School Daze: 'I learned about myself' - Vodafone CEO Anne O'Leary

School Daze: 'I learned about myself' - Vodafone CEO Anne O'Leary

In Conversation with Ciara McDonnell

I was a happy and carefree child. I loved being outdoors and playing with my friends and there was quite a community around Beaumont Drive, in Cork, where I lived. I had three brothers, so we were always up to a bit of mischief.

A memory that stands out when I think of my school days was in sixth class of primary school. Our teachers were looking to put together a debating team to represent our school. I didn’t put myself forward for selection, because I didn’t think I would be any good at it, to be honest.

I remember my teacher coming and speaking to me and insisting I try out. I did and I am delighted she encouraged me, as I discovered I was actually very good at it! 

Yet, I didn’t have the initial confidence to put myself forward: that was a lesson to me about trying new things and not being afraid to put myself forward, which stayed with me as my life went on. 

For secondary school, I attended the Ursuline Convent in Blackrock. On my first day at the Ursuline, I was nervous and excited, but also secure in the knowledge that my friends from primary school were starting along with me and we were all in the same boat. I remember being very intimidated by the sheer scale of the building.

During those years, I was very involved in drama and organising the school plays. It brought me such joy over those years. It was an outlet for my creative side, something I hugely enjoyed.

School discos happened on Friday nights in Cork Con. The Ursuline girls used to go to these. We would all be dancing around the place and the boys would be watching from the sides of the room. Of course, they were very different to discos nowadays. They were alcohol-free and all very innocent, but an awful lot of fun.

Throughout school, I loved learning and I learned fast, but I wasn’t so great at studying or ever feeling particularly motivated to study. I didn’t have the concentration. Studying wasn’t as much of a focus when I was at school, not compared to the pressures there are today.

When I think of the lessons that I learned during my school years that apply to my life today, there are a number that stand out to me. 

While at school, I learned the value of developing relationships with people from different backgrounds and places. The friends I made during these years taught me how important friendships and support systems are in life. It also taught me the importance of diversity of thought and opinion. 

I still have a group of really good friends from school, who I have stayed in contact with and that I am close to. It is always great to get together and reminisce about our school days. It certainly gives us a good laugh.

I also firmly believe in finding a hobby or a sport; something that you enjoy, but also allows you to meet new people and work as part of a team, and that has served me well throughout my career.

I always remember being told to keep being myself and to find a job that I really enjoyed. Also, to ensure I had a passion or a hobby; something I did for pure joy that made me happy and content. That is certainly something I still carry with me and apply to my life today.

When I consider myself as a schoolgirl, there are a few things I would like to tell that girl. 

My advice would be to do your best, take risks, and go for it. For young girls, I would say: be confident, don’t be afraid or embarrassed about your abilities.

I would ask her to always do her best and apply herself to whatever it was that she decided to do. I would advise her to always be kind. I would encourage sport and being involved in a sport that she loves. I would tell her to enjoy life and to keep having fun. I’d reminder her to always be herself and to be confident in her own abilities… and maybe study a bit more!

If I think of my teachers, one who really stands out is Ms O’Sullivan, my music teacher at the Ursuline. She really drove the arts programme at the school: everything from music and drama to dance. She was incredibly kind and took such a personal interest in her students and really encouraged us all to get involved. If I met her now, I would have to say a huge thank you to her for all of the extra time she put in, outside of school hours, to help and mentor us.

Life today is very different for young people, and there are a few pieces of advice that I would like to pass on. I would really encourage them to find what they love, in terms of physical or creative activity and to give as much time to that as they do to their studies. Mental health and wellbeing are so very important. 

My advice would be to do your best, take risks, and go for it. For young girls, I would say: be confident, don’t be afraid or embarrassed about your abilities. Aim high and consider a career in STEM.

  • Anne O’Leary was speaking at the Cork University Business School (CUBS) annual conference at the Cork Opera House last week.

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