This time last year I was writing about the barriers we like to build for ourselves in order to avoid resolutions - in particular exercise! At the mention of ‘procrastination’ I knew exactly who to turn to for some expert advice. Rachel Weiss is one of the founders and the current day driving force behind Rowan Consultancy and as a master of both the human psyche and plain talking, I knew she was the woman for me.
The blog was a hit, everyone enjoyed it and for a few months now I have had Rachel up my sleeve as a #BigPersonality! After all, this is a woman who has built a business, and a life, helping people deal with their problems, achieve their goals and manage their teams to great success. I was fully expecting a ride through the untroubled life of a person above worry and stress; a woman so in touch with herself that she’d perhaps float in the lotus position while chatting to me… Instead, I found a life as full of ups and downs as yours and mine, a woman who has laughed, cried, made bold decisions and seismic changes in order to find her very own version of happy. To be fair, there has been a stalwart faith and plenty of yoga along the way but even with that, the calm, almost serene Rachel, has more than one surprise up her sleeve!
Born in London in the late sixties, Rachel grew up with a school teacher mum and research scientist dad. Perhaps it’s little wonder then, that at school she was studious and practical, with a love of maths and a curiosity for the emerging world of technology. She is probably among a handful of people in her generation who had computer access at school; her maths teacher had a keen interest and a BBC Micro at the back of the her class! “It was wonderful!”
Nervous about starting uni and fascinated by this growing world of computing, she became the first girl ever to win the Shell Scholarship for Computer Programming. (We do like a ‘first person ever’ here on SCBP!).
“I could choose between Plymouth and Nottingham and so I said Plymouth thinking it would be nearer home. Of course, I’d gotten mixed up with Portsmouth and I ended up 4.5 hours away. The other thing was, my mum couldn’t tell any of my Indian relatives that I, a young woman, was sharing with two boys. But as the only girl in the group I was surrounded by the original nerdy computer geeks, and that was my only choice!
I was incredibly homesick at first but looking back it was so good for me. I remember sitting on my first day and scribbling on a post-it note ‘you can do this’. I had to get out and join groups and do things in order to make friends. I ended up playing clarinet in a wind band, finding my local church and joining CND rallies to go camping at military bases in Cornwall. I became a confident young woman in that year.”
So, with a year of freedom and growing under her belt, Rachel felt ready to take up the Uni place she’d been offered on leaving school. Reading Maths at Oxford! There was a scheme in operation at the time to encourage kids from state schools to attend this illustrious institution. When she arrived she was shocked to see so many tramps in the town and to discover that among the many Uni Societies there was none addressing homelessness. So she founded one. The Oxford Uni Homeless Action Group, which is still going strong today!
“I was intimidated on receiving the place at Oxford, no doubt. But after my year in Plymouth I felt much more ready. I was nineteen by the time I started, and looking back a bit smug at being a year older than the other first years. I had a fabulous time, joining activities and clubs, enjoying all the beautiful old buildings and just feeling normal. Being surrounded by clever people who are into offbeat things is a wonderful experience.
All the tourist coaches stopped outside my bedroom window and I would peoplewatch for hours as the daytrippers poured in to visit this beautiful old town. It was three wonderful years.”
She took a year out on leaving, uninterested in joining the banks who were wooing maths graduates at the time “with nice steady incomes and job security”. Instead she headed for Berlin to spend a year volunteering with Lebanese refugees. Her father’s parents had been German Jews and she had a good grounding in the language when she arrived. However, the refugees she was working with spoke only Arabic and French! Yet somehow, they managed to communicate and build relationships that would see her find a very real sense of purpose and belonging in this wonderfully strange community.
“The Lebanese people I would go and visit all served this really strong, really sweet black coffee. It was offered as a welcome into their homes and by the end of each day I was wired up on caffeine and sugar.
I loved all of it, it was a real turning point for me and I found myself trying to choose between continuing on my path with maths or switching to the voluntary sector. Well, actually, I had swithered about being a nun at one point but I wasn’t great with the obedience thing!”
While researching her options, Rachel stumbled upon a Masters course exploring the idea of Artificial Intelligence. It had her hooked and with options at both Edinburgh and Sussex she set out to visit both.
“It was my first time in Scotland and when I stepped out of the train station at Waverley and saw the castle perched above the city it was just like... WOW! I knew I’d choose Scotland.”
She joined in 1989 and watched the Berlin Wall come down from Edinburgh High Street. She was immersed in the idea of teaching computers to do what we could do and although they were at the forefront of understanding this concept, it was, she tells me, a bit robowars and scifi as well! On finishing up her Masters she was keen to stay in Scotland, having joined a community in Portobello where she shared a life and home with an eclectic group of flatmates and volunteered at a charity set up to help the early AIDS victims.
“We each took turns cooking and it was the first time in my life I had ever been given white bread and butter to eat with my tea. One of our group was a minister from Uganda and he had never had to fend for himself before – it was baked potato every time he was on kitchen duties!
