Michelle Dawson

Innovation Manager, Stockton on Tees

Sector: Housing

After a role working within Social Services helped her determine what she didn’t want to do, Michelle Dawson decided she wanted a job helping people and today works for housing company Thirteen.

Where do you call home?

Stockton on Tees.

Tell us about your role? 

I am the innovation manager at Thirteen Group.

How did you get to where you are today?

I was quite academic at school and had good grades. I had no clue what I wanted to do with myself, but was very creative and loved art, so I decided to go to art college and study fine art for a year, while I decided what to do next. That was a great year, but it didn’t really help me understand what I wanted to actually do with my life, so after I left, I worked full time in my local Tesco.

My mum got me a temporary job as an administrator in Holme House Prison, and after six months of doing that, I was back to not having a job. So, I applied for another administration role with the council, and I ended up working in the social services team minuting meetings about children who were in foster care or under child protection. I listened to so many awful stories that I decided I wanted to actually help people, rather than just type up notes about other people who helped. So I started volunteering with Easter Ravens Trust with their Young Carers Service. I used this experience to land my first proper support worker role. I had to drive all around County Durham supporting adults who were unemployed to solve problems in their life that were preventing them from being able to get a job, like housing, mental health difficulties and substance misuse. I loved it. I was 21 and felt like I was doing something really meaningful.

From here I did lots of different roles that supported people who needed help. I worked as a substance misuse support worker, I worked in prisons and in the community, and as I gained experience and training, I was given more and more responsibility.

Eventually, after taking opportunities to work for the Fire Brigade and the council, I ended up at Middlesbrough and Stockton Mind. I became part of their senior management team, helping to shape how services were designed and influencing how people with mental health difficulties were treated in the community. I learned loads and got lots of opportunities to manage new projects and work with brilliant people all working to help people.

I now manage Innovation at Thirteen, which is about leading the organisation to look to the future and design new and different things that help solve problems. The role is really varied, and I get to help design the way we support older people in our housing schemes, how we better support families fleeing domestic violence, and how we build houses that help us protect the environment.

A few years ago, myself and my friend Natalie set up a business called Happy Cactus Coaching, which is an organisation which supports young people with mental health difficulties via specially designed sessions in the gym and through art. The business has grown from strength to strength, and we are very proud of how many young people we have supported to build physical and emotional strength through our sessions. We are passionate about providing young people with a safe space to talk, belong and build confidence.

What struggles or obstacles did you face along the way?

Along the way I have had many struggles. I married quite young and had two children very close together. The birth of both my children was life threatening and difficult, and I was left with PTSD and postnatal depression. I have been through divorce and rebuilt my life twice following failed relationships and financial difficulties. I have always worked full time and juggled being a mum and having a very demanding career, and now I run a business in my spare time too. It’s hectic!

I struggled with imposter syndrome a lot in my early career. I don’t have a degree, and found myself working alongside, or even managing people who were more highly educated than me. I always felt like someone was going to come along and tell me that they’d realised I wasn’t good enough, and I needed to go back to doing the photocopying. I also looked young for my age and was constantly told I ‘looked like the work experience girl’ by people when they came to meetings with me, even when I was in senior positions. I have experienced sexism and ageism in the workplace in my early career, which thankfully, is way less of a thing now.

I think any working mum goes through struggles with guilt, exhaustion and trying to juggle everything that life throws at us. My eldest child is being assessed for autism and identifies as gender fluid, so life can be challenging for them, I have learned a lot from supporting them through this time in their life.

Describe the moment you first got a feel for success?

My grandad used to say to me ‘you’re on your own journey, don’t let anyone derail you’ and he was right. I used to carry his words in my head when I felt overwhelmed, and tried not to compare myself to others.

The administration roles in my early career were far and above the hardest roles I have ever done, mainly because I was terrible at them, but in every organisation I work for now, I massively appreciate the people in the background providing administrative support, they are the lifeblood of every organisation and usually overlooked, underpaid and underappreciated.

I’m not sure I’ve had my lightbulb moment yet. I still feel like I have so much more work to do! I feel like my current role is a privilege and I’m grateful that I am well paid and, in a position, to influence how things are designed to ensure we help as many people as possible. I’m not sure I will ever feel like that work is done.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young females?

You don’t need a degree to be successful, you need to be brave, friendly and put the work in. Say yes to every opportunity to get involved, learn or try something new. Keep saying Yes! Hard work pays off, and every single positive decision you make will pay off in the long run.

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Your hard work will pay off, and you should believe in yourself more.

What three words inspire you and encourage a positive path? 

Breathe, patience, kindness

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