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Hema Patel is Managing Director of Pathfinders Community Support Ltd and of Cherre Residential Ltd and is based in Leicester.
She is the picture of success. Together with her 90 plus-strong staff team, she provides residential care, day services and domiciliary care to adults with learning disabilities, mental health and complex care needs. What’s not so easy to see is the long hard road she has travelled to achieve the success she now enjoys.
Growing up in Leicester in a single- parent family and ostracised by wider family and community networks was not easy. But those early experiences sparked a powerful drive as she says, ‘to prove them all wrong’.
Here Hema talks to carestockroom co-founder, Mindy Sawhney about how she created her business, the challenges she still faces – and her advice to those considering making the leap into ownership.
I got my first job in social care when I was 16, using the money I earned to pay for my bus pass to get to college and for all those smaller essentials that there wasn’t money for in my family. And from the very beginning I knew social care was for me. But I didn’t really know all the different ways you could have a senior job in care – and as for being an owner, well that seemed like a pipe dream! I thought the only route was to qualify as a social worker. So, I enrolled at a university but was forced to drop out due to lack of funds. So basically, I worked my way up and by the age of 21 I was a Registered Manager.
It was a nightmare! Almost immediately I found myself in a whistleblowing situation. Very quickly I had to get to grips with the two sets of loyalties – to the people I was caring for and to my employer. Once I reported it to the CQC, the Inspector presented me with a pretty brutal choice – either I jumped ship, or I'd go down with the ship. To top it off, I was pregnant with my first child. So, there I was – pregnant, no job, no back up.
Being pregnant made it very difficult to get a job. I got turned down a lot. Luckily, the place where I had done my very first job when I was 16 took me back on. But I really felt I had to prove that they hadn’t made a mistake. I was on shift when my waters broke, and back at work 2 weeks after giving birth.
As soon as my daughter was born, I took on two jobs and basically – within 12 months - I had scrimped and saved to get enough of a deposit together so I could take on a mortgage. I converted a small house into a 3-bed residential home (this was all pre–Care Act days when you could have small homes). I lived on site with my daughter and carried on with my 2 jobs. I can’t deny it – it was really, really hard …. But worth it, and 5 years later I could buy my second small home.
When the Care Act came in, I had to sell the small care homes. I had my eye on a 16-bed care home where the owner was retiring – but I just couldn’t convince anyone to give me the financial backing, so they sold it to another buyer. Being young, female and Asian seemed to make it impossible for anyone to take me seriously enough. By some twist of fate though, the sale fell through, and the owner got in touch to say he was going to help me get the finance together. He then introduced me to a mortgage broker and he in turn introduced me to the Area Manager of my local NatWest – and that was a breakthrough.
This NatWest Area Manager basically helped me to structure the financial story of the business. He supported me through the application process – and I ended up with the offer of a bank loan. Don’t get me wrong though, I still had to fight on the terms. I refused to put my family home as collateral for the loan and I also negotiated very hard to reduce the interest rate. They wanted to charge me 4% above base. At the time, I didn’t really know what 4% above base meant but it sounded like a lot of money! I got it down to 1.75%. I developed a really strong relationship with my Bank Manager – so much so, that when he retired from NatWest, he joined me as my Finance Manager.
A lot of the time I was scared. It's just me, on my own. I didn’t know if I could trust my own instincts. I didn’t have anyone to ask so it felt a bit of a lonely road. But on the other hand, I have really learned so much. I am so proud of the team we’ve built and what we’ve achieved. We still support some of those very first people we first opened our doors to 26 years ago. That is absolutely amazing – to see them grow and flourish.
No! Every week brings its challenges in care. Recently one of our services received a Requires Improvement. That really stopped me in my tracks. My first reaction was to be absolutely mortified. I felt I was to blame – I’m the owner, the buck stops with me. But then I managed to shift my focus, and to focus on my manager and team’s feelings, not mine. Addressing what support they needed, and how we as a team were going to respond. The unity across the staff team was really good to see. That was one of those moments , my proud moments of strong unity where showing what kind of business we are, reflecting, improving and evidencing quality outcomes. Some of the team were worried they would be taken through the disciplinary procedure. But that’s not us. We’ve pulled together, identified the work we need to undertake and we’re doing it to ensure improved outcomes for the people we support.
A couple of years ago I took on a mentor. He is amazing, holds me accountable for what I want in both my business and for my personal work life balance. Things that sound simple. When we started working together, I said one of my goals was to have regular “me time” and holidays- now I take regular breaks. This has been possible by discussing and having a three year plan for my businesses, putting strategies in place and having the right people with the right skills within my management structure. In all these years of working in care, setting goals for the business, goals for the people we work with – is something I do day in, day out. But somehow, I didn’t think to set goals for myself. More generally, my mentor helps to challenge mine and my team’s thinking and he can act as a ‘circuit breaker’ – helping me and the team to think about the way we may react to something and whether or not that is helpful either to the situation, the team/business or to me.
Honestly, a lot of guilt. The people I support have always come first, but now I’m learning to hold the people we support in one hand and the team and my family in the other. I’m a grandma now so I am even more motivated to rebalance work and family!
I’ve taught my children to be self-reliant. I don’t want them to experience the loneliness I felt making my way in the world. I am here to support them in all areas of life; however, financially I do not support them and I teach them to be financially independent. I don't want them to be spoilt, growing up with silver spoons just handed items or finances. It is extremely important to me that they are humble, compassionate, treat people with respect, kindness and have good work ethics. I want them to be successful in their own way, with my support.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of becoming an owner?
My next project is to renovate a property to support people as they transition out of long term care into the community. More broadly, my passion is to help and mentor women who want to run their own care business – to offer some of that help and support that I would have found valuable when I was starting out.