‘Never give up or in’ that’s been the constant mantra of our CEO, Donna Cezair
To mark International Women’s Day 2021, the theme of which is ‘choose to challenge’, Donna, who recently joined our organisation as CEO, talks about the challenges she has faced both professionally and personally.
A long, long time ago I was given a book called ‘Never give up’ by the author Jacky Fleming. It contained a series of brilliant cartoons, each challenging female stereotypes. The content and context of the cartoons really resonated with me and stuck with me throughout my life!
I knew I wanted to try and make a difference from an early age. I worked at the former DHSS, now the Department for Work and Pensions where I witnessed a lot of hardship and disadvantage.
I then worked for a council as a housing assistant where again I experienced vulnerable, often homeless people and families struggling to make ends meet, a far cry from my sheltered and comfortable upbringing in Hampshire.
I wanted to help change things for the many families I worked with every day, and whilst I knew I was doing my bit, I wanted to challenge and influence further. I was curious and wanted to learn more and change things faster.
That curiosity and drive led me to work hard, to move up the ranks so to speak, and study for a housing qualification and at the age of 27, in 1993 I became a Director of a housing association, an industry that was dominated by male leaders at the time.
My boss at the time saw something in me; I had great common sense and energy, something that I still rely on to this day. I replaced a 65-year-old male retiring director, and while a few eyebrows were raised and comments made, by older male colleagues I have to say, most welcomed my empowering leadership style and desire to collaborate.
That said, I have faced some challenges professionally. On numerous occasions in those early days, when I met certain people in a work capacity, they asked ‘to see the boss’, and were surprised when I said “I’m here”!
I also remember a time when I was holding interviews for board members. I met an elderly male candidate who was gobsmacked and lost for words when he realised I was interviewing him and wasn’t actually the ‘tea girl’! (Although I did and do make a great brew!).
None of this ever put me off, if anything it made me more determined.
In 1998 I was at the gym when I spotted a poster advertising one of the first charity challenge treks of the time – to the Himalayas. That was the start of a personal journey that would see me trekking and cycling around the world for charity to wonderful places including Vietnam, India, Peru, Patagonia, Panama, the Sahara and many more.
As well as raising lots of money for charity, I learnt a lot about myself on these trips. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, took chances and opportunities when I came across them, which to me is what life is all about – personally or professionally. Many a time I would want to give up or give in, turn back and go home. But I found an inner strength to pick myself back up, live in the moment and carry on.
I continue to call on this inner strength to push myself both professionally and personally every day. I try not to think about my limitations but focus on the art of the possible.
So my advice to other women out there – kick the a**e out of life and never give up! Be bold in life, believe in yourself, challenge yourself and have a go. What’s the worse than can happen?