Real people,
real stories

The theme of 2022’s Dive In Festival is “building braver cultures” – something that we take very seriously at Howden Group. It’s a natural part of our People First culture, where we encourage our people to bring their whole selves to work.

As part of the Dive In Festival, alongside our co-sponsors Brit, Liberty and LIIBA, we are hosting a “Portraits of People” exhibition, where we asked people to tell their story, their way, no holds barred.

The aim was to look beyond image, potential stereotypes and preconceived assumptions, in order to see the true, whole person. We believe a person’s differences are something to celebrate. Moreover, being free to express yourself is a crucial component of any working culture where people feel safe, valued and respected.

Howden Group is proud to be a global festival partner of Dive In Festival.

Portraits of People

Suad Ali

Workplace Community Officer, Howden

Photo of Suad Ali
Suad Ali

Workplace Community Officer, Howden

Immigrant

When people look at me, they see an immigrant. A woman with an Eastern European accent who doesn’t really look Eastern European. A mother of a sweet little Londoner. A daughter that wasn’t interested in taking over the family business. I am all of this and so much more

Beyond the portrait

I was born and raised in Bulgaria by a Turkish mother and a Syrian father. Growing up in a small Balkan country in the 90s wasn’t exactly easy when you looked different. My olive skin and curly hair made it impossible to fit in. Being the only child in class with mixed origin, I was often asked about my background. It made me feel as if I didn’t belong there. Back then the society was more conservative, being different wasn’t celebrated. Quite the opposite; different was labelled as no good.

I remember asking my mom if I’m Turkish or Syrian or Bulgarian, and saying that I wish I could pick just one. She told me that I’m all that and I don’t need to choose only one country or ethnicity, because I am a world citizen. These words have shaped my personality more than anything else.

Fighting for human rights is part of who I am. I’ve always related to the minorities, and I’ve always stood with the oppressed. I used to read about different countries and dream of travelling to all these beautiful places, meeting people of all races, religions and ethnicities, learning about their cultures, eating their foods. I knew that one day I’d leave Bulgaria and find the true essence of myself somewhere else, where I could feel free to simply be.

When I graduated from university in Sofia, I was accepted to do my Master’s in the UK. My mom was very supportive but she expected me to return to Bulgaria and take over the family business. She invested all her time and energy in building a successful business while being an active member of a political party and the local Rotary club. She hoped that I would follow in her footsteps, but that was not my path to walk.

Embracing the power of my difference

I fell in love with London. Later, I fell in love with my husband. I’ve built a life for myself and my family here. I made a conscious choice to leave an easier life behind and start a new one here where I feel most At Home.

All the people that I’ve met, the open-minded ones and the conservative ones, all taught me that I can’t spend my time trying to fit in or trying to identify myself with something specific. I was always going to be somewhere in-between – between the Balkans and the Middle East, between the western and the oriental cultures, between faiths. So I freed myself from others’ expectations and opinions.

Building #BraverCultures

We can all change the immigration narrative together. It all starts with having empathy for people from different backgrounds. My story is only one of 9.5 million other stories in the UK. Words have a unique power to change minds and shape attitudes.

Jarom Tulip

Product Owner & Head of Strategy, DUAL

Photo of Jarom Tulip
Jarom Tulip

Product Owner & Head of Strategy, DUAL

Wrong side of the tracks

Having been raised to be a cult leader, surrounded by an environment of poverty, crime and limited opportunity, to attempting the 2nd LARGEST redistribution of wealth in the history of the UK as a product owner and insurtech social innovator.

The 10 lifetimes I have lived in a short 30 years, analysed under a microscope; unearth stories that can guide one to a liberation of the self:

From knocking on thousands of doors as a Christian missionary in the UK; I began to learn what it meant to become Positively Detached

From questioning my conditioned constructs, I came to find that we must become comfortable enough to coexist with the unknown

From consecutive days of fasted meditation alone in a forest, I discovered that whatever you are seeking is found within the SILENCE

OPPORTUNITY presents itself to those who learn to concentrate their awareness, and are dumb enough to try

Kate Connolly

Compliance Business Partner, Liberty

Photo of Kate Connolly
Kate Connolly

Compliance Business Partner, Liberty

Recovering alcoholic

I am in recovery from alcohol addiction. Whilst this does not define me, it is an important part of who I am. My reality is that I still attend AA meetings 2-3 times per week to keep myself honest and stay connected to the programme that saved my life.

