I went from being bankrupt and having a breakdown to running a successful business and helping other women to do the same.

The battles Sarah Pittendrigh faced when her life fell apart in her thirties and how she clawed her way back to a life of purpose, success and security has inspired her to pay forward the lessons she learnt through her experiences.

I studied business at college, married my childhood sweetheart Stewart, bought our first home in rural Northumberland, gave birth to my son William and went on to become a partner and board director of a leisure and event business. Sadly, due to pressure put on our marriage from my husband’s parents, we divorced and Stewart returned to run his family farm. Then, on the cusp of the 2008 recession, my business partners and I heavily invested in a client contract that never came to full fruition. We were left bankrupt and in August of 2008, I shut my office door for the last time.

The reality of bankruptcy was grim. I’d never had any debt in my life, now I was a bankrupt with all the stigma that brings. I felt like my head was going to blow off. I couldn’t breathe. The voice in my head telling me that I was no good became deafening. I was having panic attacks that made me scarily short of breath and I lay awake at night worrying. I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t borrow money. The bank arrived to repossess my home. Self-sufficiency had always been a rock to me, ever since I got my first job as a teenager. The only thing I’d had to hang on to after the killer blow of the divorce was my financial independence. Now I felt so out of control.

I went to the job centre to sign on and when it was my turn to talk to an employment adviser, I explained everything that had happened and asked: “You don’t know me at all, but I don’t want to get a job. I want to start my own business. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but will you please just give me a little time?”

There was a pause. Probably one of the most important pauses of my life.

He smiled at me. “We’ll review it in 2 months,” he said. “See what you’re up to”. And he signed me up for Income Support.

Finding my inner voice

His trust in me activated my inner voice (the one I now try and help other people find). “Sarah” the voice said, “you need to get off your backside. You can’t let your son lose his home if there’s any kind of chance you could keep it”. William, now nine years old, was on free school meals and was being bullied on the school bus. My son is everything to me and his suffering was a huge spur to DO something.

At home during the school day, the silence was deafening. My survival mechanism was to keep busy. I had the cleanest house, the best ironed clothes. I made comfort food; cottage pie, hot pots and cakes. One day, around a month after I had been to the job centre, I looked out and there was a man in a suit standing in my garden. I opened the window and shouted out: “Who are you? What are you doing?”

He came over, very politely, and said: “I’m here from the bank. I need to value your house; I’ll be taking photographs and measurements because it’s about to go up for auction”.

I wept then. It was really happening.

It was a long afternoon. We started to chat as he took the pictures and got out his tape measure to work out how much my beloved home was worth. I discovered that he’d also lost his job and he was doing part-time valuations to make ends meet. I made him a cup of tea and discovered that our home was worth less than my mortgage. That sounds like a terrible thing to hear, but it gave me a bit of hope because I thought if my house is in negative equity there is no benefit to the bank to have it.

Salvation came on two fronts: my Mum and a lurcher puppy, Sam. I always get my best ideas when I am walking; it helps stop the whirring thoughts and makes me concentrate on the big picture. From the day Sam arrived I would walk him, whatever the weather, with my mum. Brainstorming, talking mum’s ears off.

We chatted about all sorts of things, including my brother’s wedding reception which I’d organised through my events company. We’d wanted pretty chair covers to make the room look beautiful, but when they arrived the colour was all wrong and there weren’t enough for all the guests. I’d had such a battle to get my money back. I began fixating on that linen and the experience. How there was nothing to be done on the day when the linen turned up and it was disappointing

My light bulb moment

That was the light bulb moment. “There’s an opportunity here to create a fantastic service for luxury weddings and events”. We would offer a quality and reliable service. The chair covers would be bespoke, we’d hand press and fit them on the day to ensure that they were beautifully presented. We could offer organza and satin bows, sure, but also all sorts of other colours, fabrics and original designs too. My imagination started running riot.

As soon as I got home, I turned on my computer and started looking into who else was offering such a service. Where were they located? How much were they charging? I looked at leading fashion designers and their catwalks from the current seasons to find inspiration for colours and trends. I was suddenly starting to feel alive. In retrospect it seems crazy. I had no idea where to source that kind of linen. I had no factory, no contacts. I knew nothing about how to make them. But I had a dream.

With a start-up grant of £3,000 from Business Link, a government-run enterprise agency, a loan from my parents and a precious Cashminder bank account with the Co-op, I set up Simply Bows and Chair Covers. I started by calling clients I had worked with previously. The response to my business model and my products from our initial telephone calls was so positive that many of the wedding managers I spoke to invited me into their venues to present to them what I had to offer. What a huge relief to hear some positivity; there was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

In the first year of Simply Bows and Chair Covers I made a high five-figure profit and was able to reclaim our home from the bank. In 2012, after the death of his parents, I remarried my ex-husband, Stewart and in 2015 I won the inaugural NatWest Entrepreneur of the Year for the company which I had franchised, with 12 offices around the country.

Living not existing

Success was a relief, but busyness was my addiction. I felt if I kept busy everything would be all right. In a funny way, it was only after being diagnosed and treated for malignant melanoma skin cancer aged 43 that I started to feel that I was really living, rather than just existing. I decided to do a feasibility study on myself, in the same way I had done with all my business projects.

I asked myself big questions: “What do I want? Who am I? When did I last feel happy? What does happy feel like? What is my purpose in life?”

And what came out was:

1. I really wanted to pay forward the lessons I have learned through adversity.

2. I love mentoring and supporting people. I love to help people succeed, be the best version of themselves.

So I decided to become a mindset and business mentor, and I created the I CAN Method. Everything I do, I do from the heart, whether in my book THE I CAN METHOD, or my social media channels, or my public speaking. I coach with genuine empathy and understanding. There’s little anyone can share with me that I haven’t been through in some way. Divorce, bereavement, bankruptcy, cancer, self-doubt, rejection—I’ve got the t-shirt on the lot!

I’ve found that the true legacy of cancer is huge gratitude. I am so grateful just to be here. The sky is bluer than it ever was before. The flowers are brighter and prettier and smell more fragrant. Colours are more vivid. When I walk my dog, I feel full of a sense of joy.

Ignite your passion and purpose

I hope that by telling you what happened to me, the vulnerabilities that stalked me and the dark times I endured, I can inspire you to break through the challenges you are facing in your life, or business. I transformed my life, and you can too. Not by being bullet-proof or a super woman, but by working through a series of logical steps to turn everything around.

The future is yours for the taking when you ignite your passion and purpose, have clarity on where you are and where you want to be, have an action plan and most importantly nurture yourself. If you believe in yourself and follow these 4 steps, you will be on the right path to turn your I CAN’TS into I CAN and build a solid foundation for your future. My mantra is that it’s never too late and you’re never too old to build a life you love. You owe it to yourself and I wish you every success.

Sarah Pittendrigh will be joining Eleanor for a Noon event on Linkedin at 6.30pm, 31 January. THE I CAN METHOD by Sarah Pittendrigh is published on 26 January in print, ebook and audiobook. 

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