Sarah Weldon is the CEO of environmental and STEM education charity ‘Oceans Project’, an organisation which raises funds through ocean rowing and public speaking, to provide free, online education to some of the most disadvantaged young people in the world, including children who have been human trafficked, children orphaned through gender or disability, and children living and working on toxic rubbish dumps.

In May 2015, Sarah will row the length of the River Thames, before heading out to sea, in a bid to become the first person in the world to row solo around Great Britain. Sarah’s 3000 mile, 14 week row, will take her along the same routes that the Vikings rowed one thousand years ago, providing the perfect opportunity to draw comparisons between the science, technology, engineering, and maths involved in building a boat, navigating, and surviving at sea in the viking age and the present.

For International women’s Day 2014, Skype named Sarah as a ‘Woman Changing the World Through Technology’. Sarah is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Wings Worldquest Flag Carrier, and Google Glass Explorer.

1. How do you set goals and stick to them and how do you celebrate success?

At school I was encouraged to set ‘realistic’ goals but they never excited me. School entered me into the lower papers for subjects such as maths, so the highest grade I could get was an E. When I got my results, I had top grades in everything, apart from maths. The school had inadvertently encouraged me to set my sights low, and in a competitive world this could mean the difference between being selected or rejected for jobs and studies.  It felt like the equivalent of entering the Olympic games and aiming for last place rather than the gold medal.  It made no sense.

That experience taught me to always aim for the gold medal, the best case scenario, the one in your perfect world. The higher you aim, the more exciting the journey, regardless of whether you make it to a podium position.  Once you have a goal that is 100% yours, create a list of things you need to do to achieve that goal.  Do they seem ‘do-able’ or do you need to bring in an expert to help you with it or to teach you new skills. The smaller your steps, the easier they are to complete and to feel like you are making progress. Celebrate every success, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, and use these to motivate you towards the next step on the path.

I’ve found that the biggest challenges are often the best lessons to learn, and have ultimately helped to transform the project into something even more special. Embrace the challenges, and as my Publicist says, they make the story even more exciting.

2. How important are role models in inspiring successful women of the future?

Hugely important. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have passed any exams in school, had it not been for the inspiring female teachers who taught me the value of education as a passport to the future. When another human being gives up their time or energy and sees more in your future than you do, it makes you feel valued and want to try harder for them, even if you don’t yet believe in yourself. It really means a lot.  In times of challenge, I find it useful to internalise role models, and ask myself ‘what would they do if they were me in this situation’ or ‘what would they be telling me right now’. Role models help show us alternatives or behaviours that we aspire to in our own lives, especially when we see them overcome adversity or gracefully deal with losing a race, or tackling a new challenge.  We like to see them succeed, because if they can do amazing things, then so can we if we follow what they do.

3. You have dedicated your life to achieving success, what advice can you give to our members about staying focussed and managing time efficiently?

When I start to struggle with motivation, I change what I’m doing. If I’m struggling to come up with an idea, I’ll often take a bath, walk the dog, or clean the house as that is when my brain starts to make all sorts of weird and wonderful connections. If a task is difficult and taking up too much of your time, leave it for a bit and focus on a task that is quick and simple, or more enjoyable so you get a sense of achievement. Then come back to the challenging task with a new energy and a can do attitude, and break it into manageable chunks. If you are struggling to maintain focus or to find the time there is usually a good reason, and sometimes just taking some time off can help you to get your motivation back, equally, if you find you always have an excuse for not doing something, you are probably afraid of some element of that task, and that is what is holding you back. Identifying those reasons, especially if its guilt or anxiety can often help to address the real reason that you are struggling to stay on task.

4. Have you had to overcome any setbacks to get where you are today? If so, what advice can you give to our members about overcoming challenges?

Be patient and be persistent. Sometimes great ideas take a long time to be accepted. I was recently speaking at an event with Sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web, something which has revolutionised the way we live and work today.  I couldn’t believe it when I heard that when he first put forward his invention, it was put aside for a number of years because it seemed like a ridiculous idea.  Likewise when penicillin was invented it spent 12 years on a shelf.  Had it been accepted earlier on, it could have saved thousands of lives during the war as soldiers died from infected wounds. If you believe that you have an amazing concept or feel passionate about your goal, then stick with it.  There were companies that I really wanted to work with, who turned me down year after year, but eventually ended up contacting me to be a sponsor because the time was now right for them and they had refreshed their strategies. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right, but its always worth getting the ‘no’ from the decision maker, rather than the person on the ground who just quotes company policy at you without even reading your vision.  I’ve found that the biggest challenges are often the best lessons to learn, and have ultimately helped to transform the project into something even more special. Embrace the challenges, and as my Publicist says, they make the story even more exciting.

