“I’ve felt like I’ve been struggling to prove myself my whole life” says Eva. For her, one of the most beneficial aspects of the Ladies Who L-EARN programme has been “just having people believe in me”.
A tough early life, Eva arrived in London with her family as a refugee when she was two years old. Still having difficulties reading by the age of eight, she was moved to a Special Educational Needs school and stayed there until she was 16. Frustrated and battling with teachers throughout her time there – certain that she belonged back in mainstream education – she felt trapped, and capable of much higher level learning than she was being offered.
To compound this miserable experience, Eva was a victim of serious racial abuse and bullying, both in her peer-groups and in her local area. She finished school with no qualifications at all. The same year, Eva’s father passed away.
Grieving and with very low basic skills, yet utterly determined to finally take her place in mainstream education, over the next few years a series of art and design courses in FE colleges followed, culminating in a Foundation Diploma. Particular tutors were a real encouragement, recognising and nurturing Eva’s talent as well as the remarkable achievement involved in racking up these qualifications given her educational starting point. A place at University to study Fine Art was the reward, and Eva managed to complete her degree while living at home, despite the emotional difficulties she was suffering at the time.
But Eva found her degree was no guarantee of entry into the world of work she’d been dreaming of and striving towards. When she joined Ladies Who L-EARN, she was feeling desperate. She’d had a range of unpaid placements in fashion houses (her specialism at art school), as well as short-lived jobs in fashion retail. She’d been open and willing in these roles, but again it’d been a struggle to prove herself and she’d found herself being exploited and bullied. Although Eva’s own design work had been commended in some quarters, she kept being told it was “not commercial enough”. After so many knock-backs, she was wondering whether to just give up.
Ladies Who L-EARN came just at the right time. It not only reignited her self-belief – and her eagerness to prove her doubters wrong and to make good on her undeniable talents – but also fostered self-reflexive and self-moderating tendencies which she admits have not always been present in the past.
Matched with a mentor who is a knitwear designer – “she’s been a real inspiration to me and encouraged me loads” – the two have met frequently and spent considerable time looking through and talking about Eva’s own portfolio. They’ve discussed how Eva might best apply her talent and body of work commercially in the future; set and revisited goals for potentially productive activities towards this end. “She’s been so kind with me, and just believed in me; she’s really restored my faith in the fashion industry”.
The programme of workshops was also massively beneficial. Particular highlights were sessions on public speaking and finding one’s own authentic voice – something she struggled with throughout university – as well as sessions which taught useful knowledge and practical skills around freelance working and setting up a business: something which is a realistic possibility for Eva in the foreseeable future.
Towards end of the programme, Eva – along with several other women on the programme who had realistic business ideas – pitched their work to a panel of judges in a format similar to Dragons’ Den. A test of her public speaking and presentation skills as well as her ability to sell her work and business start-up idea, Eva came through with flying colours and won second prize: six months coaching with an experienced Business Coach and Development Manager at a social enterprise which develops designer-makers.
Now feeling extremely excited and positive about beginning this, Eva is working in a new fashion retail job 4 days per week. In her spare time she is busy prioritising her many short and medium term ambitions – such as finishing the collection she’s been busy with. She hopes to exhibit it in some form before the year is out.
Eva is also making steps to return to college; this time with a very particular aim in mind. “I want to get my Maths GCSE”, she says forcefully. “I just have to get it; it’s something I need to do”, her determination leaving no doubt that this goal will be achieved. It will be no small feat, she is keen to emphasise, but this is a highly symbolic as well as a practical goal. It is one borne both out of personal pride – to prove herself to an education system which doubted and restricted her abilities – and out of forward looking pragmatism. “If I don’t turn into a multi-millionaire business woman with my own fashion label”, she only half-jokes, “then one day I might want to teach art and design in a college. I’ll need GCSE maths for that”.
For Eva, the most significant lesson that others can learn from her own still-unfolding story is that it’s remarkable how damaging being doubted can be; but also how much can change, so quickly, once people finally start to believe in you.