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News > Alumni Stories > Sara Yates (Class of 1996)

Sara Yates (Class of 1996)

Learn more about Sara's interesting portfolio career, and her latest venture: Freddy Counts To Zen...

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90s Alumni

It has been our pleasure to catch up with Old Girl Sara Yates (Class of 1996). Sara is a Mental Health Children’s advocate and as her first book, “Freddy Counts To Zen” hits the shelves, we spoke to Sara about her varied career after leaving BGS to becoming a children’s novelist and her plans for the future.

Please describe your journey since leaving BGS and how you progressed to your current position?

My career journey has been anything but standard. And it's not over yet! After a brief stint as a teacher in Japan, I started my career as an Economic Advisor for DFID (Department for International Development). It was a job I'd dreamed of and worked hard for. But dreams don't always work out. Having moved house every year for the previous 5 years (Bristol Uni, Japan and Cambridge Uni) and having lost my beloved Dad while living in Japan, I craved the stability of a new home. DFID's peripatetic lifestyle just didn't work for me. With a bit of a heavy heart, I explored the other opportunities within the Government’s Economics Service. Eventually, I moved to HM Treasury. It was a great move. The organisation was way ahead in terms of work life balance, meritocracy and just being brilliant. And for me, as a young twenty something, it was amazing.  I was living in London, surrounded by friends, in a really sociable team and running the Briefing Unit for the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown. After which, I spent some time working on World Trade policy, before focusing back on the UK to lead a team negotiating public sector pay deals and forecasting public sector inflation for the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. 

Eventually, it was my need for stability (and a salary to allow me to buy a home) that took me to the city. It was a shock to the system. I'd gone from being senior and well respected, to being the put upon junior. I found meritocracy was replaced by time-served and hierarchy, women were largely confined to working as PAs and work-balance was laughed at. I bounced around, with stints at UBS, Lloyds, Barclays before being asked to apply for the Global Head of FX Strategy at JP Morgan, Private Bank. It was a great role. I loved the travel. I loved helping my clients. I loved being surrounded by a high number of senior women for the first time. But something wasn't right, and I knew I didn't want to progress any further. It was time to leave. As I now had a very large mortgage and no idea what would be next, this was a hard and frightening decision. But one I took anyway. 

So, onto re-inventing myself. A bonus for being open with my employer, was that they helped with this transition by paying for a careers coach. I drank a lot of tea. Had thousands of discussions, met loads of people, and tried to figure out my next career. Nothing fitted. After a lot more tea, it became clear that I knew the lifestyle I wanted and the things I wanted to do and that no one career could do that. Instead, it was time to build a portfolio career. 

A portfolio career is where you have a number of roles, which combine to give you the opportunities and income you desire. What goes in it is up to you. I decided to write a bucket list.  After years of shuffling paper, I wanted to build something real, and it doesn't get much more real than property. So first on my list was property development. As an avid fan of property programmes, I headed to an auction. After a few hours of bidding, I finally bought a property and within the next 20 minutes had met the “Homes Under the Hammer" team and bagged a slot on their show. From there, a cheeky phone call and a bit of luck, and I was asked to become the finance editor for Homes and Property, the well-respected supplement in the London Evening Standard. While trawling through another auction catalogue, I saw an advert for another property show - "Climbing the Property Ladder". Another interview, another screen test and I was again being followed by a film crew! It was amazing, I was doing things I enjoyed and making a good living. I still manage and develop property today.

But this time I had a secret. I was pregnant and suffering with terrible pre-natal depression, made worse by all the IVF drugs. Leaving the house was a struggle and I fell into a black hole if anyone mentioned my growing stomach. It was truly awful. So, for months I dressed in baggy clothes and worked out at the gym to keep the weight gain to a minimum. I couldn't even tell my closest friends until I was around 6 months pregnant. Obviously, this inner battle didn't lend itself to presenting and my hoped for springboard into a TV career fell flat.

So, onto item three of my bucket list - a board role. While I was wondering just how to go about this, an old colleague reached out and asked me to join the board of a family office. Result! And I started with a 10-week-old on my lap, turning my camera off for feeds. Six years later I now chair that board. 

Another bizarre encounter and I joined the board of a charity supporting for dis-advantaged young people and those with mental health challenges. While the charity was amazing, leadership had lost its way. Mis-representation to get funding and other issues threatened its existence. Having had my own battles with pre- and post-natal depression, I was determined to ensure the charity survived. So, during COVID, I took over as chair. With two small kids and no childcare, this meant largely working through the night. They were long nights. I recruited a new board, overhauled the governance procedures, recruited a new CEO as well as helped transform the charity digitally so it could still reach all those vulnerable during lock-down. Eventually, the charity was secure, and I handed the baton to my deputy chair and amazing board to steer it from there. I needed to sleep!

