Throughout March, we are celebrating International Women’s Day by sharing the stories of inspiring women in leadership positions across the sectors we work in.

Kate O’Brien has worked for over 20 years across the private, public and not for profit sectors, in both international and national organisations, predominantly with a focus on enabling children and young people to thrive. She has a passion for education as a key vehicle for children to achieve this, driven by her parents who were both teachers.

Prior to joining the Costa Foundation as their Executive Director in June 2023, Kate worked as a freelance consultant through her own consulting company.  Previously, Kate was Director of Business Development & Programmes at the kinship care charity, Kinship, where her team was highly commended at the Third Sector Awards in September 2021 for their response to supporting kinship families during the pandemic.

Tell us a bit about how you got to where you are today.

I studied International Studies with French at university, including a year studying in Belgium and working at the European Parliament in Brussels, and was always passionate about working in the not for profit sector, particularly internationally and using my languages.  I travelled around the world upon graduating, mainly in Latin America, including working in Peru.

When I came back I started volunteering with Save the Children UK as part of their London Speaking Out team, going into schools to talk about child rights.  At the same time, I worked at Cancer Research UK in the corporate sponsorship team on events such as Race for Life. I then got a paid job at Save the Children UK, where I worked for over 11 years, working in fundraising before moving into the humanitarian team, where I focused on child protection and capacity building for humanitarian emergencies, including being part of the team leading the set up of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA).

I had both my children while working for the HLA and decided I needed to travel less, so I moved to Mentor Foundation UK as Director of Programmes, working to reduce drug and alcohol misuse among young people. Following my time at Mentor, I took on the role of Director of Business Development & Programmes at Kinship, supporting kinship carers to care for children unable to live with their parents. After almost six years, I decided to take some time out and do some freelance work while caring for my mum with dementia and looking for something I really wanted to do.

Peridot had recruited me for the role with Kinship so I always kept an eye on their current vacancies. And then this Executive Director role for the Costa Foundation came along – I literally couldn’t have written my dream job any more perfectly! It’s a great amalgamation of all my skills, I’m very passionate about education – both my parents were teachers – and enabling children to thrive wherever they’re born in the world. I can use my Spanish, have visited most of the countries the Costa Foundation works in and I love coffee! Thank you Jenn for helping me find this!

How do you Inspire Inclusion in your work and life?

Kate is welcomed to Honduras by the local school children and school band.

A key focus of the Costa Foundation is increasing access to education for girls in coffee-growing communities in nine countries worldwide. Globally, there are 129 million girls out of school. We partner with organisations like Plan International in Honduras and Guatemala, who are specialists in girls’ rights and PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools) in Uganda and Zambia to increase access to education for girls. This includes funding dormitories, so girls don’t have to travel

long distances to school and are less likely to experience sexual violence in their communities; gender clubs so girls can learn to make sanitary products; and sanitation blocks, as not having functioning toilet facilities can be a major barrier to girls attending school. The Costa Foundation also funds workshops with communities to address cultural norms that see girls and boys in specific gender roles and raise awareness of reporting mechanisms for sexual abuse.

Outside of work, I’m on the board of the City Women Network (CWN), which creates a diverse and supportive community to help women grow personally and professionally. We run events on current themes promoting female empowerment, diversity, inclusion and gender equality. For IWD this year, we hosted an event on about how we bring men into the conversation to further gender equality.

Aspire advocate for female empowerment, and I’ve been attending their events for a number of years.  I volunteered with my 12-year-old daughter Rosa at one of their conferences last year, which was a humbling experience to share with her and to expose her to such rich debate on gender equality.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in leadership positions today?

I think some of the biggest challenges are related to the lack of affordable childcare, which can significantly hinder women who want to have a family. Since the pandemic, there tend to be more flexible working options, but this is not always the case.  Many women are impacted by the menopause as they get older, which may deter them from pursuing greater responsibility.  Equal pay is still an issue, as well as the sector still having more white men in leadership positions. Women make up 68% of the voluntary sector workforce, but only 58% of CEOs and 40% of trustees are women, so there’s still work to do on supporting women to access leadership positions. This is much lower for women of Black, Asian or Minoritised Ethnic backgrounds.

Have you faced any obstacles or resistance as a woman in a leadership position, and if so, how did you overcome them?

Taking time out to have two children definitely slowed down my career as I decided to work three days a week for a few years to care for them.  I was working in the humanitarian sector at the time, which is traditionally a sector that doesn’t lend itself to family life and is male dominated. I decided to switch to a UK-based charity where I could work four days a week and not being able to travel overseas wasn’t an issue.

Did you have any role models or mentors who have helped you on your professional journey?

900 Honduran children eagerly welcome Kate to their school assembly.

My PE and history teachers and head of house at high school all supported me and gave me opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was motivating for me to have a female CEO for a while at Save the Children to see how she expertly navigated a male-dominated world. I also feel very fortunate to have met some incredibly inspiring women around the world who have overcome immense adversity to achieve phenomenal things for their families and communities. I’ve also worked with some truly amazing women in my career, many of whom I’m still in touch with, who have supported and inspired me in so many ways.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

I hope my 12-year-old daughter is able to be who she wants to be and my son grows up as a keen advocate of gender equality.  In so many countries around the world girls have such a rough deal.  I hope that the work we do at the Costa Foundation can change at least a few of these girls and families’ lives in coffee growing communities to give them a brighter future.

Dr Jenn Allen is a Managing Consultant in our Not for Profit Practice. In addition to being a well-read scholar with both an MSc and a PhD in Education from the University of Oxford, Jenn has a wealth of experience working with foundations and trusts to recruit to both executive and board roles. With a passion for making a difference, Jenn works with her clients to find excellent candidates who are committed to the positive changes they seek to make in the world. You can connect with Jenn on Linkedin or send her an email.