Beyond the portrait

People often want to know what precipitated my decision to get sober, and the truth is there was no seminal traumatic event. My teens and 20’s can be best described as a pain/ pleasure/ pain cycle, before becoming predominantly painful. This was mostly due to trying to ‘manage’ my addictions (there was also an eating disorder) in secret. I especially didn’t want to admit to having a problem with alcohol because of the stigma around it – particularly as a woman.

About 5 and a half years ago, I hit my personal rock bottom. I woke up one morning and realised, I cannot go on like this anymore. My life had become so small. I had few friends left. My family didn’t want anything to do with me. My career prospects were minimal. In short – had I lived, I would not have had much to live for. On that fateful Saturday morning, when I had had enough, I googled my nearest AA meeting. I have not looked back.

The first few years were difficult, daunting and draining: I was attending meetings every morning before going to work and then doing a full day in the office. I was also studying the Legal Practice Course at the time on an evening course. I think being so busy kept me going in a way.

Embracing the power of my difference

I don’t think I would have been able to conceive of my life today when I got sober. My career has flourished. I have amazing friends and I have rebuilt the bridges I burned with my family. I am completely independent, and I have an incredibly full life.

In recovery, they refer to the rock bottom moment which brings you to your knees as the ‘gift of desperation’. I thought that when I went into AA my life was over. In fact, it was just beginning. Through my recovery I have had the privilege of meeting myself on a much deeper level than I ever otherwise would have. I believe that it has made me a better person, friend, and colleague: more tolerant, understanding, and empathic.

Building #BraverCultures

Being teetotal is less stigmatised than ever before, and I am grateful to live in such a world. However, that doesn’t make owning up to having a problem and asking for help any easier. One thing they say about addiction is ‘addiction is the one disease that can convince you that you haven’t got it’. If writing this means that one person is encouraged to ask for help, or if I can facilitate better understanding of addiction, that would be more than enough for me. An alcoholic is not always the person passed out on a park bench or pouring vodka into their Cornflakes for breakfast. Which is what I (rather arrogantly) thought before I got into recovery.

Of course, there are days when I wish I could ‘be like everybody else’ and have a drink. I am grateful that those days are few and far between. Nobody has a ‘perfect life’ – despite how things may appear on the outside (or on Instagram). It is a privilege to be able to authentically share my story in the spirit of diversity and inclusion, and I thank you for reading it.

Wayne Page

Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Brit Insurance

Photo of Wayne Page
Wayne Page

Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Brit Insurance

Out of the Closet

What many people won’t know about me is that I was married to a woman before coming out as gay. Accepting my sexuality was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and it’s not always been a straightforward path.

Beyond the portrait

My upbringing wasn’t easy, I was raised by a single mum on benefits on a not very nice council estate in South East London (thankfully now demolished!). This presented challenges for me around opportunities, access to education and services.

Growing up in the 80’s in London, there were no gay role models, nobody in my life to ask questions and no internet. I did what I thought I had to do and that was get married to a woman, have a family, make a home, not realising that there was a whole other part of me that I needed to embrace to be my real, authentic self.

This eventually happened after almost 10 years – there’s an analogy that living a secret life is like a pot of boiling water; you can keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t boil over and for the most part just watch it, but if it starts boiling over then you’re in trouble. I could sense my ‘pot overboiling’ in 2010 and took the decision to end my marriage and live my true life. Not always easy but I know that I’m happier being honest with myself when I look in the mirror.

Embracing the power of my difference

The positive of my lived experience is that it gives me an understanding of life on 2 different sides, helps me to understand people who face challenges in similar situations, whether that’s regarding sexual orientation, gender, faith or other non-visible protected characteristic. It gives me a more balanced view on life – you never know what someone may be dealing with.

Building #BraverCultures

One of the ways I have worked at building braver cultures is to encourage conversation, both within teams across the business but also with me. I have taken the time to show that I wasn’t the ‘red card police’, waiting to trip people up and blow a whistle the second somebody used an outdated term, or asked for help with understanding an inclusion initiative. This has taken time and trust, which is a two-way relationship. I’ve shown that you can be curious, you can make mistakes. None of us are perfect, as long as you are respectful and inclusive in your approach. Brit have really come a long way in a short time!

