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Dame Julia Cleverdon champions change
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Dame Julia Cleverdon champions change
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“Business has the power and the ability to really make a difference in communities, in society, by how they employ, trade, invest, lead and manage their impact on the planet.”
7 August 2015

Dame Julia Cleverdon champions change

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Kara Fox

Berry Liberman on Dame Julia Cleverdon

I was nervous to meet Dame Julia Cleverdon. I had never met a Dame before.  What do you say? How do you act? I’m asked to meet her at a women’s club in the heart of Melbourne. I’ve never been to a women’s club.

The whole thing feels very “Da Vinci Code.” I enter a beautiful old building I’ve never noticed before, squished between modern high rises. Inside it’s like a 1930s’ film set. Beautifully preserved in its original condition, filled with pictures of club members going back as far as 1910, it’s a haven of peace and gentility. No mobile phones here. Dame Julia greets me in a small dining room and to my unending delight she is down-to-earth, warm, fiesty and determined. Having worked with royalty, heads-of-state, CEOs and NGOs without ever batting an eyelid, she believes women need to “lean in,” businesses need  to stand up and individuals need to be counted. From the early days when a sign at the place she worked at said: “No blacks, no Irish and no redheads need apply,” Dame Julia has, with great good humour, always applied.

As Chief Executive of Business in the Community for 16 years, working closely with The Prince of Wales, she helped establish pioneering programs like Seeing is Believing, which brought business leaders in contact with the communities they trade in. Proximity, after all, is everything. When the CEO of a brewing company makes a decision to create triple strength lager, they’re not thinking of the impact it has on the ground or the damage it can do to families, individuals and whole communities. Balance sheets and bottom lines, plastic wrap and supermarket aisles drive us to push for endless consumption. When we get proximate to the issues affecting our world we can no longer turn our heads. Dame Julia’s life mission has been to remind us that “prosperous high streets require prosperous back streets.” Working with an equally-passionate Prince Charles, she has, over the years, embedded a culture of social and environmental accountability which has had a profoundly positive effect on the behaviour of some of the largest corporations—and in turn disadvantaged communities—in Britain. She has also played a pivotal role in the women’s and workers’ movements in Australia during the 1980s, and now supports the work of the Prince’s Charities Australia which His Royal Highness established down under in 2007.

Along the way, Dame Julia has inspired thousands of women to live fuller, more empowered lives through her speaking, writing and workshops. When we chat, she has just welcomed home one of her daughters, a nurse working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. It’s no surprise that such a strong woman has raised two remarkable young women—her other daughter being one of the youngest detective chief inspectors in the Metropolitan Police. She reminds me that you can do important, game-changing work while remaining grounded and generous along the way. Dame Julia Cleverdon is salt-of-the-earth goodness whose life  so far has been devoted to leaving a healthy legacy for the next generation.

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: I hear you’re a fan of Milton Friedman’s philosophy* that business is business.

*Milton Friedman was an American economist who famously argued against the concept of corporate social responsibility, believing that the only responsibility of business is to increase its profits.

DAME JULIA CLEVERDON: No! [Laughs]. I mean, there are undoubtedly some positive points about what Friedman had to say. But I cannot say my life is about believing the only thing business needs to do is make a profit. I adore business leaders and the crackle of business and what business does. We just had a funny lunch today with an incredible man who started as a truck driver and then developed a big truck-driving business. I’m certainly interested in how entrepreneurs make things happen. But I’ve also always believed that business has a real responsibility and opportunity to make a difference in the world—and to behave responsibly in their workplace, their marketplace, their environment, their community. So that’s been quite an uphill struggle, but in a way, is my passion.

Why do you think it’s been an uphill struggle?

So I started my career in the ’70s. I’d done a history degree at Cambridge,  I joined British Leyland, which was one of the more hopeless car companies in the UK. I was the most junior industrial relations officer, and my life in those early years was about understanding how you got people involved in their work and how you managed and motivated and led. So from very early on I believed that people could contribute more than they were being asked to contribute. But it  wasn’t happening. Businesses weren’t getting the contribution that so many people could give because they weren’t leading, engaging, consulting, motivating. In the ’80s, youth riots broke out across the whole of Britain—Brixton, Toxteth, Nottingham—the inner cities burned. And the business world said, “What the hell  is going on? How did this happen? What on Earth is the matter with these kids?”  The Toxteth riots in 1982 was the absolute wake-up call for Britain that we’d very nearly lost control of the streets. They didn’t quite get the army in, but it was close.

