Here’s the scenario, you’re a mixed race woman raised on a West London council estate where career ambition is in short supply.
As a single mum of 2, in a relationship with a narcissistic charmer, you’re an IKEA employee of 10 years paying the debts of material accumulation. Sounds like a stereotype, right? Welcome to the world from which my Page 1 Woman™ originated.
But of course, to become a Page 1 Woman™, things had to get better. And it did! A lightbulb moment right there in IKEA, thrust her into transforming her life.
Now a business owner, offering a string of professional services, a sessional group facilitator in the criminal justice system and a stand-up comedian to boot, she has overcome an inferiority complex, through sheer grit, drive, strategic and creative thinking, support from mentors and bags of resourcefulness.
Let’s hear it for Keeley Taverner director of “Key 4 Change”. “I got this feeling of emptiness as the severity of being a single parent and being judged for it really hit home. I wanted more for my children. I wanted them to have greater self-regard then I had. But I also knew that I hadn't achieved my own potential. So that's where I started reading Oprah and Iyanla Vanzant. And it was through the pages of self-help books that I found solace, inspiration and a passion for personal change.
Read on and learn more about Keeley’s journey.
Describe your work.
Keeley: I'm a psychotherapist, a coach for newly qualified and aspiring start-up therapists. From September, I’ll be training as a sex and relationship therapist too. I help individuals and groups in the corporate world and organizations to embrace change, unleash their potential and become more efficient.
As a therapist I help individuals to understand, heal, and move on from difficult intimate relationships. I harness my own experience of adversity to help other people harness theirs.
I also do sessional programmes for the criminal justice system and work as a community assessor on interview panels for the Metropolitan Police.
What’s the story regarding your journey?
Keeley: My mum is black and my dad white from opposite sides of the class divide. They separated when I was two. I was brought up on a council estate. I wasn’t a problem child, so went under the radar, but I didn’t achieve much and felt under-valued. I was a chubby kid, who, as a teenager never got chatted up like my friends. That changed when my mom sent me to Jamaica to find my roots. I would go every year and lapped up the attention
I left school without qualifications and applied to college. They wanted to put me in the basic class. When the college verified my status with the school, my ex maths teacher said, “Don't put Keeley in the basic class, she's more than able." It was the first time someone had expressed the potential in me. I was put in the medium set and sailed through my GNVQ course.
At aged 19 I got pregnant. Naively, I was cool being a mom. I had no career ambitions and becoming a mom seemed the natural progression route. As the demands of motherhood set in, the relationship with the dad deteriorated, because life gets more serious when you’ve a child. I soon realized the calibre of the man I’d made children with. And I quickly worked out that I was on my own.
After I’d had my second child, I had an epiphany. IKEA management had given me a ‘special’ role, ‘Checkout Captain’ collecting the stuff that customers had disregarded at the tills. I remember searching the bottom of the yellow bin for something a customer had abandoned. Suddenly, I thought, "Surely I can do better than this.” I didn’t know what better would look like, but it would be better than what I was doing. At the same time, I’d started reading self-help books and was profoundly inspired, as the central theme of “taking responsibility for your life” emerged.
I did an Access course in 2002 and then applied to Brunel University to read psychology. I always knew I was going there. So when they rejected me because I didn’t have a C in maths, I put pen to paper and begged for my place. I was delighted when they accepted me. My grammar wasn’t good and when I read back my essays, I wonder how I got through. But I learned mind mapping to understand what I was reading and found a way over each hurdle.
People often said that I wouldn’t get a job within the psychology field, after graduating. But I was determined. I graduated in July 2007 and was employed as a drug and alcohol worker in Wormwood Scrubs by November. I was so grateful and proud that I’d changed career. I wanted to give my new position everything and I was passionate about making a difference.
I was mentored by a psychologist who encouraged me to keep studying. She helped me to spot opportunities and challenged me if I doubted my ability. When a job came up as a Resettlement Thinking Skills manager in probation, with her support, I got it. I quickly realised that ‘burn out’ was a real issue in the prison environment. As I didn’t want the same fate, I started an MSc in psychotherapy in 2008 whilst working full-time.
