By Sujany Baleswaran
With a commitment to social justice, Parul Begum has dedicated over 20 years of her life to helping vulnerable women and children, focusing on issues such as forced marriages and domestic violence whilst championing the cause of equality. Born and raised in Bangladesh, the life and leadership coach witnessed the inequality in education and the shocking difference in the future of a girl and boy raised in the same village. The determination to make a change, stemming from a young age, still surges on today. Overcoming the challenges of bullying, sexism and racism, with a new-found confidence and assertiveness, the proud feminist faced her battles head-on. Having healed from her negative experiences, Parul is helping her clients use their own strength to grow their confidence and achieve their life potential.
How was your life and career before entering the field of life and leadership coaching?
I was born in Bangladesh and raised in England. At an early age, I was exposed to gender inequality. I saw parents put in a difficult position of having to choose between their son and daughter, as only one child could pursue their education due to expensive tuition fees. Village high schools were not free in Bangladesh at the time, and as we all expected, the sons were chosen to continue high school, and many of my primary school girl friends’ education ended there. Whilst the boys attended high school, the girls stayed at home with their mum, helping with household chores, to then be married off and adopt the same lifestyle of cooking, cleaning and raising children. This cycle has continued for generations. This discrimination, as a result of poverty, shocked me.
I spent the beginning of my higher education dreaming about becoming a doctor, but this all changed when I moved to the UK at the age of 14. With the school’s assumption that a child who had just moved to the UK was incapable of taking Science at a GCSE level, I was automatically placed into a certificate Science class, and my dream was shattered. Having excelled in Maths, I decided to study Business at college and continued to get my first degree in Accounting and Finance and later in my career, a Masters in Management and Leadership.
As a student, I spent my weekends volunteering in a community to ensure Asian girls, especially Bangladeshi girls, have access to further education and are not forced into marriages after finishing school. I got involved with several campaigns and became a representative in Safeguarding Children’s Board.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
I have overcome many challenges over the years. Whilst studying and working in the community centre, I was labelled as a feminist in a negative light, but this did not stop me from fighting for the rights of girls and women. As a columnist in a community newspaper, a lot of men were angry with the subject matter of forced marriages and domestic violence and would reply to every single article I wrote with negative comments stemming from the defensive nature of toxic masculinity. I carried on fighting for justice.
In my 2nd year of university, my dad was suddenly taken away from me and died at the hands of professionals, the same hands that were supposed to save his life. I was left with a very ill mother and 4 siblings with 3 under the age of 8 years. It took me 20 years to forgive the hospital and the team where my dad passed away because the same hospital later saved my brother’s life from a life-threatening illness.
My major career turning point was when I returned from maternity leave after having my 2nd child. I found myself jobless after dedicating over 16 years of my life growing the services from small to a regional size. The issues of money and family all came into my thoughts. But this did not stop me from searching for something new and getting some career mentorship along the way.
However, after leaving the job, I discovered that getting the redundancy was the biggest blessing of my life – it gave me the opportunity to enter into the world of entrepreneurship. There is a saying, ‘when one door closes, another door opens.’ I was reading a newspaper and saw an advert about women entrepreneurship and financial freedom through property investment. After attending a 3-day training followed by a mentoring programme on property investment, I immediately bought several properties. With the apprehension of being self-employed for the first time in my life, I went back to work whilst qualifying as a life and leadership coach. Unable to withstand the bullying, I made the courageous decision to walk out, with the commitment to never work for anyone but myself.
You speak openly about your experience with bullying and abuse. How have those events in your life shaped who you are today?
I suffered bullying, sexism and racism at my workplace – being the youngest and a coloured female manager and managing people, including men much older than me, was not easy. My education, my experience and my integrity were tested every single day. I did not even realise that I was bullied until a year later when my new manager pointed it out to me. The more my team challenged me, the more I went to training and courses to expand my knowledge. It took them two years to admit that it wasn’t my lack of knowledge or skills, but their skill gap. I have learnt to be assertive and refuse to let anyone older or younger dominate me.
Bullying was not just something I faced at work, but at home too. Meeting my husband and choosing to marry the man of my choice was not welcomed by a number of my extended family, and they stopped talking to me for over 15 years. I also had dominating in-laws who constantly displayed bullying behaviour for years. I stopped talking to them for 10 years, and it took me 15 years to forgive them. That is why I decided to focus on my confidence because when you are confident and assertive, people cannot walk all over you, and you can create the life you deserve. I have managed a large number of services with child protection and domestic abuse and also helped close friends and family members escape an abusive relationship.
What sparked the idea to enter the world of coaching?
At my last job, I was constantly learning whilst preparing for my coaching certificate, and it opened my eyes to new opportunities. Coaching helped me heal from all my negative life experiences.
It sparked the dream of helping other women in the same situation and how they could benefit from my personal experiences and learning. I did a lot of staff /career coaching at my workplace, so coaching wasn’t completely new to me. Everything I teach women comes from my real-life experience, education, training and mentorship.
You work mainly with women and children – is there a reason you chose to dedicate your time to these individuals?
My first job was all about working with children and girls on challenging issues such as forced marriages, female gentile mutilation, disabilities, sexual exploitation, children troubled with the law, refugee and asylum-seeking children. When I graduated with an Accounting degree, I was already working my way up in my part-time career in children and family services. I decided not to pursue accounting, and instead carried on progressing up the career ladder and later became assistant director for 2 English regions.
You radiate confidence every time you pick up the microphone at our Global Woman Events. You describe yourself as someone who used to be timid in the past – how did you build your confidence?
Confidence is not built overnight, it takes time. As a young student, I was a proud bookworm, I could finish a book in one night – I talked less and read more, but that has completely changed now! As the youngest manager in the team, I had to facilitate events, and at my first big research event, I had to chair the research finding meeting in front of 33 London local authority representatives. I was shaking, but after the meeting, I promised myself I will gain more confidence and not tremble with a microphone.
A few years ago, I was at a business training with 500 people in Amsterdam. I was selected as a team leader to present our business idea on a huge stage in front of 500 people. During my presentation, a friend was writing down bullet points, and when I said cloakroom she put clockroom. As I was presenting the idea of robots running the cloakroom, the UK participants were shouting from the floor saying it is ‘cloakroom.’ I was so nervous that I could not see the spelling mistake. The experience made me promise myself that no matter what, one day I will come back and present in front of over 500 people without feeling nervous. Two years later, I can now stand in front of a crowd with a microphone in hand with the confidence to say what I need to say. Now I am always ready to speak at the Global Woman meetings – I do not wait to be asked, I go straight for the microphone.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to women in a vulnerable position and are struggling to leave a toxic environment? And what can our readers do to help?
- Never hesitate to seek help. There are always people out there willing to help you in your journey to success.
- Self-care is vital. Look after yourself – you are the biggest asset of your life. You cannot help someone else or your children or family if you do not help yourself first. When you step on a flight, the safety announcement always says put your oxygen mask first before helping your children or another person. Having faith and trusting in your abilities that you can do it is the biggest wheel of power you can have.
- If you want to succeed in life get a coach, mentor or accountability partner – you cannot do everything your own and this will help you to achieve your goals.