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

And it was then that I think the business world began to realise that prosperous high streets require prosperous back streets.

One of the most important things the Prince of Wales did at that time was get 60 young black teenagers to spend the weekend with 30 of the most senior business leaders in Britain for the business leaders to understand what these young people were saying. And they were saying: “If you’re a black teenager in Britain, you’re five times more likely to be unemployed.”

Have those stats changed?

They have. Partly because Britain is now an infinitely more diverse place than it was in the early ’80s. And partly because a lot of work has gone into evening it out. I think what changed my mind was that business has the power and the ability to really make a difference in communities, in society, by how they employ, trade, invest, lead and manage their impact on the planet. Many of the business leaders I’ve worked with over the past 20 years are some of the most intelligent, clever, smart, sassy characters. But you’ve got to lead them by the hand to understand the issues where they can make a difference.

I love The Prince’s Seeing is Believing program—providing leadership journeys for business leaders. Talk to me about that.

It was basically a group of business leaders that came together to say: “We need to understand more about what’s going on in society and how business can make more difference. What is it we should be doing in communities?” And at that time I was working in inner cities around education and young people, and was recruited by a lovely man called Stephen O’Brien to be the development director for this organisation, Business in the Community. The Prince of Wales had just become its president, which was a great thing. He was very, very energetic and enthusiastic about it. He’d already started the Prince’s Trust, which was the organisation concerned for young unemployed people. And he realised rather early on that the business world was important, it could make a huge difference.

Business in the Community is basically a business-led charity which now has 850 companies in the UK, and it’s concerned with businesses’ impact on society. In the ’80s it was pretty much Marks & Spencer, Pilkingtons and a few banks, and the Prince of Wales thought it was important to get business leaders to have a look at what the really tough issues were in society, which they didn’t understand.

Why did he?

Partly because he’d begun the Prince’s Trust and started to understand and work with young people who were from very disadvantaged backgrounds, who’d not got much of a chance in life, who’d been in prison. The Prince’s Trust has always concentrated on disenfranchised youth.

So I think the Prince always had a great interest in what happened underneath society. Not the great swanky bit that you’d expect him to be involved in, but more the disadvantage and struggle and what he could do to help.

And then he went to America and saw an amazing initiative which was turning round a steel town. And he came back to Britain and said to Stephen O’Brien, my predecessor: “Find me a mill town in the north and let’s see what we can do to help.”

So he’d seen a model and brought it back.

Yeah. And he went to Halifax, he and I worked together there in a northern mill town where the carpet factory had shut, the weaving business had given up, not much going on. And he said,
“We need to bring some business leaders to understand the issues. I’ll be there to persuade them to come and we’ll spend the day together.” And that was the Prince’s first Seeing is Believing program. And over the following 10, 20 years he and I worked together on it in various aspects of the community.

So you take business leaders to these places to see what’s not working. And then what?

We learnt a hell of a lot over the years about how to do it. We saw  there were an awful lot of needs and challenges in the community. The young people, the levels of enterprise, the housing, the support to poor families, and so on. The Prince invited a group of business leaders, all of whom had business chains in the towns—Sainsbury’s, Booths. And they all spent the day with him walking around the town. At the end of the day we put together a wish list of the things we needed business help on: mentoring for struggling young entrepreneurs, investment advice. And as a result of that group of business leaders, some of whom were local to the area and some of whom had come up from London, all sorts of things happened. They began to say, “Oh my goodness, I think our local store could be doing more about this,” or, “Should we lend you a secondee to sort out a tourism strategy?” That was the main way he built the organisation—stitch by stitch, tapestry by tapestry. Hundreds of business leaders came to understand what was going on in homelessness, and then as a result set up business action on homelessness, which is one of our big programs. Or came to have a look at what was going on in inner-city schools and set up education work. So the Prince has been a great innovator and a great persuader of the business world.  And that’s part of what my life has been about—how to support him doing that.

