07 Mar Part 1: The SHE OG’s – Where are they now?
Written by Prabjit Chohan-Patel
Once upon a time, Sarah Woods and Julia Perry noticed something very obvious was missing from the Malta business community: a representative body for the growing number of female-led businesses. So they formed SHE Malta, their mission to build a platform for women in business and foster a space of empowerment and reciprocity – via informative and inspiring events – for operational/aspiring female entrepreneurs.
Their dream of community took off, growing from the acorn of intimate gatherings in boutiques and galleries into a flourishing tree of hot ticket events in larger renowned venues and attended by women from different backgrounds (proving SHE Malta was an idea whose time had come). Featuring lessons and wisdom from female speakers, interesting sponsors and an eclectic mix of stalls by artisan brands, SHE events were on their way to becoming a mighty oak.
Then the world stopped in 2020. And we know how that went. No more physical events of any kind.
Julia left SHE, taking time out before feeling ready to focus on new projects. Meanwhile Sarah – like so many business owners – regrouped and considered how to continue her enterprise during the pandemic. Voilà…the SHE Malta membership programme was launched, offering access to engaging online talks and webinars. Post pandemic, SHE’s in person member meetups, presentations and workshops were also added to the mix and the member programme continued to grow and flourish.
This got us thinking. If Sass changed course (and I myself moved into freelancing writing), what about the ‘original girls’ – the SHE OG’s as Sass cleverly calls them – who were involved at the earlier SHE events? What are they doing now? Did they also diversify due to the pandemic? What are their stories?
After a call-out to the community, I was fortunate enough to catch up with several of the SHE OG’s and find out.
PAT VELLA – She Takes Off
“We service our cars every 6 months so why don’t we do this for ourselves?”
We’re starting off with a recognisable SHE Malta face and Queen of the pearl of wisdom in a soundbyte (the words “just press the buzzer” became immortal after her 2018 SHE event appearance), Pat Vella.
Pat left permanent employment in 2022, leveraging her hospitality experience to move on to freelance pastures. From assisting creative agency Von Peach (who have also featured in the SHE membership program) with the launch of their latest Impeached Magazine edition and Gozo concept creative space, the Bored Peach Club. To organising walking expeditions along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela route. To starting She Takes Off (which deserves an award just for its name), Pat is definitely not sitting still.
But the road to fulfilment and joy has also included struggle and loss. Talking about what sparked the new direction, she says “Covid changed all of us. I survived this time in the hotel industry but it was like starting a new job.” Then a close friend’s death was a wake up call forcing a reappraisal of what Pat wanted from life and work. Along with her wish to spend time supporting her friend’s partner, this led her to leaving the Phoenicia. “It took a long time to know how to stay home, to relax and just surrender to my situation” she admits, adding “I wasn’t going to spend my week cleaning”.
So shedding 5-star chic, she picked up a rucksack to embark on a 236 km, 10 day, blister-causing, life changing solo walk from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Not long after returning to Malta, another death rocked Pat’s world with the loss of her cousin to suicide. After receiving numerous requests, Pat is repeating the epic Camino del Santiago journey 5th-12th April, this time with a group of women including her cousin’s widow, tailoring their trip with the addition of some creature comforts. (For anyone interested in doing a future Camino del Santiago expedition, contact Pat here.)
Can you tell us about She Takes Off?
I plan and host exclusive trips for women over 40 who are ready to take back their autonomy and start living fully again. These Mediterranean vacations centre around relaxation, restoration and entertainment and bring together 12 women max (mainly from the USA, Australia and Malta) who usually know each other. The itinerary is designed to be free from constraints but also structured enough to ensure everyone properly benefits.
We start by ‘defrosting’ in the rawness and simplicity of Gozo. Via meditation, yoga, fresh air and healthy food everyone starts thawing out from life’s challenges and stress. Next, we balance this restoration with the fun and vibrance of Valletta for its music, food and whatever people fancy. (25 years in hospitality have blessed me with superb contacts within hotels, tour guiding, restaurants etc.) We finish off in Sicily – the wild woman who belongs everywhere and nowhere – for some personal shopper-assisted retail therapy.
How did the idea come about?
After leaving my job, I knew whatever was next had to involve freedom of location, high end clients and be built around my own interests (travel, women being together, having fun). I thought I was asking for too much…but it’s exactly what I am now doing. I thought of how we women give so much but after all this providing during our prime years – as an employee/mother/partner – we’re then pushed aside. And I kept coming back to the idea we shouldn’t stop living life because our partner doesn’t share the same interests, or we’re single, or we’ve just got used to putting everyone’s needs before ours.
