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Career

My whole life changed in 60 seconds - three women share their incredible stories

There are 1440 minutes in every day, but it only takes a single one for something completely life-changing to happen.

By Sharon Stephenson
At the time, that 60 seconds in which your whole world turns upside down feels catastrophic. You are stunned, overwhelmed; you can't see a way forward. But, then, somehow you find a way to move forward again and create something good from it.
"I would never have started my own business if I hadn't been pushed," admits Laurinda Sutcliffe.
Kate McGrath is determined to honour her sister in law's memory, saying "I'm much stronger, more self-assured and speak my truth so much more now."
Meanwhile, Natalie Tolhopf reveals, "Was I afraid of being judged and stared at? You bet. But I had to think past those feelings and realise that through adversity comes life-changing lessons."
Here, these three incredible women share their stories.

Laurinda Sutcliffe

When the meeting request arrived in Laurinda Sutcliffe's inbox, she didn't think too much about it.
In 1989, the Australian fashion designer had moved to Auckland to run the retail division of a fashion company and for more than 20 years had worked her way up to company director, responsible for six brands and around 15 staff.
But on June 11, 2009, she walked into a meeting with two of the company's senior managers and immediately knew something was wrong.
"I could have cut the air with a knife," recalls Laurinda, 55. "They handed me my redundancy notice."
A decade down the track, the Sydney-born designer admits she can still feel her chest tightening and her heart beating faster when she talks about it.
"My employer was like a mother to me, as well as a mentor and teacher. We'd driven the business through some tough times and had a wonderful working relationship, so it was unthinkable I could find myself in that position, especially the way it was done."
The next few weeks were a blur as the mother of Alexander, now 18, processed the news.
"I sat on the couch wrapped in a blanket drinking wine. Later, I spoke to a lawyer to ensure that the redundancy was fair. The hardest part was saying goodbye to the people I'd worked with for 20 years and trying to put on a brave face."

A new path

Cast adrift, Laurinda tried to get to grips with losing a major part of her identity.
"My career had been my life and that had just disappeared. It was a really scary place to be in."
She was buoyed by the assumption that the phone would start ringing once news reached her peers that she was available. It didn't.
"The realisation that no-one was going to rescue me was terrifying. I felt like a failure and thought everyone else did too. I'll never forget my first day at home, frantically cleaning the house. It was the only thing I could control because the rest of my life felt out of control."
The one glimmer of hope was that her husband Brent, 56, had recently sold the menswear business he'd owned for five years.
"We started doing some research and realised we could combine my redundancy money and the proceeds from the sale of his business to bring our own brand to the market."
Laurinda got busy designing, the pair travelled to China to source manufacturers and in 2010, Loobie's Story was launched (the name a nod to Brent's nickname for his wife).
It was a brave move starting a company in the middle of the GFC, especially one that specialised in "bright, bohemian styles" when everyone else was doing black layers.
"But I knew deep down it was what I wanted to do and that we'd make it work."
For the first two years the couple worked out of a spare bedroom of their Westmere house, but 10 years later, 10 staff work out of their Eden Terrace premises and their brand is stocked in more than 140 stores across New Zealand and Australia.

A hidden gift

Although it was one of the darkest periods of her life, Laurinda says she's extremely thankful to her former employer for making her redundant.
"I had a dream job that I was paid very well for so I would never have started my own business if I hadn't been pushed. It allowed me to become the master of my own destiny, to experience the incredible fulfilment of building a successful business and developing so many skills that I would never have had as an employee."
Laurinda says being able to work with her husband has also been a plus.
"Not having to constantly watch your back and knowing you can depend on that person to be there for you and the business is one of the greatest gifts I got from being made redundant. It's allowed us to create the kind of future we want for ourselves and for our son."

Kate McGrath

It was the early hours of January 5, 2013 and Kate McGrath, 38, was in a good place.
She and her husband Nip, 46, had just "hit their sweet spot as parents of two young girls and were looking forward to a year of progress and fun".
But around 1am, as the Whangārei mother was feeding daughter Isabella (then five months), her phone started to beep.
She discovered she had several missed calls from Nip's cousin, urging them to call. So she did, only to discover that Nip's younger sister Trish (aka Wowo) had been assaulted by her former partner on the eve of her 34th birthday and was in hospital with serious head injuries.
"She'd been punched in the head several times and had a brain bleed," says Kate, her voice catching in her throat. "They didn't expect her to live, her attacker was on the run and we were suddenly in the middle of a nightmare we didn't see coming."
Australian-born Kate, who met Nip, a Kiwi builder/artist, while holidaying in Jordan, says the extended family spent the next few days at Wowo's bedside.
"It was a blur of liaising with doctors and the police, trying to keep the family updated and things as normal as possible for my children."
In the end, Wowo held on for three days.
"Everything in our world changed when she died. My husband, who'd always been fun and cheeky, was now broken, dark and angry. I had two young girls to look after and there were times when I thought I should just take them back to my family in Australia."

