Spanish-born Leonor Stjepic started volunteering at 18, translating interviews of tortured children, for Amnesty International. After a career in the private sector, and a life-changing trip to Croatia, Leonor decided to work in the charity sector, full time. Today she is the CEO of the award-winning charity RAFT(Restoration for Appearance and Function Trust). She has also set up Smart Matrix Ltd, she is a board member at EPWN (European Professional Women Network) where she mentors women and is a fellow at the RSA (Royal Society of Encouragement and Manufacturing of Arts).
She invited Myriam O’Carroll to the RSA, where she talked about her achievements and dedication to helping others.
You were involved in the charity sector from the age of 18 – how?
I am bilingual Spanish and was a member of Amnesty. They were looking for someone who could translate interviews of children who had been tortured in South America into English, so I volunteered my services. Through that, I met someone who was looking to set up a group to do voluntary work for children that were in prison or tortured. One thing I did was to create a network, so that in every Amnesty in the UK there would be a representative that would work with children rights. It is part of Amnesty’s mandate today.
The first half of your career was in the private sector, in a wide variety of jobs. What was the one you enjoyed the most?
The most fun job I had was working for Decca, which is a record company, because I was the administrator for the recording studios. It was very challenging, but I got to meet a lot of very well known artists.
What drove you to the charity sector full time?
It was when I went to volunteer in Croatia during the war. I lived and worked in a children refugee camp; and it made me realise that I could use the experience and the skills I had learnt in the private sector to make a difference in people’s lives. When I came back, I realised this is actually what I wanted to do. It meant reducing my income by about 75%, which was a big decision to make.
Today, you are the CEO for RAFT – the Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust, which has just won the British Journal of Nursing Award for innovation. What is RAFT’s mission?
It is a charity that was set up 24 years ago by plastic surgeons, who were doing reconstruction work. RAFT has its own laboratories and we carry out research into improving treatments for people that have been injured. For example, we are about to go into clinical trial with artificial skin for people who have suffered severe burns. The surgeons, doctors or nurses come to us with a problem and we try to find a solution for them.
What have you brought to RAFT?
I brought a business outlook to this charity, a way to look at things in a more commercial way. It does not mean we loose the values or the culture of being a charity, but it’s bringing that ‘business-like’ discipline into RAFT.
How does it work with Smart Matrix Ltd, for which you are also the CEO?
Smart Matrix is a new independent company that we have launched. Its role is to take the artificial skin that RAFT has created through the clinical trials to the market. The vision is that once we’ve taken this artificial skin through the two clinical trials, that we have to do in humans, we will partner up with a large pharmaceuticals company, to be able to mass produce and put it into hospitals. We believe that Smart Matrix will revolutionise the way that people with wounds are being treated.
How do you get creative when it comes to business?
I try to take time out every day. I have two dogs and I walk them every morning, at 6am, in Hampstead Heath.
It keeps me very grounded, and because it’s very peaceful at that time, it clears my mind completely. This is when ideas come.
You are a fellow at the RSA, the Royal Society of Encouragement and Manufacturing of Arts. How are you involved?
It is a privilege to have been asked to be a fellow. I love it because it thrives on ideas. It is about creating new ways of thinking. The RSA has a lot very interesting speakers who give talks on all ranges of subjects, which I try to attend as often as I can.
It is a fantastic place to come to. The building was built in the 18th century and you can’t help somehow to be inspired by the history of some of the great thinkers who came here before you.
You are also on the board of EPWN – European Professional Women Network. How do you lead women?
EPWN helps women achieve their potential professionally and I am a mentor for a young woman.
My advice is to never stop networking, as there is nothing more powerful than having a group of people that you could call up on for advice and support.
Who has inspired you personally?
I am inspired by a lot of inspirational women, that no one knows anything about and I am hugely fortunate to have met a number of them. At RAFT I am inspired by some of the patients that we meet. My earliest inspiration was probably my uncle. He was in the army and he was a very inspirational man.
He taught me that there is no one better than you and there is no one worse than you. He also taught me that you should never stop learning.
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