Dr Sharon Wright at work

What’s her story? #1 Dr Sharon Wright

Surviving the freelance life in London during lockdown – with Dr. Sharon Wright of Creative Wit and The Learning Crowd.

Dr. Sharon Wright is what’s called a “portfolio worker” – someone who mixes and matches different types of skillsets across diverse projects. We worked together all over the UK when I was an education consultant/arts manager/comms officer. The recession had triggered the collapse of the building industry, and as specialists in designing and building new schools our future looked shaky. Then, a mutual colleague brought us and others together for a new business called The Learning Crowd. They’re still going strong and are still a rather zany but passionate bunch who are changing the world, one school at a time! Sharon also freelances as The Creative Wit. We caught up after a five-year gap via Zoom, when London was still in lock-down.

Top 4 messages for freelancers

On London life in lock-down

London is weird. It’s so quiet. We live near Heathrow and usually you can hear the planes. But now you can hear the birds singing. You look up, and you can see the stars because there’s not the same kind of pollution.

On being a ‘pandemic fail’

I’ve been home-based since I went self-employed in 2004 but I’d usually be on trains a few days a week, going to client meetings around the country. But now my husband is now here as well! I’m at the dining room downstairs, he’s in the spare room upstairs. And he’s an employment lawyer – so as you can imagine he’s been absolutely swamped.

I definitely miss getting out of the house, meeting colleagues, chatting. I feel like a total pandemic fail. I haven’t done online yoga, I haven’t baked a banana cake, I haven’t learnt Mandarin. My energy has been focussed on getting up in the morning and putting on my pandemic pants that I’ve been living in for the last 8 weeks, and working.

On her current project

I’m developing an education strategy for a brand new, sustainable garden town in Kent. There’ll be up to 10,000 new homes, 7 primary schools, 1 secondary and 1 special school. It’s a clean sheet of paper. It’s a joy.

On pivoting your business when times are tough

I started Creative Wit when I left full time employment and started consulting. I was mostly working on school building projects because Building Schools for the Future [a government initiative to rebuild every high school in the country!] was going on at that time.

Everything collapsed in 2010 [following the 2008 recession in the UK], and I joined Gareth Long and The Learning Crowd (TLC) in 2012. I split my practice at that point. All my education work now goes through them as a Senior Associate. As Creative Wit, it’s just me. I’m a sole trader. I do strategic organisational development work: strategy, visioning, business planning, and community engagement for local and central government, charities, and public sector organisations.

On joining forces with like-minded people

The Learning Crowd is a group of educationalists, and I specialise in the built environment. I work a lot around the design of schools and strategy – education strategy for that new garden town for example. We’ve got other consultants in TLC who are specialists around technology or how schools are managed and organised around curriculum. We have complementary skills.

It’s great to collaborate with a trusted group of people. If something comes in that I can’t do I give to one of my network. We share things and do projects with one another. I collaborate with another group of consultants called Urban Canda. My friend Miffa has gathered around her an amazing group of consultants who all have their own practice but collaborate.

On addressing inequality

The things that have been coming up are around inequality, wellbeing and mental health, and the impact that this is going to have on young people and on staff in schools. There has been a lot of worry about children on free school meals [a brilliant program in the UK where disadvantaged children get a free hot meal every day because they won’t get one at home]. Once vulnerable children are out of sight, how do we keep tabs on those families that schools have got concerns about?

A lot of young people don’t have access to technology. So if you’re trying to do things online they’re missing out. Or maybe they have only one laptop in the family that parents are trying to use for working at home.

People have started to understand that schools are not just about exams. You can cancel exams, and actually the world doesn’t end. What schools provide is something much more important than that in terms of their relationships, their safeguarding, keeping children fed, childcare. It’s flipped the discussions.

Dr Sharon Wright with her cat

On not fitting into a neat box

Three years ago I had a crisis of confidence. I was Managing Director of a not-for-profit in my early 30s and I questioned what I had been doing with my career over the last 16 years since I went self-employed. I felt stuck in a rut. I started looking at jobs. And I realised – I can’t do those jobs now because they are so specific in what they want. I have so many skills that they don’t recognise in those job descriptions. 

It’s harder to see your achievements when you’re a sole trader because you’re always working for someone else. But if you’ve got a difficult client who’s demanding things at 12 o’clock at night you’ve got to tell yourself – at least I can walk away from them. You have to understand the control that you’ve got.

You really have to think about the experiences you’ve gained over time. And be constantly thinking: what can I add to my client’s work? How can I bring benefit for them? All that experience I’ve got: how can I turn that into something that’s useful for them? It’s a constant challenge but it’s exciting.

On investing in yourself

It’s really important as a sole trader to continue your own development. There’s not somebody organising your professional development – you’ve got to do it. Being part of those professional networks is really important. Going to events, making time to research, to think, to engage with issues – which when you’re trying to pay the bills and keep the work days up is really hard to do. Getting the balance of personal and professional development right when nobody’s telling you what to do is really key.

On the first thing she’s going to do when Covid-19 is over

Like every woman I know, go to the bloody hairdresser. I get my hair cut every five weeks and it’s been nine weeks now. It’s bonkers. I look like a badger [she does not]. In retrospect, if I’d have known this, I’d have gone into lockdown with Zac my hairdresser. I keep text messaging him saying – I’m going to be the first in the queue with my nose pressed up against the salon door when this is over.

On taking nothing or no-one for granted anymore

We need to appreciate the people who provide services for us. We’ve realised it’s the people who collect our bins who are important, the local shop owners who are keeping going, hairdressers, shoe repair guys – our artisans, who we take for granted.

There’s a lot of appreciation here for frontline workers like the NHS and emergency services. We live in a little one-way street. Every Thursday we go out at 8 o’clock and we clap for the NHS. The first week I was bawling my eyes out. Everybody does it across the country. Every Thursday. Everybody. It’s the one chance we have to smile at our neighbours and say hello.

It would be nice not to go back to normal. What’s wrong with normal is we can do things better. It would be nice to do things better.

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