Inspirational Woman: Sita Brand | Founder & CEO, Settle Stories

Sita BrandI was born and brought up in India and it was there that I learned my love of storytelling from my mum and aunt.

I loved stories and being told stories in particular. My mother, who was the school librarian, worried that I couldn’t read. It was just that I so loved listening to stories. It’s something I still enjoy to this day. Growing up my favourite stories were Alice in Wonderland, Little Grey Men and Rapunzel.

As a child we were also told lots of family stories. My father was a refugee during the Second World War–he walked from Burma to India and travelled with many people who died and we heard many horrific stories. These family stories were shared with me and my siblings frequently as we grew up. This was formative as it meant that myself and my brother and sister learnt to appreciate what we had. I was taught from an early age that people are more important than things. It’s what you’re doing with your life that’s more important than possessions and money.

When I was 13, India was declared a state of emergency and all fundamental rights were shelved. I remember this vividly. The strikes and riots in the streets. People hiding from the police in our home and underground journalists sharing their stories in our house. We used to have to black out the windows when people gathered. Our phone was tapped by the CBI–the Indian equivalent of MI5.

At 15, I moved to the UK–first to Scotland where we had family. I remember being amazed by the way people took their freedom for granted and that they could say anything they liked.  I was particularly shocked by people saying things that were anti-government and them not being put in prison for it. It was a time that made a big impression on me and taught me the value of freedom. I still value those experiences a great deal.

My first job in the UK after university was as a storyteller. I saw an ad for a storyteller in The Stage–I think I got the job because of my experiences of researching storytelling in India and my true love of stories. It was a wonderful time–we travelled around the country telling stories and playing music.

From there, I had many jobs within the world of theatre, storytelling and the arts until I moved to Settle 14 years ago and decided to set up a storytelling festival. So Settle Stories was born. Over the years the company has grown and as the founder and CEO I now lead a dedicated team. Settle Stories’ mission is to collaborate with exceptional artists to create transformative experiences for people and communities. We share stories from diverse cultures across the globe, explore traditional myths and folktales and reveal current stories of today. We present stories through year round events and the largest free online storytelling festival globally, Yorkshire Festival of Story (

Our live and online workshops, retreats and learning programmes connect people and are open to all. Through our schools programme we work with over 70,000 school children annually. We work closely with our rural community by co-creating projects to gather people together, bring into focus hidden stories and enable the vulnerable and disinvested to have a voice. As part of our recent festival I have just launched Storyversity. This is perhaps my most important work to date.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

Gracious, no. I’ve had an eclectic career mostly in the arts as an actress, director, storyteller, writer, producer, consultant, etc. I’ve also worked as a cleaner and a shop assistant in motorway services. My worst job was working nights at the motorway service station and I have horrible memories of wearing a nylon uniform serving eggs and bacon at 1 am. I hated it.

 I’ve taught meditation and mindfulness in prisons. I also work as a Buddhist prison chaplain. Our daily routine in the office is also imbued with the values of mindfulness and respect. We start our day with a short meditation. This really helps us to come together and be focused on what we’re doing. We start Trustees’ meetings with a short meditation and it really makes a difference to the quality of the meetings.

After a career in theatre,  I moved to Settle and I had no plan as such. I gathered several volunteers and started Settle Stories. I literally knocked on my neighbours doors and said let’s do this. At the time, shops were closing and I wanted to do something that would bring people to the town that would support the local economy. I could never have imagined the groundwork we laid would evolve into Yorkshire Festival of Story and an extensive learning programme as well as my latest project Storyversity. I am proud of the fact that our programmes are always diverse and inclusive and reflect the make up of contemporary Britain,

Storyversity is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. This new venture is the world’s only online learning platform dedicated to learning the art of storytelling. Stories are the most powerful way to engage, inspire and move people to action. Storyvesity will enable learners to master the art of storytelling so they can make a difference whether that is in the classroom, the boardroom or the home.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Lots, being an outsider and plenty of racism. When I first came to the UK my school friends had very strange assumptions about India and life there. I was asked questions like, “Were you born in a dark room?” “Did you go to school on a bullock cart?” Frequently I was told if you took a white child and a black child and you gave each the same opportunities that the white child would do better because they were white! Somehow this was to make me feel better about not getting some opportunities!

Working in a rural area brings different challenges. There are fewer people and fewer opportunities. Making an arts organisation viable in this environment is tough, Most funding partners are based in urban environments and have little understanding of the challenges faced by rural communities. Basic services like transport are poor so if you’re running live events, just the simple act of bringing people together brings challenges particularly in the winter months.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Establishing Settle Stories and making it a place which is inclusive so anyone no matter their background is able to participate. My legacy is Storyversity. This platform will not only enable people from different backgrounds to develop and improve their skills as storytellers and story makers. In addition to the courses we are also developing an archive of interviews and panel discussions with artists and presenters. The courses on offer include: Vocal Training, How to use Gesture Creatively, Creating Characters for Performance, Storytelling for Teachers, The Writers Way among others. We are now developing Storytelling for Selling, Storytelling in Interviews, Vocal Health.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Never giving up. Not taking no for an answer. Just keeping going even when things get tough. The consistency and some may say stubbornness is what gets you through. I remember an old boss years ago saying to me, “The thing about you, Sita, is you’re like a terrier, you just keep going until you get where you want to go.”

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring is critical for success. I have had lots of mentors in my life at different times and still do. I also continue to mentor others. I think it is important to pass on your skills to the next generation. This is why I am so passionate about our new project Storyversity. This platform will mean that anyone no matter what their background, time or experience will be able to learn to tell stories and make a difference. We all need mentors. The tutors on Storyversity can provide a kind of mentoring through the courses and the live Q & A sessions. This way if you need help and advice on preparing a presentation in business or indeed making a speech at a wedding or telling a story in the classroom you can get help.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Women as role models like Doctor Who! It is critical that girls and young women feel that they can do anything. I’d make all male boards of companies illegal, but I have always been a bit radical.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

You can always change your story. No matter what happens in life, you have the capacity to make the change for yourself and other people and you are not alone.

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

Plato said, “Those who tell stories, rule society.”  Stories help us make sense of the world. As the first Storytelling Laureate – Taffy Thomas said, *You can’t hate someone when you know their story.” Stories connect us both in the classroom and the boardroom. This is being recognised more and more in business environments. Storyversity which we have just launched will be a significant focus for us for the next few years.The vision for this platform is to create and support an online community of learners who want to develop their storytelling skills for all walks of life. The beauty of these self guided courses, resources, community forum as well as the live online Q & A sessions will support participants from all walks of life in the learning journeys.

Storyversity, has been set up by Settle Stories and is the world’s only online learning platform dedicated to teaching the art of storytelling.

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