Lilian Marais

Business Analyst, DUAL

Photo of Lilian Marais
Lilian Marais

Business Analyst, DUAL

Motor Neurone Disease

I’m a South African tomboy, who moved to New Zealand and worked my way up the insurance industry from typist to Senior Underwriter. I’ve experienced bad health, unnecessary surgery, and a diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, but I know that my life is defined only by my attitude.

Beyond the portrait

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with potential Upper Motor Neurone Disease. That followed a misdiagnosis and unnecessary hip replacement in 2011. Since the hip replacement I have had physical disabilities, with restrictions to my ability to walk.

Embracing the power of my difference

I don’t generally view myself as disabled. With a tomboy-history I was used to riding motorcycles, playing tennis, even sometimes digging into the pain of paintball – all those abilities are now either diminished or gone. I am however still confident in myself and hold my head high. I know I have a lot to offer in various areas and I am approachable and willing to share information to help others grow and develop. I have a sense of humour that is sometimes a little inappropriate, but this also means I can laugh at myself.

I accept my disability for what it is. And I accept I have emotionally and physically challenging and heavy days. Even when I see people staring, I take comfort in the fact that I am a strong woman, fulfilled at work and in my marriage. It is not something everyone enjoys. The most important lesson I have learnt is to ‘get up again’ no matter what.

Building #BraverCultures

I hope I inspire people to enjoy life to the full. All I desire is for people who struggle with any kind of challenge to understand there is help, truth and peace to be had.

I firmly believe that “Your Attitude determines your Altitude in life.” No one is automatically entitled to promotions or special treatment – these things are earned.

Jourden Langhorn

Manager, Risk Aggregation Team, Brit Insurance

Photo of Jourden Langhorn
Jourden Langhorn

Manager, Risk Aggregation Team, Brit Insurance

Nervous breakdown

Five years ago, I had a nervous breakdown. Despite succeeding at work, building a career and winning praise, I didn’t really know who I was. I was struck with unbearable anxiety and derealisation, and every day was a struggle. My body was giving me a signal: what do you really want? Where do you really need to be?

Beyond the portrait

Looking back there were signs throughout my life, but when my mental health became a major issue for me, it happened very suddenly.

At the time, I was working long hours including weekends. This was my choice, but I was going above and beyond to try and impress. I found the more I was complimented, the harder I worked. But this created pressure to deliver and the need for validation, which both increased as people came to expect me to maintain such a high level. I started to lose sensitivity of feelings and there was this tired blandness to tasks and life.

Everything came to a head when I woke up one day unable to function. I was so anxious I had to constantly pace up and down the living room. I had a sense of derealisation (worth googling), which really scared me, more than the anxiety. In short, I’d had a nervous breakdown.

I went to hospital and took three weeks off work, and I felt better. But it raised its head again as soon as I went back to work. Each day was a struggle. I had a diazepam in my wallet ‘just in case’. But gradually, day by day, I started to feel better.

I thought, or hoped, that was the end of it. But a year and a half later I suffered the same situation, taking months to get back to feeling ‘normal’. I now know that there is a risk that this can repeat if I don’t live the right life for me.

Embracing the power of my difference

My life has been enriched in many ways by confronting my mental health, how I really feel and who I really am.

Nearly all of us will have some kind of issue we are dealing with – in some cases these are surprisingly significant, even if everybody seems fine.

My advice is not to ignore what you are feeling and be proactive. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Something in your life is not working, and you’re not the only one. Go and see someone, whether a doctor, psychiatrist or therapist. They will help you understand if you need support, tell you the options and guide you through.

The key message is if you feel something, do something. If you feel anxious or depressed, even mildly, you should see someone. In the same way you will see a doctor if you have physical concerns, you should do the same for mental health. Learn about how you think. It’s only going to give you an edge in life. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Building #BraverCultures

We can be more open about mental health. If mental health is made a more common part of conversation, it will make people more comfortable.

The truth is we are all dealing with something, whether or not we admit it, and even if we are functioning ‘well’. Your own mental well-being is always worth exploring. It also needs to be something you are prepared to invest time in, as there are never easy fixes or quick solutions. But don’t be put off by bumps and setbacks.

Racha Moukayed

Managing Director, Howden

Photo of Racha Moukayed
Racha Moukayed

Managing Director, Howden

Syrian Female Boss

I am an Arab woman, a Managing Director, and a mother of twins in the UAE. A female leader in a male-dominated industry, in a culturally traditional country. As a woman, I’ve experienced challenges of harassment and sexism, but I’ve learned that the only limitations are those I put on myself.

