Holly grew up in Cork, Ireland, and from about the age of 15, Holly knew that she wanted to go into journalism, specifically covering the world of fashion. She doggedly pursued opportunities in the city, and ended up writing for a local newspaper that had a largely farmer-based readership. Nonetheless she managed to wrangle a fashion column from them, and ended up writing an article with a punny headline that was featured on a national current affairs TV show.
Now certain that journalism was her calling, at 18 Holly turned her mind on how to further advance her budding career. There were only two universities in Dublin that offered journalism as an option, and, already disillusioned with the lack of theatre and art culture in the country, she applied to London College of Communication, which is part of the University of the Arts London.
Holly likens London to New York regarding its cultural provision, with everything from art galleries and museums to theatre, although unlike New York, London’s theatre is incredibly affordable if you book in advance.
It was at university that Holly became disheartened with fashion journalism, but couldn’t decide how she wanted to specialise. After graduating she spent some time writing for a trade travel magazine, but when the company decided to move outside of London, she made a career shift to do research for a big media company that produced B2B directories so she wouldn’t have to give up London’s cultural amenities.
Alongside this, she continued to do journalism on a freelance basis, writing across various topics. In her mid-20s she finally decided to specialise in contemporary art. But, despite this clarification of focus, Holly continued to work predominantly in business communications. Over the next several years she jumped from copywriting for London Business School to working at a social justice charity, before heading up the internal communications for the NHS. She most recently worked at a management consulting firm as their global internal communications advisor.
She is one of the first to admit that journalism doesn’t pay what it used to, and a lot of her art trips are self-funded after pitching them to publications. Long gone are the days that a features writer can make a living from writing 12 meaty feature interviews a year.
That lack of reasonable access to media-based jobs led Holly to start thinking about what change she could bring to the world.
Joining Upstart Projects
“So why did you want to join a charity?”
Holly laughs, “I know it sounds cliché, but to give back.” She felt she had skills that might be useful to other people, but also wanted to try something different – if her scattered career path wasn’t enough evidence, she gets bored quickly!
Her journey to Upstart Projects was actually facilitated by Step on Board, a programme delivered by Trustees UnLimited that supports board-level engagement with the charity sector. However, she was quite specific regarding her desire to join a charity that was both arts and media based, so she had a bit of a wait before she found what she considered to be the perfect match.
After meeting charity director Diana Walton, and one of the youth trustees, she said the team seemed “really cool, motivated, and agile”. She also felt that as an organisation with limited resources but big ambition, there was an opportunity for her to do something more impactful than just attending board meetings. Upstart gave her the chance to get more hands-on at a strategic level.
2022 then presented an opportunity for her to take that involvement a step further and stretch herself in the process. Felicity Woolf, founder chair of Upstart Projects, announced that she was stepping down. Holly applied and was accepted in November 2022.
Her appointment comes at a time of broader change for the charity. Navigating new funding opportunities, along with recruitment for both board members and team members for day-to-day delivery, and the charity’s acceptance on the PilotLight 360 programme means there are plenty of demands on her team. Despite being initially daunted by the prospect, Holly feels she has grown into the role, and is now ready to inject her own dynamism and ideas into the charity.