5. How important is it to take responsibility for your own development?

Absolutely vital. This is your dream, your goal, your baby. You brought it into the world and you know what you want for its future.  As with any parent, you learn through trial and error, and when you don’t know what to do, you seek advice, through Google, phoning a friend, reading a book, or making an appointment with a specialist. Don’t hide behind excuses, and be sure to focus on the things you are doing well at, not all the things you are doing wrong. Focus on the solutions not the problems and everything will fall into place soon enough. Take failures and challenges as lessons to learn from, and move forward.

6. What is the benefit of having a coach or a mentor?

I didn’t have a great experience with business coaching, but that’s because the coach wasn’t the right person for me, and didn’t understand the project properly, so I would leave each session feeling disheartened and annoyed at having wasted valuable time away from my work which I loved. I now work with a number of coaches and mentors on different aspects of the project, from mental strength coaching to business mentoring.  Each is incredibly valuable, and a good sounding board for dealing with any new ideas, as well as insecurities which might be holding me back.  I was incredibly nervous about speaking in group situations and on stage at first, but I’ve been working with an amazing lady called Alexandra Watson who has really helped me to to overcome my fears of public speaking. I now speak regularly as a way of bringing in funds for the charity, and am enjoying it now that I’ve started to relax more on stage.  Aside from being more confident at speaking on stage, this has had a knock on effect to how I view myself as a business woman, athlete, and as someone leading a large team of people, which has improved the way that the project runs as an entity in its own right.

The smaller your steps, the easier they are to complete and to feel like you are making progress. Celebrate every success, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, and use these to motivate you towards the next step on the path.

7. How does your normal day start and end?

No two days are the same really, and because I travel a lot it can be really difficult to manage time, budget, and to have a structure or routine.  But being self employed means I do have the flexibility to set my own schedule. I always start off with a good breakfast and cup of tea, and depending how I feel or what the weather is doing, will either travel to the lake for a rowing session, or head straight to my desk to start on the admin. Most days involve teaching a class using Skype in the Classroom, but this depends on their location, so I’m sometimes teaching at 3am.  I prefer to get up later if possible, but to work until 2am or 3am as I find that there are less of the daytime distractions from emails and phone calls, but I always end the day with a snack, cup of tea, and reading a book or watching some catch up television. Otherwise my brain doesn’t really switch off.

8. How do your let your hair down?

I’m a workaholic so I find it really difficult to take time off from the project, but that’s the beauty of doing something that you love.  I’m always thinking about the ‘what next’ or what could be done better.  For me, my favourite things are spending time outside training on the lake or sea (outdoor swimming or on the boat), or talking with the students via Skype or on Facebook, catching up with what is happening in their life. Those are very relaxing activities and make me laugh the most. I don’t have a TV, so to go to the cinema or watching movies is a real treat and often inspiring or uplifting to step outside of yourself for an hour. I like to explore new places, especially cafes and museums, and to go to new places with my little dog and spend some quality time with her.  When I’m with people in my work, or staying in youth hostels, I love it, but it can be very tiring, so I really appreciate the time when I’m on my own and quiet, relaxing with my cats or baking and sat in front of the fire. I really appreciate the home comforts.

9. What are your plans for future?

I’ve just had a birthday, so its a natural time for reflection on the year that was and my final year in my 30s.   I’m really looking forward to Christmas with my best friends, more so because I’ll be flying out to Portugal straight after New Year, to row across the Atlantic Ocean to South America.  I’ll only be home a short time before my main expedition, a solo row around Great Britain between May and September, following the Viking routes around our coast.  Its been three years in the planning so I’m super excited and just to get to the start line will be a massive achievement.  Right now its hard to fathom that I could well have 11 Guinness World Records by my 40th birthday, but I’m sure that will be my lot for ocean rowing, and by that time I’ll be ready to settle down and let someone else take over, whilst I continue on the business side.  I’d like to think that I’ll have more of a routine and stability by then as I’d really like to adopt, an ambition I’ve had since I was very young.

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Public Speaking