#LoveTheBoss: Writer, Storyteller and Guide, Mary Ann Mhina

Mary Ann MhinaToday in the #LoveTheBoss series, we meet Mary Ann Mhina.

Hi Mary Anne, Welcome! Tell us about the beginning of your journey to working for yourself

I’ve been self-employed since April 1st 2011. But I resigned from my job 4 times before I finally left!  I was the director of a small charity and circumstances and my own weak will kept on somehow making me stay.  In the end I left at exactly the right time in my life.  It was a great decision and I think anyone thinking about choosing self-employment or starting a business should learn to trust their instinct and leave paid employment when the time is right for them.

And what’s your business all about?

My business does a combination of things right now.  Most of my income comes from contracts for charities – I provide training, facilitation, reviews etc. Most of the organisations I work with are in East and Southern Africa but I also do some work with organisations working with vulnerable women in the UK. This work is important to my business and is basically a flexible form of the work I did before.  It is always interesting and often I really enjoy it.  I get to travel quite a bit with that too.

The income allows me to develop my work as a writer, story-teller and guide.  I have recently launched a book called Listening to our Grandmothers and I am going to be launching some online offerings associated with that over the next few months.  I will also be speaking about what I learnt from the process of writing the book at a TedX event next month.  I hope to keep developing this part of my business so that it becomes a greater part of my income.

I am currently sitting with a number of different possibilities for the future direction of offerings which support women to work with their stories and harness what they learnt to enrich their businesses and their lives.

This series of interviews is designed to inspire others, mainly women, on the same path. What tips would you share with them which would short-cut their journey to happiness being their own boss? 

I learnt a lot in my previous jobs where I was pretty self sufficient and though I had bosses, they were distant.  I think this stood me in good stead practically.  I know how important motivating yourself is and I have learnt how to keep doing that.  Developing routines has really helped with that for me, though I change them all the time, but the concept of having something I stick to that helps ground my day really works for me.

Some physical activity is important for me too – in fact I recently trained as a Nia Teacher and so a small part of my business now offers classes in that.  It is very different from everything else I do as it’s about being in your body rather than your head and, through the process of training and practicing that, I have really learnt how important that balance is between being in your head and in your body.  So that’s physical health I suppose.

I also have a practice of sitting each morning and doing some exercises and stretches which I kind of created from different classes I have been to and practices I have learnt.  That’s important for me, starting the day with something like that.  When I am writing something new I commit to a daily practice e.g. when I was writing the first draft of the novel I am working on I would write 100o words each day before doing anything else, even if it meant getting up at 5 a.m. as I had to leave the house early for another commitment. I did that until I had finished the first draft.

You have to commit to your projects first when you work for yourself particularly if, like me, you do consultancies and you like to do a good job. I have to be careful that I don’t spend too much of my time doing things for someone else and neglect my creative work.

But running a charity taught me an immense amount of practical things too; what accounts were for and how to make sure you do them for example.  One thing I would say is make sure you understand what accounts are telling you. You can employ someone to do them or help you with them (unless you love doing them yourself, of course) but understand the principles of what they are telling you. And always always have a separate business account; I still cannot believe how many self-employed people tell me they don’t have separate ‘business’ finances.  Keep them separate always – it will help you understand where you are.

What else?  Well I think it’s good to balance your time too so that some days you do practical things and others you let yourself sit at your desk or in coffee shops or on the beach (wherever helps you think) and note down or sketch out all your ideas so that you make sure that the ideas flow too.

Find ways to interact with other people too that work for you, be it networking or face-booking or a local self-employed persons group. Whatever it is, look after the sociable part of you too.

Strategic planning was something I did a lot of at AbleChildAfrica and I am a big picture person naturally too so I’m always thinking about how things fit together.  It’s important when you work for yourself to balance this with the mundane stuff:  paying the bills, answering e-mails and stuff like that.

What did you struggle with most in your start-up phase, and how did you crack that?

I think my greatest struggle was being sure about what I wanted to do with my new-found freedom. It feels much clearer now but in the beginning, perhaps because for me it was the leaving itself that I had found very hard, I found myself a bit at sea for the first year or so.  But I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.  Actually that kind of wandering and wondering can be important.

For me what cracked it was persistence. The fact that I knew that I had this amazing chance to do whatever I wanted and that I couldn’t give up on myself even if I had to spend time figuring out what on earth to do.  The other thing was getting help from all over the place – friends, mentors, people I admired – and also learning new stuff. Since I have been working for myself I have done a public speaking course, my Nia training and plenty of other stuff too.  Making sure you develop your greatest asset (YOU!) will always pay off in my experience.

What have you learned about yourself while working solo?

The learning has been around truly believing in and committing to my own decisions.  I found that, though I had been the Director of an organisation before, it was very different choosing to follow my own path and developing clarity and confidence about it.  It has required me to literally transform the way that I think about myself so that my confidence is authentic.  I’m not perfect now but I have learnt to be much more solid in my own convictions and you need that when you are working on and developing your own ideas.

That didn’t come naturally for me. I had a strong voice in my head that I had to put to bed that said things like ‘who will care what you do’?  ‘It’s all been done before anyway’? ‘Who do you think you are?’  and stuff like that.  Those voices don’t go away entirely of course but learning to embrace them and finding that, in doing that, they lose their sting has been so valuable for me.

And slowly I am learning to tell myself a new story about how the work I am doing is just as valuable as anyone else’s.  And now I am thinking about how I can share that learning with other people, share what I have learnt so that more women have that, as I think we are particularly used to stopping ourselves.  And so you see the learning becomes part of what my business offers if I can do that.

Did you choose self-employment or did it choose you? Any regrets?

I choose it resolutely as an alternative to over-working myself for others.  Now most of what I do now is still for others but I am free to make my own choices about my time and lifestyle and that’s a massive blessing for me.  I can be who I want to be.  No regrets.  In fact I get recruitment people phoning me about jobs that pay twice what my business has so far turned over and sometimes I give it a few seconds’ thought and then I realise that the last thing I want is to give up now.

What one encouraging thought sums it all up?

Working for yourself can be a way to really find out what matters to you, what you want, and the difference you want to make in the world.  That’s an amazing opportunity.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve got going on right now?

The recent publication of my book Listening to our Grandmothers.

Do you feel lonely and isolated when working for yourself? 

Well I’m just an extrovert according to the Myers Briggs and the like.  In many ways, in my twenties, my extrovert-ness manifested as doing lots of stuff to look after other people.  I think it’s in better balance now and I would say that I need other people but can deal with myself too.  I like being alone when working but I do need social contact as well.  I recommend doing what you enjoy and find like minded spirits.  That goes for online and for face-2-face – don’t waste hours on social interactions you don’t enjoy.  Find your tribe(s) and get involved in them.

One of mine, for example is something called the Red Tent Movement which are regular circles for women held each new moon.  They are not a business thing at all but a place for sitting in circle with other women and listening to and hearing each other.  It is actually a day to look after yourself and share with other women.  I find that very enriching.  It’s a day off to rejuvenate; do find your own way to do that.

Another thing I facilitate in something called Action Learning Sets.  These are regular meetings of a group of people using a specific process called Action Learning.  These days are usually focused on work and work challenges but again it a way to share honestly with others and learn from them.

Thanks for being such a rare gem, Mary Ann. How can readers find out more about you and become fans and followers?






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