Beyond the portrait

I was raised in the United Arab Emirates, Syrian by birth but transplanted at an early age to a country at the beginning of an explosion of ideas and development. I witnessed tremendous growth and change in my adopted home, motivating me similarly to grow and evolve in my personal and professional lives.

My father, Fawaz, founded Guardian Insurance Brokers in Abu Dhabi in 1999 to serve the growing market for specialized insurance lines in oil and gas and construction – both sectors booming in the new economy. After completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Aleppo, I returned to the UAE in 2003 to join the family business.

The few other women in the industry at the time occupied junior administrative roles, and had no decision-making authority or significant responsibilities. I started in the business as an admin officer, learning the business and moving up the ladder through hard work and perseverance.

Embracing the power of my difference

In 2005 an American soon-to-be friend and mentor arrived in the UAE to work on a healthcare project for the UAE government. Carl was the first to recognize me as a valuable part of the organization and industry, encouraging me to find my own and to strive for more than anyone expected of me. Carl’s enthusiasm and support was instrumental in the success I’ve enjoyed over the last twenty years.

But unfortunately I’ve had some less positive interactions too. I have experienced sexism and harassment, working in a culture where women are expected to stay home while their husbands go to the office. As I moved into leadership roles at Guardian, some colleagues were unaccustomed – and unwilling – to report to a woman. Although this mindset is changing in the UAE, there are still those who are resistant to change. I’ve even had colleagues mistakenly believe that a strong working relationship could evolve into a romantic one. Fortunately I’ve been supported by my Chairman and teammates, who join me in their zero tolerance approach to such behaviour.

As Covid lockdowns were easing I became pregnant with twins, Jad and Jasmine. They arrived three weeks early, opening a new chapter in my life with challenges and commitments I neither understood nor could fully comprehend. The morning after they were born, still confined to the hospital bed, I was on my laptop, ensuring business continuity and service delivery to our clients. My maternity leave was almost non-existent, carving out uninterrupted afternoons or a morning every so often to be a mom.

Building #BraverCultures

Who we are is influenced by our previous experiences. And where I am now will influence what I will be in the future. Whether the influence of my parents Fawaz and Aroub, mentors such as Carl and my husband Mac, through the lessons I’ll learn as a mother or through the encouragement of friends and colleagues, I look forward to seeing what I will become, the only limitations being those I place on myself.

Stefan Buchberger

Data Business Partner, Howden

Photo of Stefan Buchberger
Stefan Buchberger

Data Business Partner, Howden

Dyslexic

As a dyslexic kid in rural Austria, I was told that I would never pass my A-Levels. But through many years of training – and with the support of my parents and one dedicated teacher – I found my confidence and proved my ability.

Beyond the portrait

Having been diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 10, my self-esteem became diminished and I was worried about my future. Back then, countryside Austria did not have the best support system for dyslexic kids and it was up to my parents and my very dedicated German teacher to find resources, training material and other guidance.

One of my other teachers was less supportive. She told my mum “Stefan will never pass his A-Levels with this condition”. But in the end, that teacher’s prediction was wrong.

Through many years of training, I learned reading and writing techniques that help me reduce the everyday impact of my dyslexia. I passed my A-Levels, learned English, and graduated from LSE as best of class. I’m also the only one from my year who built a successful career in an English-speaking country.

Embracing the power of my difference

Due to the various techniques I’ve learned over the years, I almost forgot how the condition can impact someone day-to-day. I only started thinking about this again when a junior team member pointed out their dyslexia and asked for support. Small changes in presenting data or giving instructions can make a huge impact on how someone with dyslexia processes information.

Building #BraverCultures

We should always remember that there is no correlation between dyslexia and intelligence. Someone with dyslexia can be a valuable asset to a team. In fact, Albert Einstein, Richard Branson and Henry Ford are dyslexic too. Team members with dyslexia can unfold their creativity, entrepreneurial spirits and problem solving skills.

Changing background colours, using easy-to-read fonts or having a call rather than sending an email can make a difference. We should always promote an open culture, ask affected team members about their preferred communication styles and focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.

Ana Cristina Netto

Executive Secretary, Howden

Photo of Ana Cristina Netto
Ana Cristina Netto

Executive Secretary, Howden

Self esteem crisis

I am a black woman in Brazil, an anti-racist campaigner and a social influencer. I’ve experienced racism, toxic relationships, and misogyny, but all these experiences made me who I am today: a sensitive and strong woman who doesn’t lower her head to adversity.

