From books to spreadsheets to empowering young lives
7 July 2020: Former Siemens and Capita Head of Tax Sharon Pindar tells ICAEW Insights how literature and accountancy helped her overcome an underprivileged upbringing, and how she is helping the next generation through literacy charity Bookmark.
Raised on a Wrexham council estate in the 1970s by an illiterate but loving mother and an abusive alcoholic father meant that six-year-old Sharon Pindar sought out refuge where she could.
That safe space was her local library, where two nurturing female librarians guided and coaxed her to read her way through much of the children’s book section. Through this skill, she found she could unlock her imagination and escape into new and transformative worlds, all brought alive through the power and magic of words.
“They gave me hope that I could change things,” says Pindar. Literature, and later accountancy, were to be her saviour.
Read all about it
While there were no books at home, there was a free local newspaper which arrived every Thursday that a six or seven-year-old Sharon used to eagerly devour, especially the property pages at the back, if she “could get to it before her dad came home drunk”.
Through these, she would work out “which house I wanted for my mum and which job I needed to get that house”, picking the biggest and most expensive house to buy for herself and her mother so they could escape and forge a more peaceful life together.
And the path to achieving that dream she decided was accountancy, inspired by her brother, some nine years older, who had professed a desire at the time to enter the profession. He became a builder.
Terrier-like in her desire to achieve this dream, she got the best ‘0’ Level grades in her school and earned a spot at sixth form college.
Building a foundation
But despite her clear academic talent, a general lack of money and the fact that her mum was not in a safe place, meant the fledgeling accountant was already working at this point to support her mother. Pindar opted for a nine-month foundation course at Liverpool Polytechnic, studying around any free time she had.
She duly gained a distinction and as a result, was approached by the firm she ultimately went on to train with in Liverpool – a far better offer than the Wrexham minnow she initially set her aspirations on “as I didn’t think anyone else would want me”
At 19, Pindar bought her first house, and although her mum would not leave her father, “I became her safe haven, and as dad got older, he became less violent”.
Next up, in a seemingly unstoppable list of achievements, she was a prize winner in her ACA P1 and P2 exams, which she puts down to “getting up at 4am to study and working extremely hard”.
On qualifying, she moved to Jersey to become a tax accountant with Coopers and Lybrand before returning to the mainland to work for Siemens in their tax team, rapidly rising to head of tax for its UK subsidiary at 27. After 13 years at the German engineering firm, Pindar moved to outsourcing giant Capita as head of its tax function where she notched up eight more years. And it was here that she met her husband, Paul, the firm’s longest-serving CEO, who amassed 23 years at the company.
“I have been striving my entire life and I have been very focused on having enough money to provide financial security for myself,” says Pindar, who once she had achieved that goal, wanted to bring her mum “back into the picture”, even though she had died by then, because “it was something that was really important to me, to give something back after all the opportunities I’d had over the years”.
That initially manifested itself by helping as a volunteer for Coram Beanstalk, a reading charity that helps primary school children struggling with literacy skills. Pindar and her husband then helped the charity scale up before launching their own reading charity, Bookmark.
“We wanted to build a charity that was more scalable,” said Pindar, “recognising that some of the skills we brought from Capita around outsourcing contracts would be beneficial to building a technology solution that would enable us to match schools with volunteers so that the charity got more of the money for front-line services instead of the back office.”
The couple developed a “matching platform” where trained volunteers deliver one-to-one reading sessions for a six-week programme with a child who needs extra help with their reading.
Such sessions strive to be fun and interactive, fusing conventional reading with a range of literacy activities and games. They are designed to instil a lifelong enthusiasm for reading, not least because the OECD has identified reading for pleasure as the most critical indicator of the future success of a child – as an even more important factor than a family’s socioeconomic standing.
Pindar’s life story would support that finding implicitly.
Initially delivered as a face-to-face programme in primary schools, Bookmark has now broadened its programme offering to include online reading support in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reach for the stars
The charity has some stellar commercial contacts, courtesy of the founders’ time at Capita which means its corporate partnership board is awash with talent from Goldman Sachs, private equity houses, lawyers and other banks.
“We don’t want to just ask for money because we recognise that actually, it’s much better to build an enduring relationship if you give something back, so we develop commercial propositions,” explained Pindar.
“It does require you to have some degree of financial understanding of what makes a business tick so for us, we work with our supporters at investment trust Literacy Capital to look at companies and work out where we can support them to improve their business”.
Literacy Capital pays 0.9% of its assets to literacy charities each year, so while “obviously set up to make an investment return”, it also delivers around £600-700,000 to charities.
Such an approach often resonates well with companies. On a recent overdue debt campaign, the charity ran with a professional services firm struggling with around £4m of debt, its unusual approach managed to clear 25% of their outstanding invoices, says Pindar.
“What it does is enable a different conversation with a debtor. You’re not having a conversation with the CSR team but the CFO or the sales director about how you can either increase sales, cashflow or their working capital management.”
This novel approach in the charity sector is clearly paying financial and literary dividends, as Bookmark looks to expand its offering beyond its inner London beginnings to a truly nationwide platform.
nyone interested in joining Bookmark as a volunteer, can register their interest at www.bookmarkreading.org/volunteer or email Sharon@bookmarkreading.org if your organisation might be interested in partnering with Bookmark.