As COVID waves subsided and nurseries re-opened, I was hungry for something new. The CEO of the family office I chaired was embarking on a new venture with an asset class I'd never heard of - Search Funds.  Search fund are where a group of investors back an individual to search for a company to buy and then lead. Even better, these businesses are typically where the exiting CEO wants to retire but doesn't have a successor. I loved the concept. It was so positive and focused on value creation and building legacy rather than the value destruction often associated with Private Equity (remember Richard Gear in Pretty Women dismantling the building blocks). 

Pitching to someone you've worked with for years is weird. But needs must. And after an odd and somewhat awkward interview, I became an ambassador for the CEO’s venture, tasked with building up knowledge and an investor base within the UK. Since then, I've gone on be an ambassador for other investment opportunities within the UK and globally, as well as being a regular speaker at events aimed at increasing financial participation for women and young people.  I really do enjoy helping people understand finance and doing my bit to make it accessible to everyone. 

The other area I chose and still choose to focus on is mental health. As a society we're definitely learning, and mental health provision is so much better than it was. But there is a long way to go and new challenges (COVID, social media....) are hitting us all the time. From all my experience, I believe we need to start building robust mental health foundations from an early age - and books, I believe, can be pivotal. Having emptied the library to read to my children, I know there is space for many more books - particularly those that give children strategies to cope with difficult emotions. And so, Freddy Counts To Zen was born. 

Tell me about Freddy Counts To Zen.

Freddy Counts To Zen is a mental health picture book written with oversight of an amazing clinical child psychologist that helps children learn strategies to deal with anger. It's a funny, brilliantly illustrated, rhyming book that is accessible to children young and old. The book also recognises that children learn a lot from how adults/parents behave, so to support the time poor reader the book also includes a number of direct links and additional exercises just for them. 

Waterstones in Bury stocks the book and it is also available on Amazon and Waterstones online. So go and buy it!

Why did you choose to self-publish and what are the challenges?

When I started writing Freddy Counts To Zen I had a call with Julia Donaldson's publisher. It was eye opening. First, traditional publishers prefer non rhyming books, because they are easier to translate and make money from. But from a reading perspective, I believe rhyming books are so much more engaging for young children and given my purpose is to weave mental health messages into the book, engagement mattered more. 

Second, when you take a traditional publication route, the publisher takes care of the illustrations. This didn't work for me. My thinking has always started in images, so I knew what Freddy looked like before I knew what was being said. And once I added in my children as main characters, it was clear that I had to own the artistic direction as well as the writing. 

Third, she suggested it would take at least two years once I had found a publisher. Knowing that finding a publisher could take years and had a large element of luck involved, I knew mine would be a self-publishing journey. 

I have learnt a lot writing and publishing Freddy. The book industry is very old fashioned. Distribution is a real challenge. There is still a lot of snobbishness around traditionally published books and the wholesale route is very difficult to make economically viable. Add to that, printing is very expensive if you are doing smaller runs and bookshops want at least a 40% discount. Most indie publishers lose money on their first book. 

Then there's the marketing. Without a publishing house, this falls to me! So, I'm fumbling my way through social media making Instagram posts, tweets and even Tik Toks! Plus, there's a lot of knocking on a lot of doors to build a whole new network. It is very time consuming and frankly, hard. Some days are just demoralising. Thankfully I had a great piece of advice - “always remember your purpose". My purpose with Freddy is to move the needle on children's mental health. This is a purpose worth battling on for and keeps me going.

Top tips for current pupils planning for their future.

Embrace failure. It is great to fail and get things wrong - though it may not feel like it at the time! It took me a long time to accept that I couldn't get everything right and that it is okay to not get everything right. But once I shifted my mindset, things improved so much. I’m less defensive and more open to learning and growing. It made a huge difference to my life. 

Play the long game and value your network. There will be ups and downs in any career so don't sweat the bumps in the road. The better your network, the easier it is to manoeuvre away from the downs and enhance the ups. Never, burn bridges. 

Don't try to fit in. I wasn't one of those at school who knew what I wanted to do, and I often felt a bit rudder-less.  And in the traditional world of work having "transferable" skills isn't valued as much as they suggest - recruitment consultants want a plug and play. So, for a long time I felt like a round peg in a square hole. But once I took the leap to build something that I wanted (portfolio career), all the skills I've picked up through my meanders have provided an amazing bedrock.  

Nothing matters more than your ability to be resilient. Protect your mental health and know what works for you and what doesn't. 

What are your next career steps?

I have a few things up my sleeve! My journey with Freddy Counts To Zen is only just starting. I want to help as many children as possible build better mental health foundations so that they are better set for their life journey ahead. I can’t do this alone and am exploring a number of collaborations and would love to partner with former BGS pupils. Do get in touch if this is a cause that matters to you too!

Within finance, I am also working hard on improving accessibility for women led businesses and young people, and will shortly be taking on a new role. 

Your fondest memories of BGS?

Some of my best memories of school are from L4th/U4th. We were in a horribly painted green classroom (I really do hope the vomit colour has gone) but had an amazing form teacher - Mr. Service. He was such a lot of fun that really set the tone for the entire class. I still smile now when I remember the wanted posters we put up around the school after we had snapped a photo of him sleeping on a school trip. 

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