Beyond the portrait

Growing up in a mixed race family with no racial conscience, I struggled to feel like I belonged. I always thought I was ugly and I had low self-esteem. Losing my mom, dad and sister over a period of 10 years wrecked me even more. I had to grow up too fast, putting aside my adolescence while still trying to assert myself and learn who I was.

Growing up without structure, I always thought I would only be happy if I had a boyfriend. I needed to feel that I was loved, and so I lived in some toxic relationships that made my self-esteem even worse.

In 2017, after experiencing yet another harmful relationship, I decided to close myself off to romance and seek to live my dreams. During that time I discovered myself as a black woman. I understood that racism was real, and that I had lived with it my whole life.

Gradually I started to learn more about my origins. I was influenced by a new boyfriend who showed me how important it is to understand where I come from, and not to be ignorant of the subject.

He opened my eyes, but over time I developed a crisis of anxiety over the misogynistic way his mother treated me. I wanted to please her so much that I lost my essence, and I stopped being the free woman my mother taught me to be.

Embracing the power of my difference

All these experiences made me who I am today: a sensitive and strong woman who doesn’t lower her head to adversity.

Building #BraverCultures

Today I talk about female empowerment so that other women don’t suffer through the same situations I lived. I also talk about black culture for racial literacy. This is important not only for black people, but also for white people to understand the importance of adopting anti-racist behaviour.

I am very grateful to see my voice echo in the more than 200,000 people who resonate with the stories I share through social media.

Andrew Hetherington

Actuary, Brit Insurance

Photo of Andrew Hetherington
Andrew Hetherington

Actuary, Brit Insurance

LGBTQ+

I used to feel that my sexuality wasn’t an important part of my identity, and I didn’t want it to “define” me. But the more I learn about LGBTQ+ history, the more I count myself lucky. If the people who came before me hadn’t taken the risk of expressing who they were, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to live in safety.

Beyond the portrait

Although I’ve been in both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships in the past, it was only relatively recently that I started to get actively involved in the wider LGBTQ+ community. The more I learned about LGBTQ+ history, the more I realised that I’m in quite a privileged position to be able to feel secure in my own sexual identity. For example, I find it shocking that the World Health Organisation classified “homosexuality” as a mental illness until 1992. The same declassification only happened for being transgender at the start of 2022. If previous generations of the LGBTQ+ community hadn’t taken the risk of being visible to the rest of the world, then perhaps I wouldn’t be able to live without fear of being discriminated against because of my identity.

Embracing the power of my difference

I decided to try and become a more visible supporter and member of the LGBTQ+ community because I feel like I have a responsibility to keep up the momentum. In the UK, certain LGBTQ+ identities may not be as ostracised as they were in the past, but other community members still face discrimination. And that’s to say nothing of the situation in some other countries where there are major existential threats for LGBTQ+ individuals where threats, violence, and even the death penalty are still present.

While activism is one way of bringing about change, it’s not the only thing we can do. I believe that small, but visible gestures of support within our families, social circles and workplaces can make a difference. Each act of support makes the next one easier, and encourages the people around you to take positive action as well. By bringing out the best in ourselves and other people, the impact of that first, small gesture grows over time.

Building #BraverCultures

I think it’s always going to be a bit of a risk to put yourself out there, because there will always be people who disagree or disapprove of you because of how you conduct yourself. But I don’t think that anyone should have to hide who they are, and no-one should be able to deny you from expressing yourself when it isn’t negatively impacting anyone else.

When I first started talking about LGBTQ+ topics, I was out of my comfort zone for a while and I don’t think we’ll ever stop learning when it comes to Inclusion and Diversity. Maybe it’s a bit like learning a new language: you’ve got to learn the vocabulary and the grammar before you can speak fluently, but you only get there by practicing, having conversations, and accepting that you’re going to make a few mistakes along the way. In the same way, I don’t think that the fear of not knowing the ‘right’ terminology or how to express yourself around some of these issues should stop you doing so. If you’re coming from a place of genuinely wanting to learn and understand, then that’s all you need to start taking the first steps.

Katie Brickell

Divisional Director, Howden

Photo of Katie Brickell
Katie Brickell

Divisional Director, Howden

Cancer survivor

At the age of 23, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and given just two years to live. But today I am cancer-free and the mother of a beautiful, funny, smart, and incredibly stubborn 3 year old! I am (humbly acknowledging) glad to be a bit of a medical miracle.

