Hackney People: Sophie Howarth

The School of Life founder speaks on setting up adult programmes to make a difference in the community

I’ve always been interested in the question of how to contribute positively to the world,” says Sophie Howarth. Adding: “I’ve just tried a lot of different methods of doing that.”

The London Fields resident has a bewilderingly busy CV. Co-founder of the School of Life; Curator of Public Programmes at the Tate; advisor to David Cameron on social action…

“But actually, I was meant to be a doctor,” says Sophie. Adding: “It seemed like such a good way to be of service to the world, so I went to university intent on studying it. Two years in, though, I was so unhappy and stressed. I was more of a burden to the health service than a help to it.”

The sudden collapse of a lifelong ambition must have been frightening, surely?

Sophie reveals: “Actually, I feel quite lucky that it happened to me so early in life. It made me realise that looking after yourself is a really important part of being useful to the world. It also made me ask myself: what really makes me happy?”

The answer, it seemed, was creativity. So, Sophie went to work at the Tate as a curator.

“It was the late 1990s and things were really exciting. We were about to open Tate Modern. I loved working there, but I got more and more interested in adult education,” she says.

Adult learning programmes seemed to have a narrowly academic or professional focus, however, and Sophie was interested in a more holistic approach.

“So I opened a school for myself,” she says.

The result was The School of Life, a bookshop and events space devoted to developing emotional intelligence.

“It started as a mad idea that three of us were working on in my bedroom, and then a year later, we got a shop on Marchmont Street,” explains Sophie.

Since they began by simply organising events, they had nothing to display. Soon, however, they added a bookshop.

Therapy sessions were introduced (including bibliotherapy in which a reading list of books are prescribed to address individuals’ concerns or dreams).

They began offering more public events, developed training for big businesses… and Sophie began to feel restless.

“I’m better at setting things up than running them,” she says. Adding: “So when The School of Life began taking off in a big way, I stepped back.”

She had her son in 2009, and started what she describes as a ‘community shed’ in Whitechapel. It was there that she bumped into Steve Hilton, who was the Prime Minister’s director of strategy.

She says: “We got talking about the flawed nature of antenatal classes, which was one of my bugbears. Steve said: ‘why don’t you set up some parenting classes for us then?’”

The ‘us’ turned out to be David Cameron and the Cabinet Office. Sophie found herself working from Downing Street one day a week, having one-on-one meetings with the Prime Minister and being, as she describes it, ‘right at the heart of the action’.

“It was fun,” she says. Adding: “But there came a point when I realised that you can have a fancy job and a big pay packet, yet not make that much difference. The people who are making a real impact are usually the people plugging away in the community, under the radar.”

Today, having founded and sold yet another company called The Department Store for the Mind, Sophie is spending most of her time teaching a post-graduate course in social innovation. From its Dalston headquarters, Year Here helps ambitious graduates develop solutions to some of society’s biggest problems.

Sophie says: “I’m helping them develop their ideas, and develop the strength of character to keep engaging in these social problems, despite all the challenges they will encounter. Is each of us going to change the world? Probably not. But it’s important to keep trying.”