In a nutshell, what is your ethos and/or motivation?
To get women to start living their life again! After all, the more happy and fulfilled you are in yourself, the more you can give to your loved ones and those around you.
Are there any lessons you’ve taken from your previous endeavours and applied to what you are doing now?
My discipline and extensive experience from working hotels and spas etc is invaluable (e.g. knowing the smallest thing you do for a client can make the difference between a memorable holiday and a bad one). I’m not going to panic about tomorrow. I’m going to concentrate on today.
And would you say you have realised what you would not repeat?
Not exactly because I did everything from the heart so I’d do it all the same. If I made mistakes, I learned the most from them as they were the lessons that formed me. Wherever I go, I try to help, create and put my colleagues before me.
Would you say you’ve found your passion/calling in life?
Yes but it took time! It was when I accepted my situation. Mostly, I want to make up for all the time I didn’t have before.
MIKELA FENECH PACE – Upstream
“My father always said he chose employment so he could lay his head down at night and sleep well, so taking this risk wasn’t easy for me”
After years in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office and HR field, Mikela Fenech Pace returned to studying in the pandemic before launching her executive coaching company, Upstream. Shall I mention her five children and published book too? One could throw the term superwoman at her and it would stick (I recall an audible wow from the audience when Mikela spoke at a 2018 SHE event). Yes her rich background and full interview answers deserve another book but here’s the brief version.
What did you particularly enjoy about your Public Sector work?
I loved the sense of purpose and challenge of looking beyond the obvious regarding the national context. I also encountered some of the best minds in Malta, helping me develop a strong strategic mindset that continues to serve me well.
What motivated you to leave that and launch Upstream?
After 16 years, it was time as the environment no longer matched my work ethic. The move was instinctive as I have a strong value-set that acts as a ‘rudder’ to my decisions. (My mantra is always to leave behind a strong legacy and team; this allows me to move on confidently.) There were other factors too. My children needed me around much more as they entered their teens, leading me to re-evaluate what success meant to me. I found myself no longer driven by career progression but more by enabling change and coaching others to safely explore it.
What do you find rewarding about what you’re doing now?
The satisfaction of seeing the impact of my work with people (the look I get from a client who’s had a breakthrough) always makes me smile. The joy of helping clients step out of their comfort zone, knowing I’ve provided them with a safe space to do this, to process how they feel and feel supported along the way.
Can you describe some past and present challenges about setting up your own venture?
The most daunting one was the risk. I don’t come from an entrepreneurial family (my father chose employment so he could lay his head down and sleep at night!) so it wasn’t easy for me. But with my husband’s support and a leap of faith, I hit the books and completed my Executive Coaching and Team Coaching degrees (mid Covid), realising you never know what’s on the other side unless you try. As for now, although I love a challenge, I still find it hard dealing with dishonesty and underhand attacks and have to work hard to not let this hurt personally. But the strong friendships I have help me handle these situations better.
Are there any positive lessons you’ve taken from work or life and applied to what you do now?
Every move or change I’ve made has contributed to my growth as a person and expanded my understanding of happiness, not just success. But the experience I took the most from was my father’s funeral. Standing there heartbroken, I was awed by how many people came to show their respects and their words about this humble man who lived life fully yet simply. It taught me the greatest lesson: it’s not about the money, position or power you have. It’s the friendships you forge, the respect you draw and the way you live life that will make the biggest impact. This is how I choose to live, in full respect of the legacy I will leave and how I will be remembered.
Conversely, have you realised what you would not repeat from past experience?
Where do I start?! Looking back, I can see clear patterns in my interactions and the way I present myself (this awareness took some soul searching but was also liberating). We often fall into a script of blaming people for things that go wrong or feeling easily wronged. Holding myself responsible forced me to handle myself better and actually learn from my failures and disappointments instead of simply defending myself. The philosophy that “you can’t change what happens to you or how people treat you but you can change the way you react” has possibly been the strongest and most powerful revelation.
Would you say you’ve found your passion/calling in life?
Who knows? For now, I wake up and go to bed smiling and enjoy what I do every day. I wear many hats, each one driven by a different passion. I’m thankful I can look back at a career where I brought passion to whatever I did.
MARIA MOELLER – Think Therapy
“As an entrepreneur, I learned that you don’t have to know everything. It’s perfectly ok to take help from others, relinquish control and defer to those who know better if the opportunity exists.”
