Case File No.1: Syreeta Challinger
File under #resilience #graft #compassion #startup #luxurygoods
In 2014, Syreeta Challinger, then 32, had a demanding fashion industry job in Hong Kong, an equally ambitious boyfriend and a vibrant social life. But when partner Rob suffered a life-threatening brain haemorrhage and stroke while they were on holiday in Sydney, her world fell off its axis. Putting her career on hold, Syreeta moved back to England with him to become his full time carer. They now live with Rob’s parents in Lincolnshire. According to Becky Gilmour, a close friend who has known Syreeta since university, she has been the driving force behind Rob’s ongoing recovery. “She’s such a beautiful, strong woman,” says Becky, who nominated her for this page. “Even saying that gives me goosebumps. Not only does she exemplify the most extraordinary human compassion, she’s incredibly driven. On top of her daily duties, she’s developed an aspirational lifestyle brand making luxury accessories. Although she manages it, they both contribute creatively and already have a range of scented candles in shops. What she’s achieved is amazing; she absolutely can and she does! But she’s too modest to sing and dance about it.”
Hi Syreeta, I want to talk to you about the last few years because you one hundred per cent embody the phrase ‘she can and she does’. How do you feel about that?
Flattered…. but uneasy. Because a lot of the time I feel like I’m achieving little. But I do understand I have to get better at owning it.
Yes you do. When I look at these beautiful candles you’ve created: calming, serene, elegant and tranquil — in some ways it’s hard to imagine how they could have been born out of such testing circumstances.
It’s been a tough few years all right! But yes, we wanted to create something positive out of the darkness so, in that respect, it was a natural fit.
MOSS, the brand you’ve developed, directly links to yours and Rob’s story, can you tell me how?
MOSS is short for Moments of Sense and Style. We wanted to launch it with the candles to evoke a sense of wanderlust. Given that we used to live in Hong Kong; Sydney was where our life changed, and Lincolnshire is now our home, we wanted each candle to depict a place crucial to our journey. A way of sharing our story.
What made you decide to start a business in the luxury goods area?
It made sense to use my contacts. I have plenty of manufacturing experience and Rob is from a creative background so it seemed like a good way of looping everything in and giving us a creative outlet. We’ve started with candles but we’re developing stationery too.
And it’s very much a collaboration?
As a designer, Rob was at the top of his game professionally but now, sadly, he can’t work. But he still has a super keen eye and we talk through concepts and ideas together through the power of sketches. I do the hard graft and he tells me whether it’s any good.
Assuming you don’t get a lot of time to yourself, how have you managed to run the administrative side of the business?
The challenge is that my attention is not on it full time. Nor having a space to work from, but I’m doing my best to remedy this and should be in a studio of my own in a few weeks. It’s all a learning curve; I am doing it all myself.
How do you make sure you get ‘you time’?
I try and take time out where I can, a morning or two out of the house, more so for clarity. I have worked from coffee shops, the library or even friends spare desks in their offices. People have been super supportive of the situation – I’ve had to make friends quickly in this city. And I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of Rob’s parents. We all manage our time to spend with him, but more often than not it’s the two of us. We are like each others shadows.
Of course, being a carer is a demanding job in itself. But what does it typically entail for you?
One of the huge complexities, amongst the mobility and cognitive issues, is that Rob suffers from Epilepsy and, until the seizures are managed, he cannot be left alone. It’s hard to articulate. I refer to myself as the Ultimate PA; help with dressing, making food, learning to read, managing his post, emails and generally supporting him through daily life.
A lesser person wouldn’t have assumed the responsibility.
Anyone would, it’s what you do when you love someone. I always think back to the evening in Sydney before Rob’s stroke. We’d had a fantastic day out in the sunshine, exploring, eating nice food and everything was just as it was supposed to be. We ended up having some really lovely conversations about our relationship. I guess we made our commitment to each other there and then.
I’d like to think I would have done the same but you’ve been exceptionally dignified and loyal, I’m not sure I would have coped as well under pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been dark times. There still are.
Can you give me an example of an obstacle you’ve overcome?
