After leaving a successful policing career, Sharon Birch decided to put her “great passion for encouraging young minds” to use and set up her own childcare business.
Where do you call home?
For me, home is Hartlepool.
Tell us about your role?
I am company director / owner of Footprints for Life Ltd. I am also an author – FE Birch, Effie Merryl, Ash Cameron, Sharon Birch.
How did you get to where you are today?
I was born in Hartlepool in grandmother’s council house in 1965. My father was a Royal Navy seaman and absent from my childhood for many years when single parents of any description weren’t discussed. My mother brought brother and I up, with the help of her parents, until my sister was born in 1972 and my father left naval service.
I moved to London at 19 to join the Metropolitan Police. I loved my job, all of it, despite suffering what I now recognise as gross misogyny by both male and female colleagues. Only one woman was permitted to work the crime squad. My first application was turned down because I “wasn’t a member of the pert bottom group” nor was I pretty enough. I had to make the tea for the whole shift because I was the youngest member of three women, and men didn’t make the tea! The names for women officers ranged from the sublime to the downright derogatory but despite this and worse, there were very many great colleagues, and I loved my job. I worked very hard, full-time with three young children, with a police officer husband who worked shifts. I had big plans for my career but, alas, this was not meant to be.
I had always wanted to go to university but having to leave school at 17 trashed that dream, so I undertook a degree course with the Open University. I studied when my children were in bed and took leave to complete my assignments, pinching time wherever I could. I finally finished my degree with first-class honours in 2010. It had taken me eight years of hard work, but it was worth it.
In 2006, I created Footprints Learning for Life, a childcare setting for 0-15 years. I had no business experience, but I did have a great passion for encouraging young minds and developing people. I had a 10-year plan to be a nursery that competitors aspired to be, to be financially viable, and to be outstanding. To date we have won many awards – local and national business awards for best sector, for training and team development and healthy eating. We achieved gold investors in people. Today Footprints nursery is an Ofsted outstanding childcare business. We have recently been shortlisted for a prestigious industry nursery world award for inclusive practice. Each time we have been up against tough competition across the UK, big chains, nurseries with big budgets, but we have helped our tiny corner of the North-East to be recognised. We might be poor in finance, but we are rich in ambition.
I am a published author (Harper Collins) and a successful short story writer, featured in many publications and placed in a number of competitions and awards. This is despite being told at five years old, when I first discovered the joy of reading and writing, that people like us read books, we don’t write them. Well, I did! Writing is my lifelong passion and I can’t wait for my first crime novel to be published.
What struggles or obstacles did you face along the way?
When I was 16, I embarked on my first relationship which lasted four years. During this time, I was victim of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse. But who would listen to a teenage girl? After all, I wasn’t married with children and things like that didn’t happen to young girls, did they?
When I was 17, my parents moved to Norfolk, leaving me and my 16-year-old brother in Hartlepool. I had to leave sixth form and A Levels and find a job. I lived alone in a cold basement flat in the Headland, Hartlepool and was abused by the landlord. Surprisingly, from somewhere deep within, I found it in me to escape the life of violence and abuse and I followed a dream. I joined the police service, dedicating 20 years to policing, with 10 years in specialist units working with victims of domestic violence, racism, homophobia and child abuse.
In my mid-twenties it was thought that I had MS, but then ruled out. I was quite poorly but nobody could explain why, other than I was a bit “bendy”, a bit hypermobile. In 1997 I returned north and had my own family.
When I was 37, it was discovered that I and my three children all have a genetic connective tissue disorder. I finally had a name for my complex health issues – Ehlers Danlos. Also, dyspraxia. I now knew that “Sharonitis”, my very clumsy syndrome, was a real condition and not just my quirk. My siblings were also diagnosed with EDS and as a family, this was both a relief and a big deal.
I left policing as an acting detective sergeant after 20 years, due to “raising concerns” on a national media level in relation to a miscarriage of justice regarding a child death. During these times, I suffered much discrimination, despite being a well-regarded detective in the field of child protection. Unfortunately, my ethics cost my career and I took an ill-health retirement.
Describe the moment you first got a feel for success?
Self-doubt, low self-esteem and imposter syndrome have plagued my life. I have never felt successful but then in 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, my lifelong friend became terminally ill. She passed away in April 2021. The realisation that she wouldn’t be here anymore prompted much internal reflection. I began to recognise my accomplishments for the successes they are and now have a greater understanding for all that I have achieved and there is much I still want to do. I am strong, resilient, and I can do this. And so can you.
Do you have any advice for aspiring young females?
There will always be people ready to dismiss you and put you down but believe in yourself, there is nothing you can’t do. It will take hard work, determination, passion and commitment but however long it takes, you can do it. You will meet people who don’t share your vision or your ethos. There will be people who dismiss your ideas. If you are knocked down, you will rise again. You might have to change paths, but that’s okay. Things are rarely simple. Be prepared, be resilient, and accept changes when necessary but never stop believing that you can achieve anything you want and desire.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Never lose faith in what you’re doing and why you are doing it. Accept that things will be difficult at times, but they are not forever. Realise that the hard times will shine the way and enable you to flourish, to be stronger and brighter. Be kind to people, always, and believe in yourself. Be your own biggest advocate. You can fly!
What three words inspire you and encourage a positive path?
Believe, passion, integrity.
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