Was this a top-down model of philanthropy? The idea of taking leaders to a homeless shelter and them having an “ah ha!” moment and then doing something about it. “I’ll try to fix the world that I actually participated in breaking with my philanthropic hat on, but my business hat is a business hat.” It’s a sore point, but how do you think about that?

Well, I think of my working life in British Leyland 1972. There was a sign in the yard which said: “No blacks, no Irish and no redheads need bother to apply to work here.”

It wasn’t… for real?

For real. So if you actually look—and I’m 65 on Sunday—if you look at what’s changed in society for the good and the bad. Obviously, in some ways the world is infinitely more complicated and dangerous, but lots of things have changed for the better. Now the arguments about why all corporates have moved from philanthropy to community investment to corporate social responsibility to blahdy blah—in general they’re about man’s inhumanity to man, or however you want to put it. How do you actually recognise that no man is an island, no woman is an island?

You’ve absolutely got to conduct your life looking at how you can not only do no harm, but lend a positive helping hand, and bring your resources and support to those who need help.

I’ve always said corporate social responsibility has naught to do with putting lipstick on a pig. It’s about how you do business. How do you trade? How do you invest? How do you train? How do you develop? How do you walk on the planet? This is about the totality of the whole flaming thing. So the answer to your question, “Is this a top-down model of philanthropy?” No, it’s not. All the work at Business in the Community and the Prince’s Trust actually has been about how you move businesses to understand that sustainability, climate change—all that work—is absolutely central to a business’ long-term future and society’s long-term future.

What does business as a force for good look like in the UK at the moment?

Well, that’s a great question because I think every work of art is out of its time. And it’s really interesting to see what’s going on and what is now expected of business in comparison to where we were 40 years ago. Marks & Spencer, the big retailer, has done an amazing job of what they call Plan A—really transforming the way they manage their footprint on the planet. There’s a lovely business called Esh which is a construction company who just won a big award from Business in the Community. We have a sort of corporate Oscars every year.


And companies can only win for their impact on environment and society.

I love that!

And Esh has done this incredible job of recruiting young unemployed kids up in the north-east, which is our toughest and most challenging community really in terms of trying to get people into work. And their size and the impact in comparison to their scale makes one realise how nimble and clever medium-to-small-sized businesses can be. Whereas large businesses are still lumbering along trying to get it approved by the HR department.

Then we had the environmental award this year, which is sort of a climate change award, won by the people who run Air Traffic Control in the UK. And they’d done an amazing program with aeroplanes, pilots and the air traffic controllers to bring planes down into British airports, not by getting them to circle above the air because it burns up a fantastic amount of fuel, but to bring them down in incremental ways. And it saves 44 percent, or something staggering, of fuel.

Wow, so clever. I’m sure there are so many examples of all this fat that could be cut from business behaviour that would create such a huge impact for the environment and community.

That’s right. But it is about asking, “Who are the pioneers and the leaders who are already doing it?” And naming and faming them. The more leaders do it, and it’s seen as something great to do, something they will get applause for, the more it can actually  draw on. Business in the Community had 1500 people in Albert Hall last Thursday cheering for the corporates that had done all this stuff. Nobody cheers corporates to that extent!

[Laughs] how do you measure success?

Well, I’m an optimist. And I know you need little grains of sand, little drops of water, small steps.

You have to go on chipping away for a bloody long time to actually make change.

So to go back to The Prince’s Seeing is Believing—I think I went on the vast majority of those program visits with business leaders. I saw, first hand, brilliant community entrepreneurs who were running homeless shelters welcome a group of business leaders and say to them, “Right, we’re one of the only work shelters in London. Which means that we’re one of the only places where alcoholics can come at night. And we don’t ban drink. Everybody else bans drink and won’t let them in. So therefore they sleep in the most appalling states. The truth is that the biggest challenge our homeless clients have is they’re off their face on triple-strength lager.” And so you bring in that group purposely, the Heineken chief executive who makes triple-strength lager, the taxman, the Guardian media chief executive.

So what does the guy who is the chief executive of creating triple-strength lager feel when he is face-to-face with homeless people?

