Inspirational Woman: Samantha Holdsworth | Founder & Director, Clowns Without Borders UK

Samantha Holdsworth CWBUK

Samantha Holdsworth is the founder and director of not-for-profit organisation, Clowns Without Borders UK.

Following a difficult year of loss, Sam decided to turn her distress on its head, and throw her energy into something completely new.

And so, Clowns Without Borders UK was born.

Now managing a beautiful nine month old girl and a busy year ahead for the charity working across the globe, she is a true inspiration to any working mum, or any woman in general!

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am the founder and director of Clowns Without Borders, an international arts-led charity that provides psychosocial support for children living in crisis. Most recently, we’ve shared performances with nearly 6,000 refugee children from the Rohingya community in Bangladesh.

I originally trained as a theatre director and clown and co-founded Nimble Fish in 2007, an award-winning cultural producing organisation that has delivered over thirty projects across all creative genres, working with hundreds of artists and thousands of community members. This work has also taken me around the world; I’ve worked with educators in South Korea, Brazil, Lithuania, Taiwan, young offenders in Brazil and as part of the British Council’s Creative Entrepreneurs scheme, I was also the first person to develop an integrated youth arts programme with young people affected by leprosy in India.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’d love to say yes, I had a detailed master plan that I have executed perfectly, but I’m too responsive. Often I see an opportunity and an idea or project comes from that. My one constant has been a strong belief in the potential as the arts to act as a catalyst for social change. I’m lucky; both my parents are entrepreneurs so I’ve never been afraid of starting my own thing. Never in my wildest dreams however, did I think I’d end up running an international humanitarian charity.

Have you faced any challenges along the way? How did you deal with them?

One of the biggest challenges I faced, now, represents one of the most important points of my career. I’d just received two prestigious awards for a play I co-produced. However, the process had cost me a lot, I had been working long hours, sometimes 7 days a week, for months. I was burnt out and overwhelmed. The doctor signed me off work for 6 months with anxiety and exhaustion. I made a promise I’d never let that happen again so, I had to completely rethink my attitude to work and make some dramatic changes. My life is almost unrecognisable from that time, I’ve learnt how to say ‘no’, I meditate, and I know how to “switch off”. Although it was incredibly painful at the time, if I hadn’t had the courage to reassess and change my behaviour back then, I don’t believe I’d be achieving the things I am with CWB at the moment.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?

What’s not to love? I am both a mentee and a mentor. It’s a fantastic opportunity for professional and personal growth. It’s so important to be able to reflect on what I’m doing especially when I’m so close to the work. It helps me see the bigger picture. The mentor I have at the moment is all about sharing tools to help me and CWB become as efficient as possible; he keeps reminding me I don’t need to “reinvent the wheel”. I love working with my mentee, supporting her to work through issues and ideas is deeply rewarding, I also learn loads from her too.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

Just one? I’d start with equal pay for women, swiftly moving on to putting more women on boards and finish by creating a more flexible working culture and extensive affordable childcare so more women could return to work if they chose to.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I became a mother in 2017 to a baby girl and sometimes it feels like I have not one, but two babies; Matilda, who is nine months old now, and Clowns Without Borders. Being a mother and running a start-up is extremely challenging, I suspect it has a lot to do with lack of sleep. Clowns Without Borders is also going through an unprecedented period of growth, which is exciting, and something we’ve been working towards for a while. Babies and growing your organisations don’t always go together so I feel very proud (and lucky) that I have been able to create a world where the two can coexist.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

It’s going to be a busy year for the clowns. We’ve just come back from Bangladesh where we shared laughter with thousands of refugee children from the Rohingya community. We had the responsibility (and privilege) of reminding the children we meet there, that it’s OK to be a child; that laughter and play was possible for them. Given the scale of the tragedy we are already fundraising to ensure we can make several visits there this year. We also have a tour to the Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan lined up for April. One of the things the children ask us the most is “When are you coming back?” and so we’ll also be making our fourth visit to children in the refugee camps in Greece.

Clowns Without Borders also has a role to play in raising awareness as well as advocating for the rights of the child. We are launching an Affiliates Schools programme in 2018 that will help us to do this.

Long term, I want to see big NGO’s working in closer partnership with us when they respond to disasters. Given our level of expertise, impact and unique way we work with children, we should be included in these conversations. I’m working hard to make sure that happens, to allow us to continue changing lives around the world.

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