Imagine this: You’re facing a challenge to cross the Atlantic solo and break the women’s world record. You’ve no history of endurance activity, never mind rowing. Would you be terrified?
My Page 1 Woman™ will be doing just that come January. And she’s absolutely fearless. “People say to me, ‘You're not scared?’ And I'm like, ‘Scared of what?’ ‘Dying.’ ‘Well, no, because I've been quite close to it; I've had a great life. And once I'm dead, I won’t know about it anyway.”
Wow! Who’s this gutsy woman? She’s Kiko Matthews, who’s kicked death in the teeth and now wants to thank those who saved her by taking on this colossal fund-raising challenge.
By now, you’ll have gathered that Kiko is no ordinary woman. Some people might call her the ‘black sheep’ of her family. She on the other hand, has given the label a positive make-over by naming herself ‘The Golden Sheep’. Typical Kiko.
True to form, her fund-raising method isn’t ordinary either. She’s seeking 100 women to support her by donating £1,000 each, as part of '100 Together'. “I'm no mega-feminist. But I’ve been single for 12 years and during that time I haven't had a man to rely on. So, I've relied on family and friends who are mainly women and they’ve played a massive part in my journey.
I want to show other women that if we support each other, amazing things can be achieved, and challenges can be overcome. You don't need a man to rely on to be happy, or get to where you want to go. And actually, women are strong together and can achieve awesome things. So, my three words for this project are challenge, collaboration, and community, powerful feminine traits”.
Read on for more on Kiko’s story.
Describe your work?
Kiko: My work is unconventional. I’m currently fundraising £100,000 to get me to the start line of rowing across the Atlantic solo in record time. Each day, I send emails, attend related meetings and make connections. I'm also training to row. I do babysitting and nannying in exchange for my rent. I also have a stand-up paddle board company, SUPKiko, and a charity, ‘The Big Stand’ – this year we did some work with Help for Heroes.
I gave up teaching in December 2014, and set up the charity. I thought it would quickly pay my wages. But it didn’t. So I set up the business. Then in September 2016, I decided to row across the Atlantic. Since October 2016 I’ve focused solely on this challenge. When summer arrived, I added my paddle-boarding into the mix. So, it's been three years of this varied, alternative lifestyle.
I’ve had positive days, when it's like three buses coming at once, and three people decide to sponsor me. And other times I'm like, "What am I doing?" But, overall, it's amazing. I'm learning new things, developing many skills, meeting new people. Incredible opportunities have presented themselves which I never would have dreamt of when I was teaching.
I’m looking to raise £200,000 in total - the second £100,000, a thank you to Kings College Hospital, will continue after I achieve the challenge. I've got 35 women signed up to support me so far.
I’m doing this because first, I love a challenge. I’ve been watching ocean rowers doing crossings, and I thought, “That’s for me." And I wanted to fundraise for Kings College Hospital Trust because they saved my life in 2009, when I had a life threatening disease. I wanted also to show that my body is still amazing and that illness and other challenges can help you develop mental resilience and make a positive out of a negative.
Physically, I've never done any endurance activity like this. You can't predict what’ll happen out there, but I feel I've definitely experienced things that require mental resilience, which I’ll need. I'd never rowed before, so I started learning in October and I leave in January. So, before leaving, I'll have 16 months of rowing experience, sea, navigation, and the boat.
I resolved to do it this way because I love the outdoors. I decided with Charlie Pitcher, world solo male record holder, that I could be the female record holder. So, I'm using his boat and he's helping me to train, plan and cross the Atlantic. And people rowing the Atlantic is tried and tested. Also, I love stand-up paddle-boarding but could never cross the Atlantic standing. So sitting would make more sense!
I’m crossing the Atlantic alone physically, but emotionally I'm not alone. On my boat I'll have photos of the women who’ve supported me. So, when I'm feeling alone, and it's horrible, and nasty, I’ll look at those women who want me to succeed. And I’ll say, " Kiko, keep rowing."
What essential steps got you to where you are?
Kiko: If it doesn't feel right move on, is an essential step I’ve always taken. So, I’m not scared of change. I've also started reflecting a lot on why things have turned out this way, and how to behave, and how to treat people. I don't sit there wondering what to do. I do it and then think "What were the outcome and the effect of that?”
For example, post-surgery in 2009, I was a boarding school teacher and house mistress. I thought, "I'm 30, what am I doing? I’m a house mistress already; I’m not even meant to be here." I remember that moment, thinking “teaching isn’t for me; I need to do something else”. I ended up in Africa, where I learned to stand up paddle-board on the Nile. Paddle-boarding is a low impact sport involving standing whilst paddling on a massive surf board. You're out on the water in fresh air and the quiet of nature, clearing your brain and working every muscle.
