I’m going to open by introducing this week’s Big Personality by title only – Chief Executive Officer of Perth and Kinross Association of Voluntary Service. Sounds impressive doesn’t it? You’re thinking strategic planning, pin stripe suits and important meetings. Possibly a comb over. But what if I also told you that the very same person is a 34 year old woman who has a music degree, a new found passion for motor biking holidays and a penchant for a Super Girl Costume? Would you, like me, high-five the person sitting next to you and consider yet another stereotype well and truly smashed (or at least cracked irreparably)?
You would? Good. Then you’re going to bloody love this. Because Helen MacKinnon has shown up, worked hard and proved to anyone who cares to look in, that being a successful woman at the top of your career does not mean you have to abandon who you are or play into decade old stereotypes about what “CEO” or “Powerful” or “business-successful” looks like.
When we meet for coffee she appears to me, exactly the same person as she was 10 years ago when I was first introduced to her. Genuine, warm and carefree, with a razor sharp mind, rock-steady morals and this innate ability to connect with everyone around her. Sounds a bit saccharin, I know. But having witnessed her steeley-eyed determination over the years I can assure you that it is possible to be all of these things without becoming the beige-jumpered-charity-can-shaker. (Told you… we’re going to be smashing all the silly stereotypes today!)
At 18 years old Helen had been torn between studying music, thereby following her passion, or meteorological physics, thereby following her smarts. She decided there was nothing else for it and quite literally tossed a coin. It was heads. Music with Composing at Glasgow University it was then. Upon completing her degree, she followed her peers into a Post Grad in Teaching but was only six months in when she knew that she was on the wrong path.
She taught piano for a while, a skill and passion she learned from her granny, before applying for a job as the company administrator for Foxtrot Theatre in Perth.
“It was forum theatre which wasn’t a huge leap away from the music and composing. We combined the performing arts with training, using drama to unravel difficult issues. We had professional actors on the books and did a lot of improv type work. I remember doing customer service training with Live Active Leisure – it was a real breath of fresh air at the time.”
Foxtrot was set up as a charity and this is when the door opened onto her career; at 26 years old she applied as the marketing and fundraising assistant in PKAVS thinking it would be the perfect two year post before she moved onwards and upwards, perhaps in another city or profession. That was 8 years ago. And as I explained in my intro, she’s now the CEO.
“When I first started there was just me in the fundraising office. I remember on my first day, Penny Brodie, the CEO at the time told me that on the coming Friday I’d be hosting a table at a Princess Royal Trust for Carers Dinner with guests including Maureen Young and Ally Bally from Radio Tay. I was just like…” **She nods and smiles with a worried expression on her face, looking like she could easily be a terrified 26 year old marketing officer**.
“And that summed up the job. It pushed me into places and challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The opportunities were endless. The same CEO sat me down after that first week and told me to go out and become the face of PKAVS. We needed Perth & Kinross to know who we were and what we did and so that was me.”
PKAVS, as many of you reading this will know, grew significantly in profile as a charity and Helen’s role was redeveloped to a manager’s level, allowing her to work at a more strategic level. She was a further four years on her own before hiring another marketing & fundraising officer. In amongst all of this she had her arm twisted to join Perth St John’s Rotary Club and has been a member now for three years. A decade ago she wouldn’t have been permitted membership and yet last year at the AGM she picked up the Chains of Office as President. President of the Rotary – that well-known, stuffy old jobs-for-the-boys club. Smash.
“The Rotary doesn’t really live up to that image anymore. It does incredible things that you never hear about. From international aid to local level volunteering. Perth has a few vibrant clubs and although there are still a lot of traditions in there I think that it is changing. We bemoan the fact that there are no young female voices in these types of organisation – well, the only way to change that is to go and become a young, female voice in the Rotary.”
And this coming Monday she will celebrate 2 years as the CEO of PKAVS.
