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  • Renée Watson

Surviving failure

Updated: Jun 5

I didn’t think today was going to be the day when it all came out. I hope my tears didn’t make anyone too uncomfortable, but then again discomfort, and the growth that follows, is a common theme in my past 18 months. I guess now is a good time to tell the story behind the tears. I apologise in advance, it’s going to be long. I haven’t yet found the words to explain everything eloquently.

I remember waking on New Year’s Day 2019 with a sense of foreboding. This was strange because I am typically an insufferable optimist. As January unfolded and I was thrown three incredible opportunities: To represent Europe in the Touch Rugby World Cup, to run an event at Westminster on education and to do a TEDx Talk in Athens, that sense of doom was quickly forgotten.

I threw myself into physical training, prepping my talk and transitioning Curiosity Box from start up to scale up. Everything was crazy exciting and moving in the right direction, everything except money. Trying to scale up a product that is truly made ethically (and we do our best, but even we don’t manage it completely) is expensive so I looked for ways to ensure our financial stability whilst furthering our purpose, primarily through partnerships.

We seemed to have reached a plateau with Curiosity Box, after the first 2 years of 100% year on year revenue growth we were stagnating. I knew this was at least in part because it’s a business model that really only works at volume, but I couldn’t compromise on our purpose, or on our ethical rules so we needed time. Our cash runway was getting very short and I was regularly waking at night worrying about whether I would be able to pay my team next month. But I had hope! Some of the work I had been doing developing partnerships was coming to fruition. One partnership with a large corporate, that superficially seemed quite values aligned, had huge potential. I invested a massive amount of time and IP into developing a really exciting science and engineering box that we would use to reach more children than I could ever have done alone.

May – June was an indescribable personal high. Playing my favourite sport in Kuala Lumpur among teams from 37 countries (although loosing all our games was much tougher than I expected!), being supported to deliver the talk of my dreams in front of 2000 people in the city of the great female warrior Athena and hearing the willingness of so many people to add their voice to mine in a call to make science education more accessible for all.

I should have expected that there would be a period of deflation after that, but I didn’t let myself rest. I couldn’t, we were on the brink of running out of money. I stopped making time for myself altogether, I even pulled right back from playing Touch Rugby – the thing that always recharged me. I worked. At the end of June I sent the invoice for the partnership that I thought was going to be a game changer. By the end of August, with no payment in sight I met with the team and we talked about the situation and what we might be able to do. There was a great sense of being in it together and we set ourselves a clear target for Christmas which we all knew was make or break. By September I had been unable to sleep properly for months, my hair had started falling out and I felt quite numb. A dear friend, who I will always be grateful to, told me I was in trouble and needed to get help. It was the wakeup call I needed. I sought to create time in my diary that detached me from work, I found a therapist and started dancing again. I invested time in simple things like cleaning my house (which was as much of a surprise to me as it will be to those who know how untidy I am!) and being there to talk with my children.

I was beginning to feel better, more like myself when something happened that made everything else invisible. My 13 year old son broke down, telling me that he was being beaten up at school. The school acted fast and well, but it quickly became apparent to me that dealing with bullying is as complex as it is easy to inflame. My boy was frightened. He disengaged from almost everything that brought him joy and I saw a deep sadness in him that I found suffocating. Things came to a head one Monday in November when he told me he wanted to kill himself, that he was more trouble than he was worth and we would all be better off without him. I still don’t have the words to explain how I felt. The following day I called the doctor immediately and was referred to CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services). I could write pages about the intervening weeks, about trying to drown my son’s sadness in love, about the fear of finding him having hurt himself but the truth is we are the lucky ones. After waiting for 2 weeks for a call back from CAMHS I couldn’t wait any longer. We are privileged enough to be able to pay and so I sought a private child psychologist and got Patrick the help he needed. I got a phone call from CAMHS in April – 6 months after my first, desperate plea for help. It makes me so angry and desperately sad to think of all the families out there in a similar situation who aren’t in a position to pay for help. The injustice of it is something that fuels a lot of what I have been doing in the past few months.

Back to December and I knew it would take a miracle for us to reach the target we had set for Curiosity Box. We had still not been paid by that “partner”. On the 18th of December I held a team meeting where I had to let half of my wonderful team go. Yes, there was sadness, but we shared stories of the positive things we would each take from the time we had shared together at Curiosity Box. Above all, people were so kind. I had communicated with openness throughout the time leading up to that event, in a way I know many business leaders would find foolish, but that meeting was absolute justification to me that treating all people in your team as whole humans, who deserve respect and kindness is the right way to “do business”.

January was all about regrouping, pivoting to focus entirely on schools and trying to rebuild. A second partnership, with The Faraday Institution, which was a masterclass in how a large organisation should behave when partnering with a small one, has seen us launch an incredible tool for schools to explore batteries and electric vehicles. This, as part of our STEM Day in a Box range for schools has been central to the positive direction things have been heading for Curiosity Box in 2020. And guess what! We got paid! 261 days after I put that bloody invoice in.

Since Coronavirus hit, everything has been a bit of a blur. All those years of ballet training have come in handy because we’ve had to do a complete pivot back to retail – losing almost all the school income that we had projected – but thankfully the shortfall has been made up by a massive boost in online sales to families at home trying to figure out how on earth to home school their kids. And it has given me a huge opportunity to strip everything back and dig into my purpose even more. When The Sutton Trust released its report on how COVID has impacted the most deprived young people in our society, I couldn’t stay silent any longer. Two weeks ago I had an idea for a project to piggy back on food parcels going out to families and send them souped up Curiosity Boxes. I love numbers so once again I set us a target of reaching 20000 young people living in the UKs most deprived and remote areas. In 2 weeks, we have reached approximately 7000 children and with the relationships I am building, I am very confident we can reach that target. The conversations I’ve been having with teachers and people working with families have been as inspiring as they are heart breaking. For so many communities, the school and its teachers are the roots that give families strength, support and sustenance.

I’m learning a lot about the root causes of poverty. It is blowing my mind how linked it is to everything that underpins my desire to run an ethical business. Both are rooted in centuries of greed and singular focus on maximum profit for the few. Following this realisation, I have committed to learning as much as I can, to speak, act and use my position of privilege to enable us to have the very difficult conversations that are desperately needed if we have any hope of fixing the broken society we are living in. EDIT: I was quite tired and very emotional by this point and edited this section a lot. On waking, I need to be absolutely clear that the root cause I am talking about is structural racism. I am only just coming to grips with the role I play and what, as a person of white privilege, I can do to begin dismantling the problem my ancestors created. Only then can I really do the work needed to help rebuild the society I want to live in.

So to today. The day I cried while giving a talk in a conference. There is a bit of me that feels slightly humiliated, but mostly I’m grateful for having the courage to tell the truth and to stick to my values even when the chips not only down but properly trodden into the mud!

And I am OK, I’ve learned that mental health challenges can affect anyone. I am seriously resilient and never thought I would break, but I did and I will never silently question anyone on their need to protect their mental health ever again. Curiosity Box is OK, we are still going, despite it all and I feel really positive about the impact we will make this year. We have so much potential! And most importantly Paddy is OK. The depth of his sadness has lifted and lockdown has enabled us to become even more connected as a family (even through the moments of frustration we have all had).

If you are still here, I hope there is something in my experience that you find helpful, I am becoming quite good at listening so if you EVER need space to get it all out I am here for you. Now bugger off and do something you love!


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