Friday 25 May 2018

Norah Casey: I'm terrified of heights, but I forced myself to fly a plane - it's important to face your fears'

Norah Casey is a broadcaster, publisher, author, entrepreneur and former nurse. She is also the brains behind the Festival of Women. She grew up beside the Phoenix Park, Dublin, and she lives in Ranelagh with her son, Dara (17)

Norah Casey. Photo: Tony Gavin
Norah Casey. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ciara Dwyer

I wake up at 6.15am, but I don't get out of bed straight away. Instead, I do the news online for half an hour. I read it on my phone. My brain is whirring straight away. I've tried to calm it down with deep breathing and meditation, but they don't work for me. I'm a voracious tweeter, so I usually tweet and snapchat, and then I might post something on LinkedIn. After that, I do 5km on the treadmill. Then I make tea and do my emails. My phone is my office. I'm on it all the time, but I do it seamlessly. I don't believe in work-life balance. My work starts when I wake up.

For breakfast, I'll have eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms. Every morning, at 8am, I talk to my brother Ciaran, who now runs the business - Harmonia, our magazine company. I'm the chairwoman. We have other investments, too. We go through the day and talk about what's on. After my husband Richard died in 2011, I decided that I didn't want to be queen of any boardroom any more. The great thing about this stage of my life is that I'm doing all the things I started off in life doing - writing and broadcasting. My book, Spark!, which is about reigniting your passion for life, has just been reprinted. I love the fact that I'm not the boss anymore. At that hour of the morning, my son Dara is incommunicado.

I spent too much of my life doing terrible breakfast meetings, but I'm not good at talking to people first thing in the morning. When I was on Newstalk, I used to get up at 4am to do the breakfast show. Now, as a treat to myself, I have a rule. I don't see another human being for work until 10am. I spend that time catching up and doing emails. On the way into work, I talk to my mother in the car. We chat about everything. In the office, I do my usual work, including choosing the covers of our magazines and then, for three hours every day, I work on the Festival of Women.

I am doing it because I spent one year sitting on platforms, listening to women whinging, and I thought, 'There has to be a better way of doing this'. I can't be listing off all the statistics as to why you can't do something, and why things are dire. The festival gives practical advice to help women overcome some of the problems they are up against. It's a follow-on from The Academy of Women, which I've been doing for the past five years. It's all about trying to find out why some women end up being successful and others don't. Over 90pc of women don't make it, so what is it that makes these women different?

I get female CEOs, business-owners and top politicians, and I sit with them on a sofa and I delve into their brains. I find out how they overcame issues that other women stumble with, and what I've found out is that it's never about competence. It's always about confidence. I always find that women who are successful faced a boss who forced them to do something that they were uncomfortable with, and then they realised that they could do it, and they became more confident. Or it was a family environment where the parents pushed the daughter as much as the son, so they could have the same competitiveness.

What we try to do with women is say: 'Look, I can't change society or the competitive culture you're working in, but the one thing that shouldn't hold you back is you. I'm going to show you how to overcome the confidence issue in a very human way. Lack of confidence is not a lifelong condition. We all have the ability to change. I'm terrified of heights, but six months ago I forced myself to fly a plane. I force myself to do things that terrify me. Once you do it once, you can do it again. It's important to face your fears'.

With a team of researchers, I delved into the real differences between men and women. Most of it was a load of rubbish, except for a few differences in the brain. We found that women tend to take negative comments and ruminate on them more, and they are more likely to look for danger and negativity in the future. They are more averse to risk.

It's important to understand that successful women weren't born with confidence. Some of them only gained it in their 40s. It is about saying that at no point in your life should you ever give up. It's believing you can do something. When I was 17, I trained to be a nurse, and then, at 23, I studied journalism. Most people were out partying for their 20s, but I was very focussed. I was CEO of a company by the time I was 29, and I went on to own 11 companies. I was always driven, and I always had that ambition to be something beyond what other people might feel.

Thanks to my time in nursing, I never stressed about business decisions. I understood the frailty of life. If you're doing cardiac massage on a man in the middle of the night, and the only person between him and death is you, then making a decision about what to invest in is not stressful.

Most days I go home to have lunch with Dara. For that hour, I switch off the phone, and we catch up. He loves to cook, and every day he bakes something. My ambition went up with motherhood, and a lot of women feel the same. It's about giving a better future for your child, and you feel a bigger responsibility.

I work from home in the afternoon from 3pm until 7pm, and then I regularly give talks in schools and businesses. I love watching TV, but I made a conscious decision not to turn it on until 10pm. Richard's death, at the age of 48, made me change the way I feel about time. Now I have this sense that time will run out, so I work for longer doing things I love, like writing. Then I turn on the TV. I started watching The Killing on Netflix, and I am hooked. The other night, Dara came down at 1am and told me to turn it off and go to bed.

The Festival of Women takes place at the RDS on September 16, 17, and 18. For tickets and information, see

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