Alumni Voices recently caught up with Sarah Parkins (Derwent, 2001), a New York-based entrepreneur, to discuss her journey since graduation from York, her experiences of the U.K. and U.S., as well as why learning to trust your intuition and finding your purpose are worthwhile exercises.

“My fondest memories of the University of York are making new friends – who I’m still in touch with to this day – the fun of university Iife, living away from home and the social life. My part-time job at The Deramore Arms allowed me to engage with students and locals, as well as learning the lifetime skills of making and serving drinks, and pulling a proper pint. I used to love Brown’s cream cheese and turkey sandwiches – whenever I could afford it, I would treat myself to one of those sandwiches and relish every bite. I continue to make my own version of these sandwiches as a tribute to the iconic Brown’s sandwich I cherished so much.”

Sarah with her parents at Graduation

Sarah’s 4-year degree at York included a ‘Year in Industry’. She worked with Xerox in year 3, and then back in her final year at York, after realising how much she loved business, found a part time job at the local rail and construction company Jarvis. Once she graduated, Sarah continued to work with Jarvis, however, she had a deep desire to live and work in London, and that led her to investment banking.

“I studied Computer Science and Business at the University of York so I wanted to go and work in an organisation that was about technology – the best place to do that was in investment banking because at the time investment banks were the ones that had the cash to invest in technology and it seemed like the best place to pursue my career. It wasn’t long before I joined Credit Suisse First Boston in London and entered a dynamic, opportunity-fuelled, fast-paced environment. Although, even at that time, I knew I wanted to create my own business, I heeded the advice given to me to “go and learn business in a Corporate first.” At Credit Suisse First Boston, I experienced an intense workload, but I’m grateful for those long and often challenging hours. It taught me how to work under pressure, how to recognise stress, how to prioritise and organise, and identify what is important and urgent. It was a challenging and stressful job at times, but I accepted it. Diamonds are made under pressure I would repeat to myself during particularly gruelling moments.

Despite the long days, that we still hear about in finance today, I had many opportunities to travel and work with incredible people, as well as some not-so-great people. It was an amazing learning experience for me, and I look back fondly on my time at Credit Suisse, both in London and New York. The highs and the lows taught me many things.”

After spending 15+ years with large businesses, Sarah realised the work she was doing and the environment she was in were no longer aligned with her personal goals and values. Sarah began a journey of self-discovery to explore her purpose and what alignment really meant for her. This journey was crucial in enabling her to do what she does today.

“It wasn’t a criticism of Credit Suisse where I was, but rather a personal realisation of what mattered to me most at that point in my life. I was experiencing personal growth. It helped me gain a deeper understanding of myself and what I wanted to experience and achieve in my life.

In 2016 I launched my first business – a gifting company. I co-founded it with a friend and previous colleague. Our goal was to provide thoughtful gifts, beautifully wrapped, and personalised with hand-written notes for consumers. 

Both of us were a little burned out from corporate life and wanted to focus on the consumer market. However, we soon realised the challenges of running a consumer business with small margins requires large volume. We recognised, to succeed, we would need to become a logistics company or a commodities tech reliant business like Amazon to succeed, neither of which we wanted, so we pivoted, led by clients, to focus on business gifting.

This business continued for a few years, but when we felt we had taken the business as far as we could together, we decided to separate the business. Every step was a learning experience, and each experience was a stepping stone to the next chapter of growth.”

Today Sarah has two active businesses, Birch Cove and Kadence Group. These businesses are dedicated to improving well-being in the business world. Their expertise and programs cover a range of areas such as cohort workshops and coaching on burnout, resiliency, growth mind-sets, stress, anxiety, creativity, movement and more.

“As B2B (business-to-business) organisations, we empower businesses to generate more well-being for and with individuals in their ecosystems, including founders, executive teams, employees, clients, and the communities they serve.

By fostering a culture of well-being in business, businesses become more sustainable, durable, and profitable. Success is not just profitability in business; success is a business that achieves high performance, high revenues, and supports people being whole human-beings. You do not have to sell your soul to be successful in business. It is now proven. Yet, we are not yet very adept at understanding that or knowing how to implement and experience it. This is where Birch Cove and Kadence Group come into the equation.

At Birch Cove, we work with businesses of various sizes, from smaller organisations experiencing $1m in revenue to Fortune 100 companies. In contrast, Kadence Group focuses exclusively on supporting early-stage founders, encouraged, and supported by their investors, to develop stronger leadership skills and who actively understand that prioritising their well-being can lead to more successful and sustainable companies.

You do not have to sell your soul to be successful in business.

