Ilona Brenninkmeijer: Unconventional Me

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Ilona I’ve been inspired by Ilona’s commitment and drive since I met her 5 years ago when she was at University at UCL. She has always found work that is of meaning to her, following her intuition and gut rather than feeling compelled to take on a “proper job”.

I sat down with her in August 2015 to find out more about how she makes her career choices and find out where she plans to head next.

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link below.

So tell me, what are you working on at the moment?

The biggest project I am working on at the moment is Baretalks; starting up my own business. Baretalks is a platform for honest conversations and at the moment I’m focusing on mental health. So running workshops, talks and events all around mental health. But besides Baretalks I do all sorts of freelancing in education; tutoring, working for other companies delivering leadership training to students and also mental health workshops to students.

And what got you on this path? Tell me from how you got from university to where you are today.

I think it starts back at school. I did the International Baccalaureate rather than A levels, so I did 6 different subjects. I enjoyed all of them, except for maths (!) and couldn’t really decide what to do at university but always had known I wanted to take a gap year, to practice my languages and work abroad. With regards to university I kept searching for combined courses and came up with a very sort of multi-disciplined course called Human Sciences at UCL. And that approach I have kind of taken to everything!

So while I was at university I didn’t know what I wanted to do afterwards but I just carried on doing what it was that I enjoyed. So I chose modules that I enjoyed because I could really tailor my degree the way I wanted. And I distinctly remember in the second year of university all of my friends applying to graduate programmes and part of me felt that I should do it too. But the minute I sat down to do it I realised the only reason I was sitting down to do it was because everyone else was.

Actually I’ve never done what everyone else does just for the sake of it.

It sounds almost counter-intuitive but I think the biggest reason I decided not to apply for the graduate schemes was because I was worried I’d be offered a job and I’d take it! So I was a little bit stubborn around that and actually chose to spend my summer again practicing my languages. So I went abroad and spent a month in Cuba because I knew that whatever I do in the future will be international and languages are always useful.

Then at university I started tutoring and absolutely loved that so I carried that on. I tutor mostly GCSE as that is the most popular, but I will tutor primary level as well. I have also done a teaching qualification as through the tutoring I was introduced to the world of education and found it really interesting.

My teaching qualification was an incredible insight. I don’t think teaching is for me but it was really, really helpful for anything else that I am doing within education.

But obviously education still interests you, maybe not teaching but the sphere.

Exactly and because I keep on carrying on following the thing that I’m really interested in, the further I go down the line the more it becomes clearer. And that’s sort of how I’ve ended up here.

So that explains the education stream but the focus on mental health has come from my own experience. When I left school I struggled with depression and then when I was at university I was telling all my friends and I realised I really enjoyed sharing it with people, or I felt …. I think I just felt that I knew I would regret it if I didn’t share it. So I did a public speaking course, and spoke at my old school and now I’m doing more of that, and I’m trying to set it up as a business so that I can do even more!


So tell me about your vision for Baretalks.

At the moment Baretalks is focusing on mental health and it really focuses on honesty. And what I mean by that is not using jargon. So breaking things down so that everyone understands and can relate to it. I think, understandably, we quite often tip toe around various topics like mental health and we use jargon like panic attacks to make it more palatable. But the thing is as soon as you use a word like panic attack, most people don’t relate to that. Yet as soon as you break it down to what do you feel, how does your body react, we can all relate to the physiological response of a panic attack as we’ve all experienced that, maybe at a theme park or something where it’s normal to feel that or where it’s a positive thing.

So the vision is to build up a network of relatable role models that can share experiences and stories around various different topics.

What are the thoughts of your peer group on your unconventional career path?

I think because I’ve always been a bit stubborn about following what I enjoy, it doesn’t surprise many of them to be perfectly honest! It’s interesting because when you read autobiographies or hear from other entrepreneurs it seems like it can be quite challenging but I’ve actually found that everyone is very supportive. Admittedly with Baretalks and talking about mental health I’ve almost had it to the other extreme where everyone is almost afraid to give any critique! They just say “it’s brilliant” and I’m like could you give me some feedback rather than just saying it’s brilliant?!

And does it feel like a business?

No! It’s funny because I guess it’s a chicken and egg scenario. You have to start calling it a business for it to turn into a business. So for a long time I used to tell people I talk at schools about mental health. Now I say it’s a business the shift for me is that it’s a lot more exciting. The power of language is interesting. At first I felt like a fraud because this isn’t a business but then I realised actually it is where it’s going and anyway, how do you define what a business is.


At the moment you have a kind of portfolio career, with tutoring and Baretalks and other pieces of work. What do you love about your work day or work week?

I guess there are two highlights. One is when someone has an “aha” moment; I’ve really like seeing a shift in mindset. That can either happen with the tutoring which is very regular or when I do the talks and you see the penny drop moment where people put it all together. For me what I really aim to do is empower.

The other is being able to dream big. With Baretalks especially, it’s having a vision and being able to have lots and lots of different ideas and having a bit of freedom to try things.

