'I want my girls to grow up to be strong independent women in an independent Scotland'
By Fiona MacGregor
“Sometimes I worry from a business point of view that I make decisions because I want to look after the people who work for me, rather than what’s going to make the most money…”
Sarah-Jane Walls, 33, entrepreneur, director of a company that supports people to become healthier and fitter, mother of two small girls, and member of Yes Scotland’s new advisory board, raises an important question, and one which applies as much to nations as to business:
Is success solely a matter of immediate profit generation or is there a wider vision: one where success is also judged in terms of personal fulfilment, social benefits, and a sense of pride in having created an environment where you and those around you can reach full-potential and so create a stronger, happier more stable future?
Sarah-Jane (or S.J. as she’s usually known) certainly seems happy and proud of what she’s doing. It’s one of this summer's rare sunny days in Cumbernauld and Emme, her elder daughter, is toddling round in a large straw hat presenting daisies she’s picked from the garden. Euan, S. J’s husband, is upstairs working, and their baby Lily has been taken to the doctors for an inoculation by her grandparents.
For some people, not even the benefits of handy babysitters could compensate for having your parents-in-law as near neighbours?
“Not at all, it’s great fun,” says S.J.
“Euan’s parents, like my family, are very much traditional Labour supporters, so we have lots of great debates. We’ve told them if they’ve not come round to being Yes supporters by the referendum we’re putting them in the old folks’ home.”
Despite her jokes, family is very important to her. Her own father wasn’t around when she was growing up in Hamilton and her mother’s health problems meant she and her siblings were cared for mainly by her maternal grandmother: “I think maybe because I didn’t have (parents around) so much as a child that it’s something I really look for now.
“We were brought up with very traditional, Scottish, Catholic values. The politics were very much Labour – I mean we were just along the road from Ravenscraig. My uncle worked there. For a long-time I was a Labour supporter I think simply because of the community I came from.”
Money was, inevitably, tight. “We were raised on the benefits system because my mum was ill, but at the same time there was this really strong work ethic that you should do things for yourself.
“I was a competitive runner when I was at school – to be honest I think if I’d had a different family background I’d have taken it further. My coach used to buy me my running shoes because I didn’t want to ask my family for them. I know they would have gone without food, to get them for me if I’d asked, but I just could never do that. I never wanted to ask my grandmother for anything.”
And so she became independent at an early age and that ethic has filtered through to her own business today.
“The banks are so unwilling to give people money now, which is why we decided when the refurbishment needed done on The Residence (the day spa, yoga and pilates centre she’s opened in a converted Victorian townhouse in the heart of Glasgow) we would try and raise the money ourselves.
It’s also why she’s resisted having an investment partner. “I have such a clear vision of what I want do, about being able to help people and I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that with a business partner.”
Sometimes she admits, she can be a little impatient with friends who are indecisive or don’t seem willing to set themselves challenges. But she acknowledges it was a chance introduction to the army cadets while in her mid teens that gave her the determination and self-confidence to take control of her own life.
“There was this very tough girl at school, and when she asked me to go along to cadets with her I was just too scared to say no.”
S.J loved it from the start. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found cadets.”
She stayed on until the age of 19, and only left because she’d reached the age limit.
“One of the great things was that I got to see all sides of life I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I was always away on doing things. I went to Sandhurst and I also did my Duke of Edinburgh Gold Medal and met Prince Philip. I’d certainly want my own girls to do something similar.”
But did she really do all that army “shouty” thing, making people do press ups in the rain and things? It’s hard to imagine that from the softly-spoken, well-manicured, baby-cuddling, elegant woman she is today.
“Oh yes, I think it’s good for people. In tough situations people sink or swim and once you’ve learned to swim you become resilient and realise what you can do in life. “And if you sink you will be resuscitated,” she adds with a glint in her eye, that would, frankly, make a lot of people a little nervous.
We are interrupted by Emme who’s less than impressed with our grown-up chat, and with the innovativeness of a 2-year-old has found a talking book to help her make her point: “How much do you love me?” it interjects in a slightly-sinister electronic accent as she opens it.
“You know it’s a completely different kind of love than you’ve ever felt before,” ponders Sarah Jane after giving her daughter a huge hug. “I mean you’d throw yourself under a bus for your children.”
Yet she doesn’t consider herself a particularly, maternal person. “I mean that biological urge some women talk about – I don’t know what that is. For me it was more about wanting family around: about imaging what I wanted my life to be like in the future and who I wanted sitting round the table.”
But while perhaps she’s not maternal in the conventional sense, she says she tends to take on a very nurturing role with her friends. “I just really enjoy caring for people and helping them.”
Later when she’s showing me round The Residence, where she teaches the pilates she’s so passionate about, she tells me that as well as her celebrity clients, she still teaches her “little old ladies from Maryhill” where she first started out as a personal trainer. “I wouldn’t be without them. Some of them are like my mums.”
She also admits, berating herself slightly for lack of tough business attitude, that she’s sometimes helped very sick clients without taking payment if they couldn’t afford it.
The gentler approach might not quite fit with some of the values she learned at cadets, but she’s aware that a successful business, like a successful nation, must value and support its people in having confidence in their own abilities if it is to ensure long term economic success,
And when she describes her vision of an independent Scotland she makes a strong case for applying the same “holistic” approach she does in her work.
“It’s about more than just immediate economic interests, though I fully believe Scotland has all the resources it requires to be a wealthy independent country. It’s also about having the people in place to make the right decisions for the country – about doing what’s best for the people who live here, not treating them like some kind of afterthought.
“Scotland is a world leader in innovation. We have so much skill and talent, yet so often we hear the message that we’re like some wee down-trodden partner and told ‘you can’t manage on your own’.
“It’s not about disliking other parts of the UK, or some kind of “Braveheart” mentality. For me it’s about the growth and long term benefits that we’ll see in all different parts of life, including business and wider society, when we have the strength and confidence to say we’re capable of making our own decisions”
So she wants independence from a business-woman’s point of view, and also for Scottish society in general. And as a mother?
“Oh yes, I want my girls to grow up to be strong independent women in an independent Scotland.
She starts laughing: “Emme or Lily as First Minister of an Independent Scotland? Now that, would be amazing…”
Many of us who support the idea of an independent Scotland but would prefer not to be described as nationalists are motivated by the prospect of taking greater responsibility for shaping our own future. In doing so, we have an opportunity to create a fairer society.
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