We recognise that the work we do today is laying the foundation for the future. By investing in the growth of healthy, supportive business ecosystems, we are helping to create a better tomorrow for the next generation. Once children born today enter the workforce, they will have the opportunity to engage with corporates in a new and healthier way compared to how many of us experience that today, they will experience less workplace toxicity and understand how to prioritise well-being both for themselves and the business. Ultimately, our goal is to contribute to a more positive and fulfilling future for all.

To establish a thriving business, it is essential to prioritise the development of healthy leadership. Unfortunately, too many reports exist of founders and employees experiencing burnout, or worse. Egos spiral out of control and binge-watching worthy streaming series are made, or toxic work cultures and poor behaviours hit the headlines.

We are working to counteract these negative trends, to create well-being ecosystems where founder(s), executive teams, employees, clients, and investors are committed to ensuring an abundant ecosystem of well-being exists.

The road we are travelling is multi-faceted, it begins by raising awareness of business well-being. We help businesses gain a perspective on what well-being is and how it affects everyone in the organisation, from management to the most junior member, as well as the community that interacts with the business. As an extreme example, consider a manufacturing business that emits harmful chemicals into the local community and the impact that has on the surrounding neighbourhood and community. The business might be profitable but the ecosystem is not creating well-being.

We also provide advice to startups on growing well-being aware businesses. Unfortunately, many startups have toxic cultures, forcing employees to work gruelling hours without sleep. This kind of culture is unnecessary and can be damaging to both individuals and the business. This drive comes from the founders and leadership and therefore beginning there is where we have most traction and impact.

We believe in genuinely caring for people and creating a culture that supports employees, clients, investors, and the wider community in a very authentic way. This means taking action to support people’s well-being, rather than just offering superficial perks like lunch and learn, after-work activities, app subscriptions, or benefits.

We believe in genuinely caring for people and creating a culture that supports employees, clients, investors, and the wider community in a very authentic way.

An organisation contributes to an individual’s stress and it’s important the business understands and takes accountability for that. It’s also important that individuals take accountability for their own life, choices and established boundaries. It’s not easy and it takes practice. Generating businesses that value people being whole at work and in their personal lives by creating cultures that prioritise well-being, achieve high performance and high revenues is the key.”

Sarah left the UK in 2005, and despite promising her family she would only be there for 2 years, she has now lived in New York for 17 years.

“If you’ve ever lived in a different country you may recognize this experience; your heart is constantly in two or more places at once. When you are in one place you are missing the other place, and when you are back in the original place, you miss the one you have just left! It’s not really something you ever acclimatise to; you just learn to live that way.

There is also the notion that when you leave a country you leave with the language of that era. My English is up until 2005, while I still retain an English accent, any new colloquialisms, words, or styles of speaking and writing that are now part of current day British English, I’m not familiar with. It’s as if you end up with a language that only you speak. Part English, part American, part Atlantic.

It’s important to remember that what I share is only my own experience, it’s neither right nor wrong, or intended to criticise or be definitive, it’s just what I’ve experienced.

On arrival in New York, I went through a bit of a culture shock. Naively I expected it to be like London, but my experience of New York was different. New York was louder, busier, faster, brighter, more overt. I found people in the city to be more opinionated, and not quite as polite as I’d experienced in the U.K. At work, my approach was to observe, listen, and formulate an opinion before sharing it. That often seemed to go against what my colleagues wanted; it felt as though the expectation was to have an immediate opinion. I was considered the ‘quiet one’, yet all that was happening was me processing and formulating my reflections of a situation. I learned to get comfortable saying, ‘I need more time before sharing my thoughts.’

I noticed that challenges and problems seemed to be dealt with head on. If there was an issue, people confronted it immediately, without hesitation. That was quite different from what I had experienced in the UK. I was used to the culture of skirting around an issue, ignoring it until it became impossible not to say something. Whether this was a UK vs US, London vs New York difference, or just a situational scenario is probably a good pub discussion. This difference, though, helped me develop confrontation confidence by giving me new strategies and approaches to dealing with challenges.

At work, my approach was to observe, listen, and formulate an opinion before sharing it. That often seemed to go against what my colleagues wanted; it felt as though the expectation was to have an immediate opinion.

The U.S. is, as we know, an enormous country, it has a population of over 330 million, contrasted to the UK’s 67 million people. Ignorantly, I couldn’t understand why Americans didn’t travel much, until I lived in the States. Firstly, the country is giant and there is no concept of a low-cost airline, it can be as costly to fly across the country as it is to fly back home. The rail infrastructure isn’t that great, and renting a car – well, even though a lot of people do that, you are committed to a long journey. To someone in the UK a 3-hour car journey is a long one. Not so much in the U.S. – make that a 3-day car journey.