Well, it was actually a moment I shall never forget. At our debrief, we asked, “What have you got out  of today?” And the taxman said, “I’m going to go back and see whether we are charging three times the amount of tax on triple-strength lager, or whether we charge it on a flat rate. I’ve never taken this in.” And Heineken said, “I’m going back to stop us making  triple-strength lager.”


So occasionally you get whopping “ah ha!” moments. And other times—I remember once getting off a bus in Bristol where we’d been to see the most impressive tiny little charity, which was called Mothers Against Drugs, started by the mother of a daughter who died with a needle in her arm aged 11 on a rubbish dump. And she had got all the other mothers in that community together to try to stop the drug dealing that was going on. To get mothers to stand up against it and the police to bloody well get a grip on it. People were so impressed by her courage, and what they could do to help her and so forth, and when we got them back onto the bus, an absolute bastard from a business said, “I tell you what I’d do about that. I’d torch it and watch the rats run.” And there was complete silence on the bus. And then the chief exec of Unigate, one of the big milk businesses, said, “I could not disagree with you more. There is nothing that we should be doing in that community other than working to help in any way we possibly can for that brave and courageous woman.” And nobody else would speak to that bastard on the bus! [Laughs] so I suppose my life as I tell it is a series of highs and lows of how do you move the dial, how do you persuade the business world that it’s not simply about sprinkling a bit of help to the poor, it’s actually how you do business?

Where does your gumption come from?

Interesting question! I was thinking about it last night ‘cause I was making a speech to a great group of girls at a school. And I said, “The most important question that anybody had ever asked me came from my godmother after the collapse of my first marriage.

She said: ‘Now Julia darling, before you get into any more marriages or any more long-term relationships, you must sort out your life. What drives you on? And who are you dancing for?’”

Brilliant question.

And that’s a question I often think about. What drives me on? Achieving things, trying to change things for the better. But who am I dancing for? And I think that’s probably the gumption because my father was the most lovely, extraordinary, funny man. He was a great BBC radio producer, much involved with poets and actors and so forth. And I think in a way the gumption was a combination of him, who was very creative and believed anything could be done, and my mum, who was very Welsh, very family-oriented. If you came to the door, she’d really want to know first of all what she could cook for you and whether you were wearing a vest ‘cause it was very cold.

[Laughs]. Worried about your kidneys!

[Laughs] yes, worried about your kidneys, exactly! So I think the very, very loving family that I grew up in gave me a great sense of confidence and belief that one could achieve things. I was the eldest daughter. My poor mum had something like eight miscarriages before me. So I was a much-wanted first baby. And I suspect that, in the end, everyone needs love and  belief. And some of the things I’ve tried to do in my life is get people and communities that don’t have much belief in themselves to believe more in what they’re doing and what they can achieve.

I want to talk more about your work with His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales. I need to also be really upfront and say I’m a big fan.

Oh good. I’m so glad. That’s lovely.

Any man who gives his mother a wildflower meadow as a birthday present is so high up in my books.


[Laughs]. But I don’t reckon personally being the Prince of Wales would be terribly fun. Does being a royal seem appealing to you?

No. I mean, goodness me, what a life! Like, his mother who’s done over 90 years of duty and service and putting the country first and setting off endlessly smiling and congratulating and touring the world. I mean, it of course has some fascinating parts to it, but it’s very tough indeed. We’re immensely lucky in Britain to have him I believe, and it’s been such an interesting thing to support him.The truth really is that he is an extraordinary entrepreneurial campaigner.

It’s interesting in a way, isn’t it? Somebody like the Prince of Wales who’s had the most extraordinary life and opportunities and connections. Yet most of what he spends his life doing is seeing how he can get better life chances for young people, how he—in a very careful way—is really concerned about what’s going on in tough communities. That’s the reason why we’ve been to Burnley and Burslem and Redcar and Middlesborough and regenerated Dumfries House, a great building and estate in Scotland. He’s absolutely driven by what’s happening in places which are not palaces and Whitehall corridors. He is also very, very determined. There are things that he can make happen that, quite honestly, the rest of us could not. In terms of our partnership, in a way I’ve kept my feet very, very firmly on the ground, and I’ve been able to support him in some of the entrepreneurial innovative ideas which as you rightly say do not always go down well in a world filled with preconceptions about what the Prince of Wales will do.

