How caring for my sick dad helped me reinvent my career

How caring for my sick dad helped me reinvent my career

Face Your Fears podcast: When corporate high flier Anna James’s father was diagnosed with Parkinsons’ Disease, she learned to re-evaluate her priorities and find out what’s important in life. Louisa Peacock reports

By Louisa Peacock

8:00AM BST 03 Jun 2014

What happens when everything you’ve ever worked for in the corporate world suddenly isn’t what you want anymore?

Anna James (pictured, left), a high flier who worked her way up to become a director at Mothercare, aged just 29, and later Carphone Warehouse, found her perspectives changes when her dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Her dad’s crushing diagnosis – “it was heartbreaking” – forced James, now 43, to “really reflect” on what she wants to do with her life.

In fact, until her dad’s diagnosis came, this corporate career woman was on a train going full steam ahead without really knowing when she’d arrive at the destination, or what it would look like once she got there. She is chasing success for success’ sake, rather than necessarily enjoying the route there.

Having achieved a number of senior roles at Mothercare, eventually working her way up to marketing director, James – a mum of four and married to Seb James, CEO of Dixons Retail – later became a consultant working for a range of retail brands including Jack Wills, the trendy high street chain.

“But I’d reached a point where having a large family and corporate career, I didn’t have the flexiblity to be able to do everything I wanted to do,” she explains.

Her biggest tip to anyone attempting to climb the career ladder?

“Take time to reflect, to make sure you’re not just on an escalator and you haven’t realised you’re on it. The times where I’ve changed direction have tended to be where I’ve had time out – for example, my dad’s diagnosis was a moment to really reflect and work out what my priorities are,” she says.

Now, James puts her retail experience to good use running her own business, Spring Chicken, selling gadgets designed to make life easier for older people. She has greater control over her working hours and is closer to living the lifestyle that she craved while caught up in the rat race.

Lightbulb moment

Indeed, it was experiencing someone living with Parkinson’s that made James see the elderly through a whole new light – and eventually inspired her to start her new business.

“[My dad] said, ‘I don’t feel like a person who has Parkinson’s’. He didn’t expect to get that label. He didn’t expect to have to go through that health problem,” she recalls.

“What I wanted to do was just lean in and look after him. I suppose it’s the classic reversal of roles. I wanted him to move close to me, to look after him, get involved in his life and make sure he got the best possible care.”

When shopping around for products to help make her dad’s life easier around the home, James was surprised at how difficult it was. It struck her how the retail market is generally geared towards people in their 30s and 40s.

James was able to put her retail experience to good use and create Spring Chicken, an online retailer which offers products targeted at the “senior consumer” that will address physical and cognitive needs which happen as we age – such as changes in mobility, dexterity, vision, hearing, memory and sleeping. Products for sale include anti-slip jar openers, an easy-grip chef’s knife and a magnifying glass with a neck chord for reading easily.

‘Not good enough’

However, James reveals that even with greater control and flexibility in her career, where she is her own boss, “impostor syndrome” – or, feeling like a fraud – is a regular fear that she faces.

“Every time you take on a new job, it’s that sense that you’re not very good. All my life I’ve been competitive – you’re competing with yourself – but you’re going through a career saying ‘that wasn’t good enough, I want to do that better’.”

When I ask if she still feels like she isn’t good enough, even today, James replies: “Oh yes. In every way. Running my own business I’m having to learn skills I never had – registering VAT, making sure everything is right.”

Interestingly, James pinpoints her ambition to her school days. Attending an all girls’ school, she remembers her headmistress drumming a message into all the girls that they could do anything they wanted.

‘Fed the dream’

“There was a real emphasis on women not being at a disadvantage. I was definitely fed the dream that I could do anything I wanted. The headmistress would give speeches, saying this is the time when women could… [she trails off]… there’d be a period of positive discrimination for women, we could do anything we wanted. It was very inspiring.”

But saying you can do anything you want is not necessarily the same as instilling the confidence in young girls to actually go and do it, as James has discovered. Further still, being “fed the dream” about doing anything you want doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of why you should do it, who for, or what for.

“All of my school friends went out into the world, we never had any doubt that there were opportunities.”

But, she adds: “For my own daughter, I’d couch it differently. [I’d say] be a great mother, be a great daughter. Although you can do whatever job you want, you may want to put other things into that basket.”

In other words, life is not all about work, or achieving at work.

What’s important?

In many ways, being a parent – to no fewer than four children – has given James enormous perspective about what’s important in life.

“On a daily basis my biggest fear is the anxiety that comes with the things you’re trying to trade off – leaning one way or the other and not getting the balance right. My biggest fear is that I look back and have regrets about getting the balance wrong.”

James is lucky that she was in a position where she could re-address her work-life balance before it is too late. She was able to face her fears over not being good enough, striving to be the best and ill -health, head on, and take steps to address what she really finds important in life.

“Have no regrets; make sure you do everything you want to do,” she explains – and that’s not just working your way to the top.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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