Updated: Dec 14, 2019
This is one interview I have wanted to conduct for a while. With someone so accomplished, it is pretty hard to find all the right words; to draft just the right amount of questions. I’ve gone over what I wanted to say in my head a million times. Yet, for the longest period; my brain freeze prevailed and I didn’t feel I would or could do her justice.
Leanne Pero is more than an entrepreneur, she is a 12 x award winning community dance advocate and creator of the community youth dance company ‘The Movement Factory, a mentor, an author, a survivor of stage 3 breast cancer, the Chief Executive Officer of the world iconic brand Pineapple Dance Studios first charity ‘Pineapple Community’ and more recently the creator of registered charity ‘The Leanne Pero Foundation’ as well as being the voice of ethnic minority survivors and current warriors battling against various different forms of cancer with her charities ‘Black Women Rising’ and Black Men Rising. She is the epitome of the strength and perseverance of women and somehow with one of the busiest schedules I have ever seen, will still, somehow, someway find the time to answer these questions because more than anything, her humility matches her work ethic.
Leanne, thank you for agreeing to feature on Women Who Slay. Firstly, I want to congratulate you on your recently celebrating the 20th birthday anniversary of your community dance company ‘The Movement Factory’ a company you started when you were only 15. Having been a dancer and having a passion for dance since childhood, what were the contributing factors behind you turning your passion into a business?
Well dance for me from a young age was an escape from my own realities, being one of 7 children bought up by a single mum on a rough council estate in Peckham, I would always dream of a better life and a more positive future. Being surrounded by poverty, crime and deprivation as a young person, it would have been very easy to be led astray, but I used dance to stay focused, remain off the streets and stay motivated. When I realised the positive impact, dance was having on me and the other girls I danced with I wanted to share this experience with more young people, which led me to run my own dance class at the age of 15. As my dance classes became popular, and we began competing and performing at shows across London, the thrill, buzz and excitement of performing was a feeling I wanted to share with all young people.
At such a young age, you must have come up against a great amount of barriers; especially when traversing around the world of business. How did you manage to balance your entrepreneurial ambitions with being a teenager and where did you find the support to develop your idea into a business venture?
At secondary school I was supported by two fantastic youth workers, who were the first to offer me paid work to run after school dance classes, they went on to become my mentors and supported me as I transitioned from school almost immediately into the world of business. I was taught how to access funding streams, trained in youth work and they pushed me to believe in my dream even at times when it was hard to. I encountered a lot of barriers and setbacks along my journey due to my age, my sex, my race and often all three combined, but I kept going. I also continued with my own self development, studying dance at college, which kept me grounded and focused.
Through your successful career, which now spans 2 decades you have successfully raised over 250,000 to run community dance programmes nationwide. How does it make you feel knowing that you have positively impacted and changed the lives of so many people?
I’m filled with joy to know that a dream that began when I was a little girl, has gone on to become so vital and impactful. I would never have dreamt that I’d still be doing this 20 years later. So many of our students have gone on to become successful artists in their own right which is just amazing. It just goes to show that with the right support, guidance and outlet, which I had from a young age and have gone on to provide others, you can follow your dreams and become whoever you want to be. Providing young people with opportunities to develop skills, make positive friendships, a platform for them to build confidence and flourish so that they don’t become another government statistic of youth crime and violence is my main aim.
When you are a pillar of the community and use your life to serve and help others, many people are often left unaware of the personal battles these individuals may be facing. In 2016, you self-published your first book titled ‘Take Control’ a self-help style book aimed at 18-30 year olds which detailed your own personal battles with depression and life hardships with being a victim of sexual abuse. Releasing a book was a bold and brave decision. What made you decide to write the book and was it a cathartic process for you?
My focus, ambition and selflessness has always been at the forefront of my career which made it very difficult for me to navigate an ordinary life. At times, this impacted my friendships, relationships and often my own emotional wellbeing. After the breakdown of my 10-year relationship, I realised that I wasn’t OK. But as a society we are taught not to talk about mental health, depression and all the things that can lead to it nor are we taught self care. I was encouraged by a mentor, who I had confided in and who had become a father figure to me, to seek counselling which I did, and it was the best decision I had made. I began to learn things about myself that I hadn’t realised before, I learnt to accept my past and how negative experiences had shaped my beliefs and behaviours. Keeping a journal as I underwent therapy was initially part of my healing process, but I found it so liberating and enlightening that I continued to write. I have always been an open book and as I looked through my journal I thought maybe I’d gone through this process so that I could share my experience and help others In the same position. That is how my book came to be.
