“Show up as you are” – An audience with Esther O’Callaghan OBE

This was advice Esther O’Callaghan OBE had for the next generation of female leaders when she spoke at the third in a series of Women in Leadership events held by REED.

Esther left school at 16 and worked as a care worker and with students with autism and learning disabilities before becoming a corporate fundraiser for the Big Issue at 21. By night she was DJing in clubs and decided to found Factory, a record store in Manchester with the vast collection of vinyl that she and her husband had amassed. Out of this came her first philanthropic enterprise, the Factory Foundation, and the start of a career in improving the lives of young people. As one of the youngest civilians to receive an OBE at the age of only 26, she has been named Clarins and You magazine’s ‘Most Dynamic Woman of the Year’. She was a board member of the Big Lottery Fund and Chair of its ‘Young People’s Fund’ and is the founder of THRIVE Youth Trust, which aims to bring employers and young people closer and supports young people into employment.

As well as being a hugely successful entrepreneur, she is also a successful athlete: a triathlon competitor, British cycling coach and an Ironman competitor. She generously agreed to share her knowledge, experience and insights with Co-Members at REED. Here are four takeaways from the event:

1.“Show up as you are”

Whilst highlighting her atypical business wear (Adidas trainers and sweatshirt) Esther advised, ‘Show up as you are’. She mentioned that, at work especially, people often have preconceived stereotypes and assumptions of what they are ‘supposed to be’, what they’re supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to act. She explained that people are often surprised when they meet her for the first time because they expect someone significantly older. But, she continued, it’s important to ‘stand in your own power and strength’. Many of us have fallen guilty to projecting versions of ourselves, but being true to who you are will get you further than ‘wearing a mask’.  No one is perfect and that’s ok.

2. “Have the lowest possible tolerance for bullshit”

The advice Esther had for the next generation of female talent is to ‘have the lowest possible tolerance for bullshit’. Compromise where you can and where you can’t…don’t. Esther admitted that she’s faced unfairness in her career; at one point taking home a significantly lower paycheck than one of her male colleagues – and looking back – regrets not speaking out about it at the time.

3. “People look across not up”

Esther stressed the importance of earning the respect of the people around you, no matter your level of seniority. She gave the example of cleaning up at the end of an event, stating she’d do what needed to be done and happily assist with the clean up. Instead of listing names from The Forbes 500 when asked who inspired her career, she pointed to the young people she has worked with throughout her career, explaining that she is inspired by what people go through and where they come from; the resilience they demonstrate. 

4. “Change things by doing, not by beating people over the head”

Esther’s work is a sterling example of this. She saw underprivileged young people struggling to get into work, so she did something about it. She mentioned at the beginning of the interview (when referencing her early career) that, ‘somebody, somewhere has to be willing to give you a chance’. Now she’s helping hundreds of young people into meaningful employment, giving them a chance that they otherwise may not have been given.   

Thank you Esther for giving your time to speak at REED’s Women in Leadership event.   

Esther was open, honest and above all a huge inspiration; evidenced by the roar of applause she received from the room.


Esther O’Callaghan OBE is the founder and CEO of THRIVE Youth Trust. REED are working closely with THRIVE Youth Trust to support young people in Northampton into employment.