What most significant thing did you do that got you into your current position?
Kiko: The brain tumor was definitely instrumental. It got me to Uganda after my first illness and learning stand-up paddle-boarding changed my life. I realized what an amazing, accessible sport it was, and how good for physical and mental health. On returning to London, I set up a charity based around paddle-boarding. It developed my confidence massively and led to my decision to row the Atlantic solo.
What was your greatest challenge?
Kiko: Crossing the Atlantic is my greatest challenge. It doesn't faze me; it's fun. My greatest past challenge was when I was 25 and fund-raising by driving to Cape Town, in a team of six, including my fiancé. The leader was paraplegic and was driving the whole way. In Ethiopia, I ended my engagement. I then had to live with my fiancé in the back of two Land Rovers for four months. It was tough emotionally because the team dynamics completely shifted and I had to work around it.
Sitting in the Land Rover, hating what was happening, my brain took me to dark places. Eventually, I phoned home and said, “Mom, I'm having crazy thoughts." She said, "Talk to him." The next day we were drinking beers together and back to normal.
I gained resilience and realised that you can't control everything. Sometimes you have to let things work their course. Having had that experience and two serious illnesses, stress and worry no longer exist in my life because they’re energy wasting.
I'll definitely have moments in the boat when I’m thinking, "What are you doing? This is horrendous!” But I'm hoping that I’ll reflect and go, "Kiko, don't be ridiculous. The brain is weird and wonderful. It’ll pass. All these women support you. You're strong. Get on with it!"
What was your greatest lightbulb moment?
Kiko: There have been two - realising during my illness, "I shouldn't be alive”, and recognising that I didn’t want to be in teaching. People ask, "How did you get out?" And I’m like, "You just do it." Sitting around thinking, “I haven't enough money; where am I going to live? Am I making the wrong decision?” Time wasting!
I actually love teaching - the kids and the relationships with them. But I dislike the system, the paperwork and the structure. I dislike being told that I have to have this weekend off, and basing my life around a bell which signals my next activity.
What resource has been crucial to your success?
Kiko: My brain. Having had two brain tumors makes me appreciate when my brain is working properly and what it’s capable of. It's all over the place sometimes, but capable of absorbing lots of information. I’ve confidence in what it can do. So I give things a go, even if I don’t have the skills. And then I learn, which gives me more confidence and I manage to achieve it. If I don’t succeed at first, I either cut my losses and use it as learning or keep trying and figure out why it didn’t work out. I'm very thankful for my brain, my emotional and intellectual stability.
Do you see yourself as a leader?
Kiko: When I’m teaching people to paddle-board, I’m seen as a leader. People are looking at me for the right answers, putting their lives in my hand, and I'm leading them up the river. So, in that sense, definitely, yes. I'm not a leader that would go, "I need to lead this group regardless of how much I know." If I know what I'm doing, and I'm happy in that position, then I love leading people to a better place. So, in the right environment I could be considered a leader.
What do you understand by leadership?
Kiko: I’ve this comical vision, of someone out front, like Forest Gump, with 20 people behind who are safe and happy with that person. If you're a good leader, the team is happy, feels safe and believes they’re achieving, and going in the right direction.
Many people do well academically; work their way up, and suddenly they’re leaders within their company. They’re expected to lead people, but they haven't always been given the right tools, so may not be good leaders. If we taught people leadership skills from a young age, we would have more good leaders.
What difference do you think it's made being a woman leader?
Kiko: I don't think the woman bit is necessary. As a leader, what difference does it make? If someone asked me to describe myself, I wouldn't say, "I’m a woman." I’d say, "I’m Kiko." So, it’s irrelevant to me in my situation that I'm a woman. It’s probably more relevant in the corporate world. And if I can lead and get people to follow, then great.
Your top three tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Kiko: Be honest because people won’t follow if you're untrustworthy. They want to know what's coming next, and that it's coming from the right place. Honesty is number one in building relationships. And you can't be a good leader if you can't build relationships.
You must also have a sense of humour and communicate well. You can't take life too seriously. People need to feel safe with you; they need to know where you're going, and why. Otherwise no one will follow.
A leader has to build relationships and be relatable. And a sense of humour helps by making everyone comfortable through laughter. Your team are more likely to come and share problems and what’s going well. It’s all part of the package of communication, team building.
To find out more about Kiko's big challenge and '100 Together' sponsorship, click here and then click the relevant icon.
If you’d like to make a donation click here.
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