Beyond the portrait

As a working parent, I face challenges on a daily basis; creating a work-family-life balance, ensuring I am emotionally and physically supporting and enjoying my daughter, co-running a household, holding a demanding job that involves client and market interactions, strategic decisions, line management responsibilities and looking after my own health (and breathe!).

But, my story to motherhood was not a straight-forward one. You see I was diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was 23. Back then I thought the chance to become a parent was impossible. I was offered, and took, the option to freeze my eggs due to having treatment that would make me sterile and I also had a hysterectomy, taking away any chance I had to carry a child. But then, on top of everything, I was given the devastating news that my cancer was stage 4 and I would only have 2 years to live. I thought I would never be a Mum as I wouldn’t live to be given the chance to.

Fast forward through intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy and I managed to surpass doctors’ expectations and 2 years after my original diagnosis I was given the news that there was no evidence of cancer in my body.....news that I am glad to say has been repeated every year since!

I always knew I wanted to be a parent and surrogacy was now our only option to having a genetically related child. No lie, surrogacy for us was an emotionally challenging and difficult journey and we struggled. We wanted to wait until my health had been stable for a number of years and then it was a long and awkward process.

But then the most amazing thing happened. My wonderful school friend reached out and offered to be our surrogate. We then started our surrogacy journey with her, with the love and support of all our families, and the rest as they say is history! We were successful with our first embryo transfer and our daughter, who is genetically mine and my husbands, was born!

Embracing the power of my difference

There are very old laws surrounding surrogacy in the UK. Firstly, we were not recognised as my daughter’s legal parents when she was born or for several months after, something that affected us mentally. My company was also not legally obliged to offer me any form of maternity leave nor were there any laws protecting me as a mother. Luckily my company was wonderful and I was given the same parental leave options, protections and pay as any other mother. Since then, being the first employee to take surrogacy leave, our company has adjusted their parental leave policy to include non-traditional ways of having a child so I feel proud that my journey may help others behind me.

Building #BraverCultures

I would encourage managers and companies to engage in open and transparent conversations with their full-time working parents. I have been able to experience both condensed working hours (meaning I was valued and measured for my output rather than the number of hours I kept) and agile hybrid working, and these really help with my work-family-life balance. I always look for ways to utilise my experiences as a working parent to help others and to assist my company to expand the boundaries of our culture and ways of working. I also want to show my daughter that you can do whatever you want to do and I hope I inspire her to reach her dreams!

Stacy Higgs

Senior Claims Executive, Howden

Photo of Stacy Higgs
Stacy Higgs

Senior Claims Executive, Howden

Bipolar

At the age of 20 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I found diagnosis difficult and had to re-learn my limits – something that as, a young ambitious woman, I wasn’t too happy to hear. But getting help at a crucial time meant that my mood swings became manageable, and I now have a life I never thought possible.

Beyond the portrait

As a person with a non-visible disability, I have to proactively manage my health to have a career, a family and a life I love. Bipolar symptoms are different for everyone, but most people experience uncontrollable highs and lows (mania and depression). For the rest of my life I will be unable to control my moods without medication, therapy, a good support system and proactive self-management.

Finding the right balance between my personal goals and mental health was a lengthy, often difficult journey that took many years. In that time, despite proactive management, I would find that my lows would render me isolated, crippled by depression, guilt and anxiety and my highs at their best could lead to a few embarrassing stories or at their worst dangerous and life threatening situations.

There was little reprieve between each cycle, each feeding the other. Imagine an elastic band; the further you pull it back the harder the snap. Due to this initial instability I found myself at times homeless and alone choosing to not burden others with my illness.

Embracing the power of my difference

Mental disability is only half the story. Getting help meant that I now have lengthy periods of being within a manageable mood range, sometimes lasting years. And whilst it hasn’t been simple for me to pursue a career, I undertook a degree in law and eventually found myself in insurance.

Proactively managing my condition meant accepting myself for who I am. Through accepting myself I have become confident and personable. I thrive in social situations, and I enjoy managing others and public speaking. Depression is currently the most debilitating side effect of my bipolar, as it can be hard to see positives through a low mood. However, it does help me to be empathetic towards others’ feelings and emotions, which enables me to build strong working relationships.

I now have a career I’m proud of, a home, family, friends and I am getting married next year. All things I nor others didn’t believe was possible.