If you attended the first ever SHE Malta workshop a few moons ago, you may recall its location: the former boutique Fly the Fly Vintage owned by Maria Moeller. For four years, Maria nurtured her ‘Malta baby’ using the skills from her 12 year Swedish retail background. Describing the quirky ornaments she sold alongside her own line of items, she reminisces about the store’s vibrant convivial atmosphere. It’s fair to say her career change from store owner to therapist is quite a significant one. So I was deeply curious to learn her backstory.
What did you enjoy about your previous role?
I loved (and really miss) the hustle and bustle of having a store and the creative outlet that came with it: dreaming up and executing events and collaborating with countless people and companies. It was an amazing experience.
So what led you to close the store and start your new venture?
I’ve always been interested in therapy but didn’t want to start a practice before working on my own healing first. After studying privately for a while, I had test clients for 18 months and then found an online school. I still had the shop and I knew I couldn’t sustain studying at the same time but also found it hard to let go of my baby. Then Malta went into shut down due to Covid so the decision to close was made for me!
Why did you choose therapy exactly?
My interest in psychology began early on. I studied it in my youth and was curious about the incredible diversity of human nature and the enormous capability we possess to heal. The development of mental health over recent years has widened our understanding of how the brain and our nervous system operate, as well as how to use the right methods to improve our quality of life. Life took me in a different direction but I’m so grateful I decided to return to my studies.
What do you particularly enjoy about what you do?
While I miss the daily engagement of working in a store, I feel I now have the opportunity to make a more meaningful difference in people’s lives. It’s a privilege to be part of a person’s journey to improving their mental health.
What positive experiences or lessons have you applied from your past venture to what you are doing now?
I loved my Fly the Fly customer conversations but noticed I had trouble leaving this behind at the shop and I was worried the same thing would happen to me as a therapist. So I knew I needed to be aware of any tendencies to bring home my clients’ problems. It’s taught me to be vigilant, release my ego and be present for them without letting my own emotions get in the way. I don’t mean I’m not empathic. Just that it’s important that I use empathy in a way that’s beneficial for my clients.
What would you not repeat from your past professional experiences?
As an entrepreneur, I learned that you don’t have to know everything. It’s perfectly ok to take help from others, relinquish control and defer to those who know better if the opportunity exists.
What is the biggest challenge you feel you currently face?
Declining to take on certain clients, such as old customers, as they’re too close. Obviously as Malta is so small, this can be a challenge! And I can’t say no to everyone. I just use my best judgement to figure out where the line is and how close someone is to my inner core.
Would you say you’ve found your passion/calling in life?
I’m very passionate about this. Life is always evolving and I’m open to exploring different ways to practise therapy while also incorporating my other interests.
“Finding your own path is key to self-development and moving forward.”
One half of the SHE Malta founding duo, Julia can probably be called the definitive OG. Describing life in the UK after leaving SHE (a decision she’s described as one of the hardest ever), Julia confessed to times of turbulence, calm and joy. And her ventures of the last few years reveal a full circle so to speak, in which she has gone from the SHE business community to the arts community in Bath to combining business with art.
What did you do directly after SHE?
After a stint supporting local Bath businesses via my Instagram page, I took a total social media break to focus on self-care, personal space and explore new interests. The latter included volunteering at an art gallery, art history courses and stewarding at prominent exhibitions. Finding purpose and acceptance from another community (this time the arts) helped me slowly move forward and enter another phase of life.
Soon after, my past Instagram posts led the owner of a local candle-making business to approach me to build her online presence. After initial reluctance to end my social media detox, I eventually agreed and it actually resulted in me regaining my confidence to re-enter freelancing and entrepreneurship – even more so after an invitation to the 2022 Bath Life awards when my client’s business was nominated!
What are you up to now?
My new freelance digital marketer hat has given me the chance to work closely with local communities and entrepreneurs, building a clientele including an artisan food & gifts market, a garden centre and an Antiques & Silverware shop. I’ve also taken on a University job and resurrected a previous passion from my Malta life: collecting antiques and sourcing vintage items with a view to opening a shop.
Have you applied any lessons from your previous endeavours to what you’re doing now?
Something of value I’ve taken from the past few years (including working with Sass) is this:
Finding your own path is key to self-development and moving forward. Entrepreneurship does not guarantee financial security. So you may have to balance this with a paying job while you keep pushing a dream until you make it! For me, the goal is financial freedom, independence and creativity. There is no better reward than knowing you made good things happen for yourself and others, be that as an employer, freelancer or team member who feels valued for their part in the success of a business.
What amazing lessons to end on.
We have crossed paths with so many amazing women on the island through SHE and we love nothing more than to give them a platform to shine!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article where we feature 4 more of the SHE OG’s.