What was the overall feedback like for ‘Take Control’ and do you have any plans in the pipeline to pen a second book?
The response has been overwhelming, I have had so many people contact me and say how it has helped them to deal with depression and anxiety, given them clarity and empowered them to make changes in their own lives and saved them from “the cliff edge” which feels me with warmth. If me releasing the book saves even just one person then I consider it a job well done.
You have always been transparent about your own personal struggles and ‘Take Control’ is a testament to that fact. How much has your being like an open book helped you in your career working directly with people in the local and wider community?
I think the key to my success within my career is that I’m relatable. I think it’s important for people especially young people to feel represented and understood and sharing my experiences and my platform has helped me to connect on a deeper level with the people I support. Throughout my career I too have encountered and been exploited by people who were disingenuous, narrow minded and only interested in self-promotion, an approach which often cuts short their careers and closed their businesses. In the end I believe people respect transparency, and also have a need to understand what motivates people like me to do the work we do. It's definitely not for the money that’s for sure. (Laughs)
At the end of 2016, you were diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and had to undergo a course of chemotherapy as well having to have a bilateral mastectomy before being given the all clear in 2017. It’s hard for me to type this and try to even begin to understand how you must have been feeling when you were diagnosed. How did you find the strength to fight and keep going at a time when you had some much against you?
Don’t get me wrong after my diagnosis of cancer I was emotionally broken, the treatment, drugs, hospital trips and the mastectomy took its toll and stripped me of all my physical attributes which made me a woman. I quickly became depressed, anxious and traumatised which still to this day, 2 years cancer free, I struggle with. I believe my early experiences as a young girl and throughout my career have made me a fighter. I knew my will to live was stronger than the cancer inside of me. I had seen my mother beat it twice so there was no reason I could not do the same. Returning to some of my helpful self-care practices such as journaling, reading self help books, seeking therapy and talking with other cancer suffers gave me the strength I needed to continue fighting this devastating disease.
You come from a close knit family who have always openly and actively supported and championed your career. With your own mother surviving cancer twice, how much did having a family unit help you in your recovery?
I think my mother having cancer twice, the first diagnosis being when she was in her early 30’s just like me, gave me a unique perspective of what treatment would look and feel like and how my life would be impacted. It helped me to prepare for what was to come and gave me hope that it did not mean I had been given a death sentence. Her second diagnosis came just 6 months before my own and I had been there to supported her as she then supported me. I think my siblings found it hard to digest that I had cancer and I could see how it frightened them but they supported my decisions, propped me up when I was at my weakest and remained positive throughout which was just what I needed.
Where many would have turned the focus solely to themselves after overcoming such a major trauma, In Leanne Pero fashion you once again, looked beyond your own struggles and set about becoming a voice for BAME women who were battling various different forms of cancer. You were triumphant in highlighting both yours, your mothers and the amazing women’s bravery and individual journeys through a series of intimate black and white portraits of all of you and your scars. Seeing the first event of ‘Black Women Rising’ being held in Peckham, South London was a moment I will never forget and was a unifying moment for all women no matter their race. Why was it important for you to launch this charity and to be the one to become an active voice?
After my cancer treatment I realised I was still suffering from depression, anxiety that my cancer would return and I was also left feeling traumatised from the whole experience. When I asked who I could go to for support for my emotional wellbeing post cancer I quickly realised that there was none. The NHS hospital and Drs and nurses were brilliant right from the start of my diagnosis through to the end of my treatment, but their job was to keep me alive. They had achieved that. I was one of the lucky one’s as far as people were concerned and should be happy to still be here as many were not. But I didn’t feel lucky nor did I feel happy. It was when I began blogging as an outlet for my thoughts and feelings that I realised I was not alone. Many women especially women of colour were feeling exactly how I felt, had experienced the trauma and isolation and struggled to feel catered for by mainstream cancer support services.
I created Black Women Rising initially as a support group for some of the women I had began to interact with online. The support group provided a safe space for us all to connect, share stories, discuss our unique experiences as women of colour, we laughed and cried as we addressed issues such as cultural taboos and stereo types, but we also realised that there were more women out there suffering in silence. The Black Woman Rising Exhibit: The Untold Stories was born out of a desire to capture the truth about cancer and the need to spark much needed conversation within the black community about cancer it has gone on to become the UK’s first all women all BAME cancer exhibit. Working with the renowned photographer Noam Friedman we captured the portraits and scars of 14 BAME women who had survived or were fighting cancer. These portraits became the focus of our exhibit and we combine this with panel talks and interactive discussions with the women that make their stories of cancer come alive.