“It has been a whirlwind couple of years. I suppose my role at PKAVS allowed me to develop without the need for a move. And now here I am – CEO. I do wake up at three in the morning thinking ‘have I done this or that’ but I woke up at three in the morning when I was a marketing officer. It’s under my skin and I know that I have let it become far more than a 9 to 5. But that’s how it should be when you do what I do. It just becomes a very real part of who you are.”
I tell her that we were all waiting with baited breath when she was sitting out the announcement of CEO. I tell her I think there would have been an outcry if it had gone to anyone else – that people around Perth’s business community watched her grow personally and professionally and take the charity with her. It was absolutely her job.
“Oh I would have been lost if I hadn’t got it. It’s not about the position; it’s about me being passionate about PKAVS and what I do. I might not dress as supergirl anymore but I would if I thought it would help. The CEO position was a progression and I love working strategically to make the differences I think will work for PKAVS. But at the end of the day, my objectives are still the same as they always were. I want what’s best for PKAVS and everyone it helps and supports.”
I want to know if there’s anything in the eight years of PKAVS that stands out as a highlight. I prepare myself for the standard answer to this type of question – “oh there’s been so many great things. I couldn’t choose. We’ve done xyz..” – and so I am suitably surprised when she says unequivocally,
For those of you who don’t know, Helen and a team of 11 people from Perth climbed Mount Etna in 2010, raising £25,000 for PKAVS. The trip saw local photographer Fraser Band (more of him to come!) and his friend Steve Pirie motorbike across Europe to reach the volcano. The entire city got behind them and as news of the ticking timebomb that was Etna reached the pages of the PA and Courier, we were all whipped into a frenzy of excitement, willing them to make the journey. What I didn’t know was that during the climb, Etna was erupting on a small scale, spraying out dust clouds and threatening to blast.
Were you not tempted to turn back?
“No way. I think when you’re advocating a cause you have to walk the walk. You have to run the half marathons and climb the volcanoes. You have to be authentic; half measures just don’t wash and people will find you out. I know that every penny we raise makes a difference to people’s lives. Real people who are vulnerable – we look after all the stuff that normally flies under the charity radar. Mental Health, minority communities, hidden carers.”
Picture Helen getting very passionate and hitting her stride right about now.
“Nicki we have 5000 people that we help in Perth and Kinross. I have 5000 stories I could tell you. You have to just get out and do it and believe that you are making a difference for these people who rely on the services you provide to help them overcome barriers and achieve their goals. Statistics show that at some point in our life it is likely we will care for someone who needs us. Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 people every year you know. That’s 25% of our population.”
I’m going to interject here, because I want you to remember my story about how the Big Personality blog started. That it was my belief that people led lives we knew nothing about and that remarkable things happened to ordinary people. Sometimes good, sometimes bad and often behind closed doors. These things would go onto shape who they were and, quite often, touch the lives of the people around them. And even with that as my basis for this whole thing, I wasn’t expecting what came next.
“When I was in my early twenties I struggled with anorexia. Mental Health issues are very real and they consume a person in the same way as any other serious illness. There is still to this day a stigma attached to mental illness. It plagued me for a long time, I was six stone and I knew everyone was worried but I couldn’t stop. I blocked it out and refused to acknowledge it was an issue. By the time I accepted I had a problem I was terrified at the thought of having to put the weight back on. Eating disorders are a serious mental health issue and they are prevalent in our society today.”
I’m shocked in a way that I shouldn’t be. What makes me think a woman like Helen wouldn’t come with a dark side to her story? Most people I know have a story to tell. And why, given her empathetic approach to her role was it not obvious rather than surprising?
Do you think your own experience makes you better at your job because you are more empathetic?
“I think it would be there anyway. I’m just that sort of person. Perhaps it has helped shape the empathy. What I think it has done is give me real understanding of how easy it is for a strong and rational mind to switch. Just.. switch.” She has her fingers flicking an imaginary switch at the side of her head. “I know all too well we are all vulnerable, every one of us. And at some point we may need support and help and the kindness of a volunteer or organisation like PKAVS. What we do can stop a personal crisis happening. It matters. I am motivated everyday by the people that I work with and for.”