Yeah, and all that cynicism!

He’s had a tough time. But I think we’re now absolutely clear that the biggest charities he has founded and developed, like Business in the Community and the Prince’s Trust, they are now absolutely part of the landscape of Britain and have made a big difference.

So you have been an important adviser to His Royal Highness, doing work at a level most people will never even know about,  let alone get near. And you’re also a mother to two daughters.


For a lot of women there’s this big thing at the moment of leaning in. You’re very modest about it, but how have you lent in, and do you see it that way?

Well, it’s interesting, it’s always so funny coming back to Melbourne because in 1983 I had come with my darling husband, and the first big role I had at The Industrial Society saw me responsible for some of the work about women and what could we do to help them step up—in those days I thought the enemies were  in women’s own heads. They wouldn’t apply for the jobs—that was the problem.  And so I was running with Cosmopolitan, the women’s mag, a frightfully funny course called Change your Life on Saturday. I’d been doing some work with women in the business world back home, and I’d run a course, and Cosmo heard about it and rang me up and asked would I write an article about what I’d learned on the course, and what sort of advice I was giving women. I mean, I was all of 28 or something. And so I wrote an article and Cosmo said: “This is absolutely fantastic! We’ve had the most incredible pickup from our readers! All of whom now say could they come on the course ‘cause they want to understand about the ‘mouse in the meeting’ law and ‘spiders in the bath.’”

Oh my God, I have no idea what you’re talking about!

No, well, nobody did. These were all things that I put into sayings, you know.

Okay! [Laughs].

So if you’re the only woman in a meeting and you haven’t spoken within 21 minutes of the meeting, you won’t speak. You must get your voice into the airtime in the first 20 minutes. That was “the mouse in the meeting” law. If a man was being rude to you in a sexist way, how did you prevent yourself bursting into tears? How did you respond? That was called “spiders in the bath” because I remembered once as a little girl running back in a house that we were staying in and saying to my mum, “Mum, Mum, there are enormous great spiders in the bath! I’m so frightened!” And she said, “Darling, they’re far more frightened of you than you are of them.”

Every time you get a really sexist comment, you look at the little bastard and say: “Darling you’re far more frightened of me and my power than I am of you.”

Hold your ground.

Hold your ground. So I ran that course and…

I totally want to do that course now!

Yeah, yeah! Anyway. I wrote the article. Cosmo came back and said, “Right, we’ll advertise this course. You’ll run it.” And for much of the early ’80s in Britain I ran this very funny course with about 100 women every Saturday.


And then I came over to Australia with my husband John—first time I’d ever been.  Left the baby behind, Charity. Aged one. And John was a great heavyweight industrial relations man, great leader, lovely character, he was speaking all over Australia on all sorts of things. And the junior PR person in the team that was supporting him said, “Julia, you’re going to do some speaking as well. I’ve got hold of Cosmo and they asked if you could make a speech?” I said, “I’d love to! Let’s do the women stuff! That’ll be really good!” ’83 this was. I said to John, “Can I come and tune in?” He said, “Yes of course darling! It’d be marvellous to have you.”  Rang up the insurance company who said, “I’m really sorry. Your wife could not possibly come with you. The fourth floor of the boardroom in Melbourne is a male-only area.” And John said, “You can’t be serious.” And they said, “I’m afraid so.”


I said to John, “I bet you anything the boardroom’s got a kitchen off the side. I’ll come and stand in the kitchen and listen with my ear to the door.” And in the end I stood behind a screen in the kitchen listening to him making this speech in the boardroom.

No way!

I did.

‘Cause women are allowed in the kitchen?

Yeah. But not in the boardroom. And then I went to run this big gathering with marvellous Melbourne girls who’d come in for the Cosmopolitan Change your Life on Saturday course. And The Age ran a headline: “Julia Cleverdon, patron saint of Australian working women.” And I’ve always held on to it! [Laughs]. In Britain, as in Australia, the march of getting women up and into the talented roles—talk about leaning in—is one of our biggest challenges. The corporates who won’t find the flexible ways of managing all of this are just missing tricks.

This conversation needs to be had.