I tried to go back to work when we returned to England. I used to travel a lot for my old company so, when my boss in Hong Kong suggested I looked after business in Europe, at first I though ‘great!’ I’d get to be hands on with Rob and still keep part of my old life. I also felt I should be contributing financially so it seemed like the best of both worlds. Only it wasn’t. I was away too much, always on the road, and subsequently Rob’s health declined. Mine too, it was too much stress from all sides. When I learnt he’d had a seizure while I was away and that it had really set him back, enough was enough. If I was going to do this, I had to be all in. Although I worked my notice (three months up to December), that period of work was incredibly testing. I got through it as best I could, but that was when I experienced some of my lowest moments. I felt out of control – so dreadfully down I hit rock bottom.
Once you stopped working, how did you concentrate on recuperating your own health?
Not really knowing what I was going to do next, after months of job searching, seeking new opportunities or lines of work, I decided I needed — NEEDED — to go to Paris. I’d spent the summer in London, my home town, while Rob was receiving treatment, and I was fed up of hearing I was under-qualified, over-qualified or there were no jobs matching my skill set. It was a real struggle to find work locally as Lincoln is a rural area with strength in agriculture, the armed forces and engineering. I couldn’t even get bar work or waitressing. And if I did go for career position interviews further afield, my global experience seemed to intimidate them. It was beyond challenging to know I didn’t fit anywhere, but I suddenly thought that if I could get to the Paris trade fairs I would have gone to if I’d still been working, it would keep me focussed, offer some routine and, I suppose, inspiration.
And that’s when the seed started to grow.
It made sense to set up on my own. It was exciting. I felt energised.
During the dark times, what coping mechanisms did you put in place?
I remember Rob’s mum looking so glamorous and well put-together when she first arrived at the hospital in Sydney. By comparison, I felt like a wreck, although to be fair Rob was still in a coma at this point. But it made me think that if I made myself look better on the outside, perhaps I’d cope better inside. That’s why now I always put on a red lip for any important meetings. Whether it’s with medical consultants or potential suppliers, it’s like my armour.
Did you find reading or music therapeutic?
Both. I’ve devoured all sorts of books from medical ones about brain injury to the self-help reasons to stay alive, and pure fiction. One standout novelist is Cheryl Strayed. Tiny Beautiful Things her collection of advice on people’s problems really soothed some fears, and her motto ‘stay brave’ has not left me. Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers moved me greatly and is bloody fantastic, as is Walter D Wintle’s poem Thinking and New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge. Zadie Smith has helped grab my attention again too. But to balance the universe I do read Grazia without fail every week.
What about famous motivational quotes, are there any that resonate?
Yes. Dr Maya Angelou’s words are EPIC, I wish I could have met her and sat down to have a good chat. But one quote especially sticks:”It is great testament to the human spirit, we must continue to rise after adversity, as I truly believe this is where our biggest life lessons are learnt. The world will not save you. You will save you. You will find from your darkest depths, your most guarded shadows, a power to get through.”
Are you good at talking, expressing how you feel when things get tough?
Yes, I started blogging about what happened, a tumblr where I shared our story. In doing so, I subconsciously created the aesthetic for the brand and discovered a passion for writing as therapy. I also have an inspirational friend, Sarah Spencer, who has helped me bring my inward thoughts out; she’s helped build my confidence back. But interestingly, the more I talk about what me and Rob have been through, the more it makes me wonder if I could do some public speaking, like seminars to share my experience with others. I went to a local networking event with guest speakers and found it motivating. Although, I haven’t quite formulated a plan yet.
What are your long term goals in terms of expanding MOSS?
Ideally, we will develop more products and be stocked in my dream list stores. But the ultimate is to one day have a community inclusive space. The idea is to develop an accessible collaborative studio; to create a safe space for Rob when he is ready. And for other people affected by epilepsy and brain injury to work with us to create beautiful things.
I have no doubt your vision will be realised. You’ve come so far already, but what do you feel most proud of looking back?
Seeing how much my input (since being home full time) has helped Rob progress and improve. It really is a team effort. Business wise, I’m proud to have gone from a seed of an idea to slowly making it happen. It may not be business growth to shout about, but in our world and with what we are dealing with, I think it’s huge. But more so, me, my mental health. It’s been a traumatic few years and I am proud of the fact I have managed to keep going even in the darkest times.
Well, thank you so much for opening up to me about it, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and I wish you every success.
The She can & She Does Case Files are stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Every fortnight a new one will be introduced to the She can & She Does Facebook page. If you or someone you know would like to feature please contact me via the page, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.