When it comes to juggling and determination, Michelle Soper-Dyer is pretty impressive. It took her three attempts to get her much-wanted marketing degree – and along the way she didn’t let divorce, being a single mum, a full time job and even a fire dampen her dreams!
What was your career plan when you were younger?
I always wanted to work in the corporate world – Melanie Griffiths in Working Girl was my inspiration. I wanted to work in the big office with huge glass windows with a secretary typing away on a typewriter. My, how things have changed in 25 years!
What happened when you went to university the first time?
I lasted 48 hours! My parents and sister drove me all the way to Manchester (we lived near Winchester) on the Saturday. By Sunday morning I had called home telling them if they didn’t come and get me I’d be on the first train Monday morning.
I had just turned 18, and my birthday present from my parents was some designer luggage especially to take with me to Manchester. Looking back now it all sounds so exciting, but 15 years ago I felt so alone and scared.
How did it feel to drop out?
I felt a total failure. In the run up to starting university my dad accompanied me to Manchester for my interviews, and both my parents had then come on a second trip to choose my halls of residence. So much time, money and energy had been invested in my future and I had thrown it all away.
I had also turned down a job offer to take the place at university, so was literally in a worse place within 48 hours than I was before. I came home and hid for a few weeks, so embarrassed that I had let my parents, and myself down.
Nine months later I had a call from a girl I’d met at my university interview. She had taken a gap year and was phoning so I could show her the ropes that coming September. It was so embarrassing having to tell her I wasn’t there – and that aside from the Arndale Centre and two bars, I knew nothing about Manchester!
You made to university a second time, only to leave again. How hard was it to go back, and why did you leave?
I went back as a part-time student when my son Max was 12 months old (I was also working at that time). Even that started with a drama – my then husband accidentally set fire to our house the day before I was due to start my course.
18 months into the course, my husband and I separated. I was working two part time jobs and studying at that time, but being on my own with a toddler meant I needed to work full time.
I could have chosen to stay on at university with help from the benefits system, but I’d grown up with a mum that went back to work with me in tow at two weeks old, and the work ethic was already ingrained.
How did you feel at that point – were you still determined to have a career you loved?
I was gutted that yet again I’d failed to obtain the qualification I so desperately wanted. But at that time, ensuring Max and I kept our home was my biggest priority.
I promised to never give up though – I just needed to build a career first which would allow me to earn as much as possible. I had small goals, such as earning certain amounts of money, certain responsibilities etc that kept me focused.
What did you do next?
I found my first full time marketing role – again with a lot of help from my parents with childcare – and worked as hard as possible. My next role saw me travel to Europe and America. Again, my parents and sister were a huge support with Max.
You finally made it back to university a third time – how did it feel to finally graduate?
I knew I would never secure a Marketing Manager role without my level six diploma, so as soon as Max and I were settled in our new life in Southsea with my now husband Nick, I returned to university. I was also working full time, and missed so many social occasions while studying – poor Nick!
What I learnt is ingrained in me forever though – I live and breathe marketing. And seeing my parents smile when I stood up to collect my certificate was amazing.
What have you been doing since?
Once I had graduated (and my parents finally had the gown picture to hang on their dining room wall) I secured my first senior marketing role working for Land Securities. I then moved to IBM – which was the Working Girl dream – large offices with lots of computers (no typewriters though!).
I also obtained my Chartered Marketer Status, become a school governor and vice-chair of the Chartered Institute of Marketing Hampshire Committee. My friends are always telling me I take on too much, but I seem to thrive on the busy pace of life.
How important is it to you to have a career and be a mum?
Incredibly important! When I had Max, I was suffering with depression, couldn’t drive and felt very isolated. Though the first few months weren’t easy, Max became my reason for being. He needed to have a mum who would provide for him, encourage him, support him, and most importantly to me, a mum he could be proud of.
Of course Max is my proudest achievement. But one day he’ll find his own way in the world and thankfully I have my career to keep me going.
How did you manage to work and study while raising your family?
With a lot of help and support! I literally would not have achieved anything without my parents. My dad was always on hand to pick Max up from nursery or to look after him while I attended lectures.
Financially for the first few years, when I earnt very little money, they would buy Max his main birthday and Christmas presents too – so he never went without. Thankfully now the tables have turned and I’m the one buying them the decent presents!
What strengths do you think being a mum has given you – and enabled you to be more successful as a result?
- Determination – parenting is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Agility – you need to be able to change from a chef to a taxi driver to an interior designer within seconds.
- Time management – I’ve never missed a school play, even it meant I’ve been sat at my laptop until midnight to catch up.
Who inspires you?
My mum. At 73 she still works full time and looks after my dad who has been poorly for the last few years. She still puts my towels out on my bed when I stay over and will go into my overnight bag to grab my clothes to iron. I wish I was more like my mum.
Also Dolly Parton! Anyone who can be that famous yet have total mystery in her personal life has got the whole career thing sorted.
What advice do you have for other women in a similar position to you?
Young mums need to realise that a career in the corporate world is still possible. With a lot of hard work you can achieve your dreams while building a loving family home.