If you have a woman at the top, that tends to get a message out that you can have it all. I mean, I lost my darling husband 17 years ago. He died on holiday with us in Greece. So I’ve been a single mum to my two daughters while also driving the business. At any moment in life you will be working all night producing whatever for the business. But if at this precise moment you’ve got to be with the family, that’s the end of it. So I love all the “lean in” stuff. I love hearing from my daughters, the youngest of whom is the youngest detective chief inspector in the metropolitan police.


And the oldest has been in Sierra Leone nursing Ebola patients for eight weeks in a plastic protective suit.

I need to interview both your daughters now!

Ah, well they’d love that! Though they’re frightfully secretive. And they’d probably be frightfully cross.

[Laughs] so your daughter in Sierra Leone, how was that experience for her?

There were 25 British nurses in Freetown, in the sort of main centre.  And to begin with, 50 percent of all the children who came in and out died within 24 hours. And because they were entirely dressed in plastic, you couldn’t really cuddle them. And it was just absolutely horrendous.  She’s a great Buddhist. And she went off after that to quite a lengthy Buddhist retreat! Has come back again, more peaceful and calm, and I think it was an extraordinary experience for her. So brave. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, I’m sure.

Wow. I can’t believe you let her! [Laughs].

Well, I know! And there was a terrible family fight. I had a most lovely PA, Bernie Hearn, who worked with me for 24 years and she died very unexpectedly and tragically. And then my Charity came back and said she was going to Sierra Leone, and please could I look after her dog? And I said, “No!” The day she went to Sierra Leone I would shoot her dog!


‘Cause I was not losing anybody else that I loved! And in the end, my younger daughter who’s a police officer said that I couldn’t be so mean and of course I wouldn’t shoot the dog, and I had to look after the damn dog.

I think threatening your children is perfectly acceptable if they want to go off to fight Ebola!

[Laughs] I love the dog. I probably wouldn’t have shot the dog. But there was a moment where I wasn’t feeling very strong!

You must be so proud of your daughters. I mean, the ultimate reward as a parent is to see your adult children resilient and doing good work in the community and living meaningful lives. Have you got any tips?

Well, like you, I’ve had a working life in which I brought up the children or did my best to bring up the children with my mum and marvellous nanny and all the rest of it. And I worked very hard. And then unlike you, I hope, I lost my darling husband. The girls were 11 and 15. So it’s been a very interesting journey to see how you can both parent and achieve all the things at work. I won’t work weekends. I won’t work August. [Laughs] only two nights a week belong to the organisation. I think for professional women driving their way through the challenges that corporate life brings, it’s just too easy to say, “No, I’ll be missing bath time on Tuesday,” and then you’re suddenly missing bath time on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, and then they’re grown up and you never see them in the bath. It isn’t forever. Although in some ways I think they need you more during teenage years than those early childhood days. I remember when I came back and said to my mother, about my first marriage, “Oh Mum, I’m so sorry. I’m going to divorce and it’s a storm and it’s in the papers.” She said: “Darling, I thought life was going to be easier when we got you out of nappies.”


I think that being a mum goes on forever. I mean, when a daughter rings up and says, “I’m in trouble and I’ve got to wear my best shirt tomorrow and it’s still in the washing machine and please could you get it out?” I rush to get it out.

Yeah. I love that. I mean, you are working with the Prince of Wales and “I need you to get my shirt Mum from the washing machine” is like the ultimate grounding request!

Yeah, it is. And he is always marvellous about families. And has done a fantastic job with those lovely sons. They’re an immense credit to him in the way they are taking up their responsibilities. And in family life as well.

I think your daughters are very lucky to have you around, Dame Julia.

Well, when I’m on my deathbed looking back over my life, what I’m proud of having done, I’ll have pride in helping to shape Business in the Community and I’ll be very proud of getting Teach First up and running, and I’m immensely hopeful that Teach For Australia is going to do the same thing. But in the end I shall be proudest of my darling girls. And the fun we’ve had as a family. And then the next generation will take it on. And that’s all one can hope for.

We’re not here on this planet for very long. And we’ve got to absolutely maximise everything that you can do to make sure you get what you want out of your life.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Kara Fox

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