is very artistic and bohemian and loves celebrating occasions, says Peter, while Will says she is very supportive, caring and selfless.

"Becoming a dad was transformational for me," says Peter. "I've always felt it's the greatest privilege that life has to offer. When Sophie was born, I thought she had brought a new level of sophistication to the human race, and that she was an incredibly beautiful child, unparalleled in the history of the species.

"Now when I look back at photos, I realise that she looked a bit like Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek! She's incredibly caring and is studying medicine at NUI, Galway, and she'll make a wonderful doctor. She just sparkles and I adore her."

Will also has a great relationship with Sophie, and says she has a wonderful sense of humour. When the children were small, the family moved to Denmark and London for two years each for Peter's job. They now live in Blackrock, where Peter grew up. His older brother David is a former INM editor and is now a communications lecturer at DCU. Their mum Patricia owned a hairdressing salon called Antoinette's on Wicklow Street, and their dad Sydney was racing editor of The Irish Times and editor of The Field.

"My father was part of a bon viveur racing set, but his penchant for alcohol increased and got the better of him," says Peter. "It was an era where there was a steadfast fidelity on the wife's side, so my mum, who was a very good person, stood in lock-step with him until Dave and I were 12 and 13." They separated legally, but as the "garrulous and gregarious" Sydney's descent into alcoholism progressed, his wife took him back after a few years to manage his decline. He died of cirrhosis of the liver at 59 in 1984 when Peter was 19, and his mum passed away in 2005.

Thanks to the challenges of their childhood, he and Dave acquired skills that have served them very well in their careers, he says, such as being able to communicate.

Due to a profligacy on his dad's part, Peter felt a need for financial independence, so he eschewed college in favour of setting up a business at 19 in PR, marketing and advertising. It did very well but he felt the lack of formal education, so went back to college at night and studied right through to achieving a doctorate in innovation. He went on to work in pharmaceutical firms, including becoming global head of innovation excellence for GlaxoSmithKline.

Listening to his dad discuss his own father, Will says Peter is very much present in his own life and always encourages him. "Dad definitely had a lot more to deal with when he was my age, and he's overcome it admirably," he says. "I've had a very easy ride, and while the comfort he has provided could allow me to get soft, his grit and determination has inspired me. He is great fun and very humble and understated about his work, and his best qualities are his optimism and good humour."

Peter says Will is a fantastic rugby analyst and also has a great talent for drama. He exudes a real positivity and "can-do" energy, and is up at 5am to swim in the sea and get an hour of study done before school. Peter is "fiercely proud" of his son, and actually has to rein him back in at times around his studies.

At one point, Will was rising at 4.30am - until his parents knocked that one on the head.

"I get into the shower and the fecker has turned it to cold for himself," laughs Peter. "Will has unbelievable discipline around his studies, diet and fitness, but I like a bit of warm water in the shower."

www.kabwear.com

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