The life suited me though; I loved being part of something that was bigger than me. Sharing a home with people for no reason other than coincidence, circumstance and a shared faith felt very open and honest to me at the time. The opportunity to stay on after my Masters was a no-brainer, and as I debated over what field of study to look at for my PhD I picked up a temp job as an assistant teaching Artificial Intelligence to undergraduates. The final part, my volunteering, was encouraged by my dad who as a passionate researcher was working on the blood test for AIDS in the early nineties. It was all very real life.”
By this time she had met Andy, a friend of a friend, and was in a serious relationship with this lovely man. The next couple of years are simply bold, quick decisions that saw her lose her job, decide to take up teaching, move to Aberdeen and get engaged!
“Andy went home to visit his parents one weekend and I was offered a job on a teacher training placement in Aberdeen if I could go immediately. When he arrived back in Edinburgh I had moved! Thankfully he didn’t spook easily and as I moved around my placements in Stonehaven, Peterhead and Aberdeen trying very, very hard to master the dialect, he proposed. When I finished up my year I moved back to Edinburgh and we were married in August 1992.”
She picked up a teaching job in a private school, which with its old-fashioned rules and almost all-male staff was a far cry from the spiritual communities she had been used to.
“I remember the rector saying on my first day ‘May I call you Rachel?’ and I was looking at him thinking ‘What else would you call me?’. So I said ‘Of course! And what should I call you?’ At which point he looked at me, sternly and said ‘Rector!’ It was an all-boys school and I was closer in age to the senior pupils than I was to some of my colleagues but they were a good bunch and I was there for three years all in.”
Just after she started at the school, Rachel and Andy’s life turned upside down. In the October of 1992 Andy fell seriously ill and was rushed into hospital with an unknown medical condition.
“I remember going to school the next day, teaching, getting on a bus to the hospital and then doing the same thing over and over. Eventually they diagnosed this weird condition called Wilson’s Disease which meant his liver was destroying itself. Three months later, on 24th December, I was allowed to go and pick him up in a hire car and take him home. I took the school tree home and decorated it with red AIDS ribbons.
He took a full year to recover and there’s no denying it was a difficult time. We knew he’d need a transplant at some point and here we were a young married couple. So when Katriona was born two years later all we could think of was how lucky we were. You really do learn to take nothing for granted.”
Parallel to this going on, Rachel’s career as a teacher had developed and with her own thoughts and feelings often in turmoil, she began to look at how to better understand her fellow human beings. Artificial Intelligence may have been her calling, but as a Maths & Computing Teacher in a busy school she soon found that her role required greater empathy and a deeper understanding of a wide mix of people.
“We all had registration classes to take care of, and when the mother of one of the boys in my class died I was expected to go along to the funeral. I wanted to go, I wanted to help, and I did. But I felt so out of my depth in this pastoral role. And expectations from those around me only grew. Parents and pupils looked to me for guidance and I decided to apply for a grant to study counselling in a bid to become a better teacher. I wanted my words to help, to make a difference and help people grow. You’d say ‘empower’ now but that wasn’t a word I used back then!”
She was awarded the grant and for two years she studied at weekends – taking Katriona along for the ride!
“She came to the residential weekends with me at first as I was breastfeeding. Everyone loves babies and as a young mum I think you tend just get on with things more. You don't stop to think. After a while she stayed at home with Andy but I did enjoy having her with me!”
As he grew stronger, Andy’s career in IT progressed and in 1997 it brought him to Perth. Rachel, being the pragmatic person that she is, decided that if she was having a career break then it would make sense to have their much wanted second baby at the same time. She was fortunate to fall pregnant with Jake quite quickly and he was born in a year of many changes!
“I was so nervous about moving to Perth. I just remember worrying that the colour of my skin and my English accent was going to be too much for a small Scottish town in the late nineties. And then when I spoke to another young family near us about these concerns, I was reassured with ‘Oh don’t worry. We have people from all over. I know folk from Stirling and Inverness in Perth!’ I just laughed inwardly and thought ‘this is going to be ok’.”
So, two children, one husband and no career, she set about a life in Perth. She had worked voluntarily as a counsellor at a GPs surgery in Edinburgh just before she left but there were no such opportunities here. Her friend Chris, full of entrepreneurial spirit, convinced her that they could start up a counselling service in the grossly underserviced Perth area. Four months after Jake was born, they started Rowan Consultancy which Rachel thought would be a perfect way to keep her going until the kids went to school.
“I thought we’ll grow it slowly, nothing too much. Andy had a salary so my usual risk-averse self was satisfied that with my part-time income from teaching Open University Maths I could set up our front room as a therapist’s space. Chris and her dog moved in with us and it was them, me, Andy, a toddler, a baby and a business. I loved it.”
Chris eventually moved out and it was deemed her flat in Hospital Street was far more appropriate for seeing clients than a bustling family home. Rowan was growing in reputation and they were soon approached by Perth College and asked if they could offer a staff counselling service.
“We hadn’t even thought of that at the time. It certainly wasn’t in the business plan but we said ‘Yes’ immediately and before long I was back teaching; this time it was an evening class at the college offering counselling skills to leisure students. From there we started offering training to counsellors and our business was growing in ways we hadn’t foreseen.