I don’t mind telling you readers, that I’m feeling quite emotional at this point. Helen sits back in her chair and tells me she has no idea why she just told me that – only a handful people know this truth and here I am scribbling notes for a blog. I swither before deciding to keep it in. I’m almost certain that mental health issues and eating disorders are not labels you’d have brought to this strong, feisty, intelligent woman’s door. But if you remember, CEO wasn’t anticipated for Foxtrot’s admin girl. Breaking down barriers and realigning the expectations of what might be possible for a young, vulnerable woman to achieve is paramount if we are to shift society’s perceptions of these type of issues. So it’s in. And the stereotype of an anorexic woman has bitten the dust.
I decide we need to lighten the mood.
Do you still Can Can? I am talking about her years spent as a member of Perth Amateur Operatic Society.
“HAHAHA! No, unfortunately not. When I took on the big job I gave it up. I do miss it sometimes. It was nine years all in, mainly chorus with only one principal role which was an Irish sewing girl. I knew if I was ever to get a lead it would be Irish because it’s the only accent I can do.”
We chat about her love of drama and composing and her original passion that saw her studying music instead of Physics. She tells me she still sings in the flat, plays a bit of violin, does a wee bit of composing if she has time. “Fraser just looks on in disbelief sometimes as I’m blasting out show tunes at all hours.”
Ahhh – yes! Fraser Band from the Mount Etna portion of the story. It seems that when two single people carry out a selfless deed then the kismet lines up and great things happen. Helen and Fraser have been a couple since the screening of the Etna movie and now, four years later, live together in almost perfect harmony. “I’m scatty and messy. He’s tidy and organised. It works.”
Many of you will know him as Photographer Fraser – Helen recalls the moment during an Etna meeting that the penny dropped on where she knew him from.
“I was a Saturday girl in Boots when I was 18. It was before the days of digital and he used to come to get the Saints photos developed after a match. 12 years later all I could think about during that meeting was how good looking I used to think he was!”
I tell her we all look forward to seeing their matching Tour T-Shirts on facebook before they set off on their holidays and wonder at how she’s convinced him to wear it.
“He does all of that! Biking holidays are Fraser’s domain, t-shirts, planning, routes, hotels. I just book time off and figure out how to get two weeks worth of clothes and a set of hair straightners into a pannier smaller than my handbag. I can still barely believe I own a set of leathers.”
And this is the final sterotype she will smash. For Helen is a biker chick. In the four years she has known Fraser she has moved her risk averse self to one side and embraced life on the open road. When she broke the news to her equally risk-averse mum, it was two days before she left for her first European trip and she took her to a public place in order to avoid being talked out of it. They have now toured most of Scotland and a large chunk of Europe.
“Its been amazing. I’ve sat on the back of bike and taken epic tours over the Alps with go-pro cameras hanging from my helmet. I’ve fallen asleep going at 50 miles an hour along European motorways, holding on to Fraser. I love it.”
Helen MacKinnon is 34 years old. She has a degree in Music specialising in Composing. She is the CEO of PKAVS. She has ticked playing in an Orchestra Pit off of her bucket list. She is the survivor of mental health issues and an eating disorder. She is the President of Perth’s Rotary Club. She is a Continent Touring Biker Chick.
Tell your daughters. Because that, folks, is how you smash a stereotype or two.
If you've been inspired by Helen's story then why not get involved and buy a ticket for this year's PKAVS Charity Golf Ball.
Food, drink, entertainment and a sensational night out all in the name of fundraising for this amazing local charity. Find out more on our PKAVS Charity Golf Ball Events Page.
Helen's Rotary Pic was taken by the lovely Louis Flood - thanks for letting us use it! :-)
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