Do you think it’s in your nature that you enjoy giving things a go and nothing scares you?

Things definitely do scare me. I think the regret scares me more though. I’m definitely afraid half the time and I think everyone looks much more confident than me in what they’re doing. I think one of the really important things is to check in with other people because I think everyone else looks far more confident than me but when I ask other people how they see me they actually say the same thing that they see me as really confident. How others view you is really different to how you view yourself.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing at the moment?

Choice! And juggling different things. I love having lots of ideas but what I struggle with is choosing. I am starting to understand that some ideas are more of a two or three year goal for the business and what is actually more short term.

How do you make those choices? How do you work out what feels right, right now?

One thing I use a lot at the moment is keeping as many doors as open as possible. So for instance, the teaching qualification I didn’t do straight after university as I knew that would always be a route. But then after a year out of university I realised that that was the next step. It was what I needed to do to figure out what was coming next. When an opportunity comes along and it fits with everything that I want to do, I take it.

At some point do you close the doors or do they stay open?

So if I reflect on last year, I was still doing the tutoring and still very early stage of setting up the business and I was also doing other part-time and freelance work in education. It came to a point where they wanted me to commit more hours and I realised it was no longer going the route I really wanted to go down, so it came to a natural point of closure.

It’s almost every month, if not more often that I’m pausing and stopping and having a quick look and realising where am I.

I constantly check in with myself. Am I enjoying how much I’m spending on each thing? Am I still learning? I think as soon as I feel I’ve got really comfortable I start to think well I’m not learning anymore. And I’ll only stay if I’m really, really happy.

Having gone through your career to date doing freelance and a little bit of this and a little bit of that, can you ever imagine working for someone full time?

I don’t see myself necessarily working for someone but also I’m not against it. I think for me what is really important is I need to have some grasp of where it is going, what the vision is and what the core values for a business are. I, for instance, believe in organic growth. There are pros and cons for whichever way you grow a business, but I think its finding businesses where I really believe the way in which they are approaching certain things.

Baretalks walking ocean

What do you feel your biggest achievement in career or life thus far is?

In September 2014 I had made up my mind to move back to London to start setting up the business. I knew that in order to pay the rent I was going to do other things in education as well such as the tutoring. I think committing to that before I even had a proper income was really exciting when I reflect now. In the space of a year I moved from having one months rent saved up in my bank account to now actually having a steady income from various areas. It’s been about really trusting myself.

And what is your biggest lesson to date?

What goes around really does come around. A tutoring agency contacted me a couple of years ago and I thought they were really cool and I was just about to start my teaching qualification so I had the summer free and I was like “great” and I volunteered for them. I listened to my gut and later down the line they contacted me saying they were looking to pilot something and they wanted me to get involved because they knew the way that I worked and I ended up getting paid work from that. I think it’s just realising that it might not be immediate but that if you keep doing what you love and helping others and working with others then it does come around.

Where is your support network? When time gets tough, where do you go?

My parents are very supportive, in a tough love sort of way, which I really like. They will always listen and will always have time for me but also really give me a kick when I need one.

They’ve always wanted us to do well at school but always focused on the effort. Whenever I got my reports back it was always about how hard you tried as ultimately the way they saw it was that is all you have control over. I don’t know whether it helps but neither of them did particularly well at school so they were always like, well that’s great you’ve done better than we ever did. From then on they kind of let me go.

Although admittedly on many occasions I’ve been like – please tell me what to do – and they’ve refused, more or less! They would ask me questions and try and find out through questioning what I wanted to do but they refused to say what they thought I should do. And that’s been really, really helpful.

Ilona - Unconventional Me Quote

So with that in mind, what advice or guidance would you give to an 18 year old leaving school or about to start university?

Whatever you do you will learn from, so don’t worry too much about finding the perfect job. I know that every work experience I ever did while I was at school I just learned that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. But make a note as to why. Take time to reflect on what you do and don’t like from the work you are doing rather than just turning around and being like I don’t want to be a …

Also I’d say that anyone who has gotten anywhere has done stuff for free. It’s finding things you’re passionate about and enjoy and you’re interested in and trying to get experience in that area. Not many places will turn you down if you’re offering your time for free!

The words that are coming through from you over and over again are instinct, gut, reflection, learning. Does that feel innate to the way you’ve always grown up?

I think WHY is a really important question for me. I’ve met some people who have a really strong reason as to why they’ve chosen a certain goal but there are other people where I think, is this really your goal or is it someone else’s? But in terms of gut, I think it’s something I’ve always trusted and followed as I’ve not known what else to do!

I mean everyday I’m searching for where I’m going and I get frustrated that I don’t know where I’m going! But then there are so many external things you can’t control that if you set your mind very strongly onto something very specific, the chances are that something will get in the way. Where as if you have more of a feeling of where you want to go, the chances are that you will get there.


Wise words indeed Ilona. I can’t wait to see where your gut takes you next.
Find out more about Baretalks here.

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