Building #BraverCultures

Imagine being so acutely aware of your potential yet seeing your life implode around you; destroying everything you have worked to achieve. Being unable to take that call, making mistakes, the inability to step outside your front door, talking embarrassing nonsense at a networking event, failing. Seeing the burden you have to place on your team or your family, and how they support you and pick up the pieces. The guilt, shame and feelings of worthlessness can be overbearing and only add fuel to the bonfire you’ve created.

My story is not in isolation, there are many other successful professionals within the insurance sector suffering from severe mental health issues who are thriving. I imagine there are some that have not had the support I have.

Everyone has a right to a career, to do their job to the best of their ability, and to be themselves. Accepting someone for who they are, and giving them the respect that we all deserve, is key.

For more information on bipolar disorder please visit the MIND website.

Aasaa O’Mallo

Marketing & Communications Officer, Brit Insurance

Photo of Aasaa O’Mallo
Aasaa O’Mallo

Marketing & Communications Officer, Brit Insurance

Mental health

I am a mother to beautiful seven-year-old boy, and I work full-time in London within the Lloyds market. As a result, some people see me simply as a ‘working mum’. However, there’s so many different branches to that title. There is so much more than just “I work and I’m a mum”.

Beyond the portrait

Sometimes I wonder if people created this perception of me based around happiness and joy. I was a young working mother early in my career, and it’s easy to assume I didn’t have many worries. However, behind my big smiles and my big personality is a turbulent journey that seems to take people by surprise.

Mum guilt was always a thing. I would always try to stretch myself to be in two places at once, so I wouldn’t miss anything at work or miss any time with my son. But as you do that, you learn that you can’t be everywhere all the time.

In December 2020 I was diagnosed with depression and high functioning anxiety. That was a real turning point in my life. It led me to deal with things in different ways. I had to be mum and work so that I can run my household but also get well - that was all I saw.

Embracing the power of my difference

After a long and hard journey, and by working with people who genuinely cared about work-life balance, I was able to come through that dark period of my life. I took back control of my identity at work, and I still having an amazing relationship with my son.

Building #BraverCultures

I see everything I have been through as a blessing. I reconnected with myself and I learned more about myself. I work smarter now, in a way that means I can do the things that I need to do for my family and return to work keeping the two separate.

Everything added to my purpose and it almost became more of a motivation, teaching me that there is nothing that I cannot do if I put my mind to it. My experience led me to accept that it does take a village – not just to raise a child, but to get you through your good and bad days and to be able to successfully own who you are. I’m not just Mum, not just an employee, and not just somebody with depression & anxiety. I am an incredibly strong person.

Leticia Almeida

Marketing Analyst, Howden

Photo of Leticia Almeida
Leticia Almeida

Marketing Analyst, Howden

Solo motherhood

I’m a recently separated working mother of two – 1 year old Isabela, and 5 year old Leonardo. My children are my life, and they keep me busy! During a recent routine appointment, I discovered that I have thyroid cancer.

Beyond the portrait

Some people know how busy a mother’s life is: shopping, bathing, taking care of the house, cooking, waking up early, getting ready for school, taking to school and coming to work… It’s not easy. Every day is like a race!

My daughter Isabela is 1 year old. She is messy and at the same time very affectionate. Leonardo is 5 years old – he’s a sweet, attentive, stubborn and very playful boy.

I recently went for some routine exams, just like I do every year. But this year the tests discovering thyroid cancer.

The doctor told me that this thyroid change is common in women over 30, and they often have no symptoms. It can be benign or malignant. Unfortunately, in my case it is malignant and I will have to undergo surgery to remove it.

I have had the support of my entire team since the beginning, my manager Marina Leitão, the medical management team (Celiano, Larissa, Laíne and Bia) and our president Andoni. I am very grateful for the attention and support!

It took two weeks of exams and now with all performed, I’m waiting for the day of the surgery (29/08), and I hope, when you are reading this, everything will have gone well!

Building #BraverCultures

I share this story of mine to warn everyone to perform their health!

Danielle Hallett

Full Stack Drupal Developer, Howden

Photo of Danielle Hallett
Danielle Hallett

Full Stack Drupal Developer, Howden

Transgender

I’m a Drupal engineer and solution architect. I’m also a transgender woman, a YouTuber, and a serial hobbyist.

I’ve experienced homelessness, morbid obesity and gender transition. None of them seemed particularly big deals at the time, though on reflection they probably were.

