I am currently the director of children’s services at Starlight Children’s Foundation a national charity which uses the power of play to improve children’s social, emotional, and mental wellbeing during illness.
We work with over 800 hospitals and hospices across the UK and support over 1.5 million children each year. The services we provide help to reduce anxiety and distress and increase children’s engagement with their medical treatment.
My family are migrants: my grandparents moved from India to Kenya where I was born, and my parents moved back to India and then we came to the UK when I was 10 years old. I love learning and believe education has the power to change lives – it continues to change mine!
I care about improving the quality of children’s lives, particularly the most vulnerable, as I believe appropriate and timely interventions can have a lasting positive impact for the child and their family. I started my career in the voluntary sector and worked as an education officer for the Community Relations Council in Walthamstow and I remember spending a lot of time supporting parents, who were appealing against a local authority’s decision to allocate a poorly performing school to their child. I have been the statutory director of children’s services at the London Borough of Brent and Slough Borough Council, responsible for all education and children’s services. I have also worked at the Department for Education and more recently in the voluntary sector including The Children’s Society and the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Definitely not! I think for me it was having a strong value base and work ethic and the rest is serendipity. I remember the careers teacher at school suggested I should become a secretary as I was doing ‘typing’ as a subject. Yes, there was a subject called ‘typing’, but I knew that I only took typing because the other option was French and I did not like the French teacher! Learning how to touch type has been a great life skill.
I was the first person in my family to go to university and my father helped me to fill in the application form. I still think it was an absolute privilege to be able to go to university and be immersed in an academic environment while being exposed to a myriad of perspectives. It opened a whole world of possibilities for me and I took the journey one step at a time.
I enjoy building relationships and networks and many people I have worked with are now good friends. I believe these networks provide a platform where you learn of new opportunities, are continuously developing your knowledge and expertise and where there is support, which keeps you grounded when the going gets tough.
In recent years the three key drivers for my decision to move to a new role have been: what impact can I have on the lives of children/families; is the job interesting and will I learn something new and can I add value to this organisation.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
When you are on a journey there are always challenges along the way. Being a petite Asian woman managing large budgets, diverse staff teams and the politics in organisations, brings its own challenges. I have had the privilege to work with some incredible colleagues throughout my career but there have been a couple who I would have dealt with differently if I had my time again. I always tried to be strong, firm, and fair but I wish I had the courage then to stand up for myself more often than I did.
Being a working mum while developing my career was tough because you want to bring your best self to both roles. The days were long, I had to be super organised and managed to pack a lot into our lives through wonderful networks of support. In recent years supporting ageing parents while continuing to work, has brought similar challenges but while showing compassion to others I am now also kind to myself and ask for help so that I can keep it all together.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
While at the Department for Education in Whitehall, I helped to set up the first set of academies across London. These were mainly failing secondary schools in areas of deprivation, which needed to be transformed so that local children could get the education they deserved. The schools required reconstruction which often involved a change in governance, leadership, and infrastructure. I was part of a team that brokered sponsorships, negotiated with local authorities, communities, and governing bodies and secured significant funds for new school buildings and staffing structures. Children have only one chance at an education and an effective local school can be life changing for generations of children.
I am a Brent girl and my work in the borough has been very important to me. When my family arrived in the UK we settled in Neasden: we lived, learnt, and worked in Brent. So, many years later, my appointment as director of children’s services for the borough overseeing child protection, safeguarding, education and overall wellbeing of over 70,000 children, gave me an opportunity to contribute to my own community…and that was quite special!
I continue to be passionate about improving outcomes for children and families. I have been incredibly lucky to have had opportunities to impact children’s lives both nationally and in local regions and now I am really enjoying working in the voluntary sector. I see the total commitment of staff who are there because they believe in the value of what we are trying to do and the huge gaps in services that an organisation like Starlight can fill.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Reflecting now I would say it has been perseverance, having a clear vision of what I am passionate about, being ready to grab opportunities when they arise and a fair bit of luck. This was not the case early in my career and I prioritised sharpening my skills and expertise while developing clarity about my own values, so that I could be an authentic leader. Building, nurturing, and maintaining collaborative relationships has been critical in any success I have had. I will take time to listen to different views and am persuadable by the strength of an argument: I pick my battles carefully. I have a strong work ethic and work hard but then I have been fortunate to have roles where I could have a real impact on children’s lives and that really motivated me to give my best.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
In effective organisations I see this as a right and a privilege. I have had wonderful mentors throughout my career and in the early part I did not even realise they were my mentors. There were colleagues who literally worked through a problem with me, supported me, advised me, and created opportunities for me where I could learn and grow. They put rungs on ladders for me and now I see it as my role to continue doing that for others. I have mentored several people in recent years and I particularly enjoy a more coaching style where I can help someone to increase their self-awareness and find their own solutions.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
To trust your judgement, take more risks, have the courage to claim your strengths, and not make yourself small so that others around you can be more comfortable.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
My next challenge is to support Starlight to develop and grow and to have a voice of influence in the sector. I want to ensure that we use technology to innovate our services so that we can have a lasting impact on the wellbeing of children with serious long-term conditions and those in hospital.
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