Creating Black women rising and working with charities such as Cancer support UK and on the Cop a Feel Campaign it has bought to my attention that there is so much work needed to raise awareness of cancer within the BAME community. Especially when the stats speak for themselves - women of colour are less likely to seek medical help in the early stages of cancer which lead to late diagnosis, the need for more invasive and life changing treatment and sometimes death. Its important for me to do this work as it can save lives.
The work you have done with ‘Black Women Rising’ has received mainstream press coverage and continues to create waves. From the initial idea, how long did the overall process take to move it from idea to fruition?
I would say from my initial blogging and interaction with other cancer sufferers to our first support group it took between 3-6 months. You are not only an entrepreneur, you are an award winning entrepreneur with series of accolades including: Black Business Initiative Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2008, 2010 and 2014, Southwark Community Champion Award in 2008, GLE London Rising Star of the Year Award in 2009, a London Youth Community award in 2017 and more recently you are to be honoured by the Black Magic Awards 2019 for your community work. Not bad from a young, black woman from Peckham, South London. How do you feel about the fact that your work and the impact does not go unnoticed and out of all your accolades, do any of them stand out as a pivotal moment in your career?
Ahh there have been so many that I am grateful for. I think one of my biggest highlights was when I was chosen as one of the London 2012 Olympic torch bearers, to be catapulted onto a huge stage like that as a recognition for all my work in the community has to be a one in a lifetime experience.
Through your entrepreneurial endeavours you have worked with a number of brands and companies including: Nike, Kelly Holmes Education, Southbank Centre, Peckham Levels, The Media Trust, Houses of Parliament, Gordon Brown as well as being featured in and on media outlets including: The Huffington Post, The Sun Newspaper, The Metro, Sky News and the BBC. Out of all these features and collaborations, are you able to choose your most memorable highlight?
My most memorable highlight was when I was approached to be part of a documentary which would see me mentored by the founder of the renowned Pineapple dance studios, Debbie Moore OBE. Collaborating with Debbie and receiving her invaluable business advice and guidance has changed the fortunes of my business. We went through a huge re brand and held our launch at Pineapple studios. Since then The Movement Factory has gone from strength to strength. We have now received our first contract with NIKE who have sponsored us to continue delivering workshops for young people.
With so many ventures on the go, I wonder if you actually ever find time to sleep! What does a typical day in the life of Leanne Pero the entrepreneur look like?
Sleep? I don’t sleep. Well if I do it’s a few hours here and there. That’s just how I’ve always been. I’m quite hyperactive and like to keep busy its normal for me to wake up at 3am and start typing away at my laptop then I’m up and out of the house by 8am to meetings, photoshoots, or my office at Peckham Levels. Late afternoon and evenings I’m usually busy co-coordinating the different dance initiatives I run and then I’m home usually by 8pm. The beauty of being a entrepreneur is that I’m able to balance my work life so that when I need to take time for myself to have a duvet day or two, relax or take a vacation I can delegate and trust my team to take care of things. I think that taking time to relax and unwind is very important.
How do you unwind and distress when you are not working?
Outside of my job, I’m just like any other woman of my age I guess, I like socialising, going out to eat checking in with friends and family. I practice yoga which helps me physically and mentally and also continue with therapy. I also like to travel when I can.
What tips or pearls of wisdom have you learned along the way that you can impart to our readers?
I think a pearl of wisdom I’d like to share with your readers is to be your authentic self in all situations, do not be afraid of rejection and setbacks the worst thing someone can say is no and you should also say no too when a situation does not serve your best interests.
What or who drives and motivates you the most?
I think I’m driven by a whole host of things – the young people I support, the amazing women I connect with through my charity work and my own passion for providing a platform for others.
What’s next for in the pipeline for Leanne Pero?
Well it’s a very busy time for me as I launched the Leanne Pero Foundation earlier this year, which has now received Charity status and I have just finished the second stop in the Black Women Rising Exhibition which was part of a 3 day creative take over at the Prestigious Barge House, Oxo Tower Wharf. There is lot's more in the pipeline so watch this space.
Follow The Movement Factory @themovementfactory
By Sasha Shantel @womenwhoslay_