Beyond the portrait

Some of my earliest memories are of knowing I was different to other children. Almost as soon as I became aware of ‘boys and girls’ I knew (though could not really express) that I did not belong with the boys. This is quite common amongst people diagnosed with gender dysphoria. It’s a feeling which is very hard to explain, but is always there at the back of your mind.

As I grew older, the feelings did not go away, and throughout my teens things got progressively worse. Puberty was devastating. My body began to change into the exact opposite of how I felt. I did not even know if there was a name for why I felt like this, and I thought I was the only person in the world who felt the way I did.

Then, one evening, I saw a commercial for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the trailer were two words that were new to me: Transvestite and Transsexual. I quickly looked them up and discovered that the term transsexual seemed to match how I felt *exactly*. It was a revelation

I found a private gender clinic that specialised in this and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I also discovered that I had de la Chapelle syndrome, or XXY syndrome, which is now becoming recognised as a possible cause of gender dysphoria.

I was elated, though also terrified by what would have to come next. Transition.

I began to tell some close friends and family what I was planning, but it did not go well. I lost some of my closest friends, and had to live in my car for some time.

Unable to face transition, I buried it. I told everyone it was just a phase, and went back to pretending to be one of the lads. What I felt inside never left, but on the outside I was just a fella.

At around the same time I started to eat, a lot. Food become very comforting and I continued to grow and grow.

By my mid 40’s I had reached almost 500lbs, and during a visit to Orlando, I found I could no longer fit any rides. I was devastated, but it was the trigger I needed. I decided there and then that I had to change things. Even before we flew home, I had booked consultations with various weight loss clinics.

I had already been saving some money for transition and surgery ‘one day’, but I now realised that it was the weight that was holding me back, and not what people thought.

After that realisation, I was able to proceed quickly. Two months later I had a gastric bypass procedure, and 18 months later I had reached a safe enough weight to have skin, bum, and face surgery. By 24 months I had dropped over 250 lbs and I was ready for the ‘final’ surgery in Thailand.

It was during my stay in Thailand that I soft started working at Howden.

Siobhan Hayden

Accountant, Brit Insurance

Photo of Siobhan Hayden
Siobhan Hayden

Accountant, Brit Insurance

Surprised Lesbian

I am fun loving, pink mad, chocoholic accountant married to a physiotherapist. I am a legal guardian to my niece and nephew, and have a demanding job that I love. I’m also a gay woman who didn’t know she was looking for a princess.

Beyond the portrait

I have had a bumpy journey up to my marriage to a female physiotherapist. When I was nineteen, I met a man and thought ‘This is it! I’m going to get married and have children’. We didn’t have children, and we split up after nine years and I was heartbroken. A year later I moved to England. 5 years after my arrival in the UK I moved to Nigeria to be with a man, and was again convinced he was the prince of my dreams. The relationship fell apart within a year, and I returned to England and the safety of friends and family. Then, within a year, I met and fell in love with a woman.

I actually met her when I employed her at another company. We came to be friends, and this grew into something deeper. I remember thinking ‘how has this happened!?’ – I was in shock! Having never had a relationship with a woman, it took some time for me to get my head around it and initially I was scared. But I knew I loved her, and it was what I wanted so we got engaged and then got married five years later. Our marriage makes us better people and I would not change a thing, but it has undoubtedly taken me some very big steps to get here, going from loving a man to loving a woman.

Embracing the power of my difference

People surprise you. When I told my family about my partner, my sister laughed – in a good way, my dad was totally fine (surprisingly), my wife’s 86-year-old grandfather welcomed it, but my mother didn’t speak to me for three months and refused to discuss it for a long time. It can be shocking because those people you think will be the most accepting might have the hardest time. It is all very well saying people need to be comfortable (that is in an ideal world), but you cannot avoid the truth that some people may not react favourably. Luckily in my life that has only been a small percentage.

Building #BraverCultures

Coming from South Africa, where gay people are not tolerated well, makes me realise how important the LGBTQ conversation is.

While I am very comfortable in saying who I am, others don’t always have this confidence, and that is something that I want to help promote. In particular, I know it can be more challenging for women to be open about their sexuality than it is for men, which is why I feel it is so important I am open.

I also know how difficult it can be to be open and comfortable about who you are at work and to be fair my ease at doing this has come with experience. My hope is that the more people like me talk about it, the easier it is for others to, irrespective of their own experiences or sexuality.