Tough times

It didn't help that in the following weeks and months, not only did the couple have to bury Nip's sister, but also deal with the police, lawyers and a justice system not tilted in favour of domestic abuse sufferers.
"We had to listen to lawyers saying horrible things about Wowo, about her being the aggressor, even though she was attacked in her own home. It was horrific, and I'll never have full faith in the justice system again."
Wowo's attacker pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was jailed for three years.
Ask Kate how the incident changed her and her gaze wanders out the window of the cramped cabin she and Nip are currently sharing with their four children, aged two to nine, while they build their home.
"First, it exposed me to domestic violence, which had never been part of my life and then, for a long time, it became a huge part of it. To process our emotions, and to try and make something positive from Wowo's death, we organised a hikoi against domestic violence through Whangārei, which was attended by thousands.
"We also started speaking at schools and workplaces and partnered with the Northland DHB and the police to create a documentary that shares our experiences, helps educate and hopefully prevents domestic violence. It was important to give Wowo a voice when she no longer had one."
Personally, the tragic incident also caused a major pivot in Kate's career, with her switching from admin roles to re-training as a wellness and lifestyle coach.
"I realised that I could harness my own learnings and growth from that terrible year to help clients who were vulnerable and suffering from emotional trauma."

Giving back

Kate also fundraises and seeks donations for her local women's refuge.
"I want women to know they aren't forgotten or swept under the carpet if they find themselves in need of help."
Kate would give anything for her sister-in-law to have not been brutally killed. However, she's determined to honour her memory by taking life by the horns and encouraging others to do the same.
"I'm much stronger, more self-assured and speak my truth so much more now," says Kate.
"For example, public speaking was something I never would have considered a strength, but now I know that when I'm speaking to groups from the heart, particularly about something I have passion for, the fear just slides away.
"Wowo's death gave me a passion for personal growth, not just for myself but for others. I will always be grateful to her."

Natalie Tolhopf

What do you do when you're the 'face' of your business, but your face no longer works?
That was the dilemma confronting Natalie Tolhopf on February 5, 2016 when she awoke to find the right side of her face paralysed.
"It was one of those horror moments where I couldn't feel my face," says Natalie, 42. "I got up and rushed to the mirror and the whole right side of my face had collapsed."
Thinking she'd had a stroke, but confused because apart from her face she felt fine, Whangaparaoa-based Natalie called husband Michael, 37, before rushing to the doctor.
"They told me I had Bell's palsy, a condition where the muscles on one side of your face become weak or paralysed. They also said it was the worst case they'd ever seen."
Natalie says she'll never forget the moment she asked her doctor when her face would return to normal.
"He looked at me sympathetically and said it could take up to 12 weeks or even six months. I was expecting him to say within a day."

Imperfect action

In fact, it took a year before Natalie's face resembled its former self and another two before her 'droopy' eye and crooked smile disappeared.
"It was almost as long before I could sip liquids without slurping," recalls the mother of Ruby, 11, and seven-year-old Molly.
Looking back, Natalie says the signs had been there.
"My eyes had been watering and my tongue was numb on one side. It wasn't until my kick-boxing teacher mentioned that water kept dribbling out of my mouth after drinking that I took some notice."
But the self-employed business coach assumed she'd been exercising too hard, that she was burned out and her immunity was low.
"Little did I know I had shingles, but instead of it coming out as a skin condition, it appeared as Bell's palsy."
The temptation to hide under the duvet was strong, but Natalie is the face of the business she started in 2015 which specialises in coaching female entrepreneurs.
So she fixed a smile on the part of her face that worked and sailed on through the speaking engagements, workshops and clients already inked in her diary.
"My business message has always been 'imperfect action', because nothing in life is ever perfect. So delivering that message of imperfection with an imperfect face was kind of apt!
"Was I afraid of being judged and stared at? You bet. But I had to think past those feelings and realise that through adversity comes life-changing lessons, that an event or issue only means something if you let it. I could have made a huge deal about my face and given up, but instead I showed my vulnerability, which women found liberating and responded positively to."

An important message

It's not the first time Natalie has had to break down barriers: in her first career as a chef, she was one of four females out of 15 in one of Auckland's top hotel kitchens. "My time as a chef taught me to stand up and speak up about things that are important, a message I now teach female entrepreneurs."
Today, three years after that frightening morning, Natalie says she's much more positive about life.
"Before my face collapsed, I thought I wasn't good enough. But since then, I realise how much I held myself back. These days, I'm showing up and living life fully. It also taught me that people are more than just their appearance, it's how you make others feel, rather than how you look, that's important."

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