Combine this with the U.S culture of work work work. Holiday time (or vacations) is not freely given, it’s not uncommon to have 8-10 days per year. There is a social convention that a 3-day long weekend is actually a holiday. Try to find an American that regularly takes a 2-week holiday each year, or two x 2-weeks. I would be amazed if you can find many.

On top of this, there are huge swaths of poverty in the States, 37 million people, including 1 in 6 children, live below the poverty line. It is simply not financially possible to travel anywhere outside your State let alone to another country. In some rural communities people can’t afford the bus ticket to the next town or city. When you begin to grasp the magnitude of the country, you start to realise why the U.S. is what it is, as well as how remarkably small and nimble the U.K is in comparison.

It seems silly, but in the UK I remember being used to seeing the weather forecast for the entire country every night, in the States you get your local area, the U.S. is too big to report on all the weather. The extreme weather is a whole different game compared to the U.K. Learning what to do when a hurricane comes is different – one thing, go to the cash point (which is called an ATM by the way, you will get odd looks if you call it a cash point as I did) and take out cash, if the hurricane knocks out electricity for days as it can, you may need cash to barter for goods and services. You also fill up your car with gas (not petrol, even though it’s a liquid!) in case the pumps lose electricity and you’re stuck. Yep, even that smart phone won’t work once you run out of power – so you make sure you buy a wind-up or solar powered radio, as well as having your go-pack in your home ready just in case you have to ‘go’ at a moment’s notice. Not to mention your home might not be there when you get back. Yes, life is different in America.

What I also learned is that New York is made up of a patchwork of people, from many cultures, countries, and places all over the world. America itself has a traumatic history and that identity is very present today. You will hear people talk today about being “Italian American” or “African American” or “a.n.other country”, even if they were born in the States. They are not American in their mind; they are attached to the roots of where their ancestors came from. You will hear people speak of 1st generation, 2nd generation, 3rd generation and so on. Something I had no insight or understanding of until moving to the States. It’s a wonderful reflection and experience to have and to understand more about the rich and complex connection people in the States have to their legacy and history.

The reality is though, that I don’t really have an experience of America, I have a personal experience of New York, and a very fortunate one. As many people will tell you, New York is not representative of America. My identity is connected to England, the UK, and New York, and a bunch of other countries and cities in the world. It’s more like a ‘city citizenship’ I have adopted.”

The concept of ‘finding your purpose’ has become popular in recent times; Sarah believes what it really means is identifying your unique gifts and how you use them in the world.

“This passion or purpose you have is like a seed inside you that may or may not sprout – what determines its sprouting is whether the right nutrients are poured into your experiences, whether you’re ready to notice them, and if you’re willing to go through the work to discover your purpose.

Traumatic experiences, like the loss of a loved one, can provide poignant lessons that help discover your purpose.”

When Sarah’s father passed away, she was reminded of all the conversations they had about her starting a business. Her Dad’s passing made her realise that she needed to make her personal dream a reality, and that seed sprouted causing her to take action.

“Trusting your intuition is key to finding your purpose. It’s about understanding that you are unique and have something special to offer the world, and taking steps towards turning that into a reality, while not being afraid to fail, and when you do, as you undoubtedly will, picking yourself back up, and trying again.

In general, our western world society places a lot of emphasis on intellectual ability and capability, which often leads to the suppression of our instinct and intuition. This begins at a young age, where the focus is on learning, being analytical, discerning information, and solving problems. While these skills are critical and imperative to be learned, after a while it can lead to overthinking and over-analysing as we grow older. This was especially true during my later years at Credit Suisse, where I found myself working on complex programs with countless spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. I would spend so much time thinking, analysing, and editing that progress was stalled as a result, and it wasn’t just me, it was an entire ecosystem all caught up in the same thing, often for good reason, yet also crushing creativity, innovation, and progress at times.

Emotions are our own internal GPS system. If we don’t learn to engage with that system accurately, we miss out majorly in life and business.

As humans, we are not just our minds, we also have our hearts, many organs, and an entire body giving us signals. Ignoring our instincts and intuition can cause us to become disconnected from ourselves and from others. We need to learn to listen to our inner voice, trust and recognize what our feelings are telling us, yet also use discernment in making decisions and acting on what we are feeling. Emotions are our own internal GPS system. If we don’t learn to engage with that system accurately, we miss out majorly in life and business. Developing the ability to access this aspect of ourselves requires consistent practice, guided by experts, but the benefits of doing so are significant. By cultivating this skill, we can gain greater clarity and wisdom, leading to a more vibrant and fulfilling life both personally and professionally.”

If you are interested in reading more about Sarah’s entrepreneurial journey, and others like hers, you can check out Entrepreneurial Journeys here.

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