What essential steps took you to where you are today?
Keeley: Listening to my intuition. I used to second guess my vision and would think, ‘what me?’ I’ve come to understand that these messages are important signs. It’s all about faith and being pulled by something bigger than you. For example, when I had my IKEA yellow bin epiphany, my intuition said ‘You can do better than this.’
Also, I had access to middle class privilege, because here I am, from a council estate, pregnant by the local bad boy, two kids and on my own. Yet accessing ‘middle class privilege’ has been fundamental to my success. I could have repeated a cycle and waited for social housing like many of my peers. But I was fortunate to have a middle class dad that lived in a sizable property in the suburbs. So I chose to live with him and got out of the trap.
What most significant thing got you to where you are?
Keeley: Having faith and believing in my intuition. Because here I am training to be a psychotherapist, in a room with doctors, lawyers, a judge and I feel like I’ve snuck in through the back door. I think, "How did I get here?" And this voice from deep within anchors me, saying, "You're meant to be here”. So, I’ve learned to trust that voice and my spiritual armour gets stronger every time. Ultimately, I’m working with the spirit of God.
If I didn’t believe I could change, I’d be living in that 13th floor council flat I thought I was destined for. I would have been angry, frustrated and potentially cussing my kids. Their dad would probably have dropped in and out of our lives. So, that faith has been absolutely essential to changing my life.
Now I understand my calling - to inspire others and create change. At times, I feel like a lonely warrior because who do I talk to about my journey and my experiences? Most people I know aren't on that frequency, but caught in the ‘Matrix’. But, I'm finding connections in strange places, like the random man I met on the train yesterday. We struck up an interesting conversation that led to us speaking about God. It helped me not to feel so alone.
What was the greatest challenge?
Keeley: The loneliness and isolation. I'm still single. I think men like the idea of me, but struggle with the reality. In the past, I unconsciously attracted narcissistic men that drew heavily on my empathy. I believe that, when you don't grow up with your dad, it affects your self-worth and possibly influenced why I often went for emotionally unavailable men. Whilst I’ve developed awareness, I still have to be careful about who I let into my life. I’m thankful that I’ve a range of supportive men around me. Ultimately, God is my solace.
What was your greatest lightbulb moment?
Keeley: Being in the yellow bin at IKEA when I had that epiphany. Second time, was in the prison, where I'd been working for eight years without a pay rise and I got “no” for the promotion I went for. The final rejection caused self- doubt to creep in. Again, I had an ‘epiphany’ that told me that I should leave. So I left my job.
What resource has been crucial to your success?
Keeley: Having one solid person believe in me even when I doubted myself - my dad. He’s my rock.
What do you understand by leadership?
Keeley: I remember the first person who came to me with, "You're my role model; you've inspired me to leave IKEA and train as a nurse.” I was moved by this admission from a woman who was my senior. In the early days, I would have never thought that I would inspire others. But now I understand that it’s an unintended consequence of pursuing my dreams. I’m often called a trailblazer, a maverick with people looking up to me. It’s incredibly humbling.
What difference has it made being a woman leader?
Keeley: I’ve used my relationships with men mindfully, for support, advice and leverage – strategic thinking. It's a bit like networking strategically - connecting with influential people and using what they offer and giving back in return. I learned to work strategically in the prison. You've got to have your head about you or nothing would get done.
What are your top three tips for women who want to lead in their field?
Keeley: First understand your why because at times you’ll lose sight of why when under pressure and there’s no clear path in sight. My why - to make a difference, to make my family proud - helps me to get through.
Second, understand that you’ll have to make sacrifices on levels you couldn't even imagine. I thought people would want me to better myself. Naively, I thought I would be revered. I didn't think I would be ridiculed. I didn't realize it worked like that. You’ll also sacrifice at a personal, psychological, financial level to name just a few. I now see these as tests of my desire and how bad I want my dream. I now accept that sacrifice is part of the journey
Third, allow your intuition to guide and protect you. It's my greatest asset and provides much foresight.