That’s the simple story of how Rowan grew really. We began to do more corporate work and started to see troubled employees, who were usually struggling with stress. We could see that in a lot of cases, if they were being managed better, then the problems would begin to reduce. This is when we looked at developing courses in people skills and registering with the Institute of Leadership Management. I needed to broaden my skills base again so I studied management through the Open University allowing us to confidently set Rowan out as a centre of excellence.”
But of course, as is the way with life, it wasn’t to be quite as straight forward as that.
“In 2000 I fell pregnant with baby number three and at the same time Andy fell seriously ill again. He was whisked off to the Royal Free Hospital where they told him he needed to have a liver transplant. Do you remember the Alder Hey organs scandal? Where they were retaining organs unethically? Well, that was all over the news at the time and people just weren’t donating. He was in and out of Ninewells and he was dying on an almost regular basis. I was driving up and down to Dundee with two kids; not that they bothered because it was normal life for them. And they liked the café there so it wasn’t too bad!”
Shona was born and thankfully, Andy was at home for the first six weeks of her life. I want to know how Rachel was coping with all of this.
“You don’t really think about these things at the time do you? You just get on with it because there is literally nothing else you can do. Andy’s employers had given him medical retirement and a small pension so finances weren’t completely awful but they weren’t great and we didn’t know what would happen longer term. I felt a bit like a single mum; three kids, new business, sick husband. But you just do it.”
In April 2001 Andy was offered his transplant and I must stop the story briefly to carry out a request from Rachel. If you haven’t already, go and sign up to be an organ donor here! Thank-You!
“Life did become easier after that because the worry had lifted. There were complications and from time to time these reappear but basically it’s still going strong! He couldn’t possibly go back to work full time though so he started to help us in Rowan, doing our IT and website and a bit of DIY. Not speaking to people though... he doesn’t do that!”
Her eyes twinkle just a little at the thought!
Throughout our chat, Rachel has remained calm and purposeful. She is thoughtful in her manner and everything she says is considered and relevant to her story. Her early years as a volunteer, CND rally-goer and young woman in a man’s world clearly shaped the person she is today. So too did her sense of spirituality and community. Her husband’s illness may have dominated the early years of their marriage and their children’s lives but it certainly didn’t ruin them, and there is no sense of ‘poor us’. It was just how it was. I begin to understand that as a therapist, Rachel tends not to reveal too much about herself, opening the room instead to the person she is helping. I talk more in my interview with Rachel and reveal more about myself to her than I have with any other Big Personality – I don’t even realise it is happening. She just has that easy, open quality about her.
As Andy recovered Rachel’s position as the ‘breadwinner’ forced her to look at Rowan through new eyes. Suddenly it was the family’s main income and she was driven with a desire to get serious about it! She flirted briefly with the idea of going back into teaching - school holidays and job security a tempting offer.
“The thing is, although that may have been the sensible option, I felt more in control with my own business. That was a big revelation for me because my old voluntary-sector-self would have found the idea of being a business-owner profit-oriented and exploitative. But I felt I was contributing hugely to my family’s lives and to others’ lives and so it was a conscious decision to remain at Rowan and look at how we could move it forward.
When Rowan moved to Scott Street and took on staff it moved it all up a level and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it and doing it well. It really has gone from strength to strength. Chris decided to leave in 2004, needing a change. She and I had couples’ counselling to make sure we dealt with it all properly and we’re still best friends now so it must have worked! Andy came on board officially as a sleeping partner and so for fourteen years out of its twenty one, Rowan has been our family business.”
Rachel is smiling, a woman clearly content with her life and at peace with their unexpected journey. I have heard so much about her work, her family and her business that I wonder what she enjoys outwith all of this. As a therapist I’m suspecting she will practice what is preached and set aside some me time!
“Well Katriona and Jake have left the nest. So it’s the start of a new phase in our lives. I started to think ‘what do I want to do?’ and so I started learning Spanish, it gives me discipline to take the time for myself – every Wednesday I have to go. I always give that advice to people, make a habit and set a routine.” I’m impressed she follows her own advice. Not many people do that!
“Oh I do. When Andy was ill I had counselling and I go for coaching on a regular basis. Every coach I know has a coach. I’ve practiced yoga and mindfulness most of my adult life. I believe it makes me happier. I’m a busy person, on committees and running groups because I’m basically a bossy show-off, so I need to be mindful. I need to remind myself that I’m enough, it’s all enough. I think at 52 years old I may have succeed in that!”
Finally, I want to know, in this life that has run along parallel tracks of trepidation and great joy, what is it that she has found to be her own mantra?
“Faith, Family, Friends and Therapy. Shame I can’t think of an “F” word for Therapy!”
Since this article was written Rachel has founded the groundbreaking Menopause Cafe and won the renowned ‘Points of Light’ Award – which recognises outstanding volunteers who are making a change in their community and inspiring others. Read more in our Stop Press Story >
The Menopause Festival 2019 will be running in Perth on April 26th and 27th 2019.
Or in two traditional ways! 4 Kinnoull Street, Perth PH1 5EN | 01738 562005
If you've been touched by Rachel's family's story and would like to find out more about organ donation then please click through to the website here.
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