Growth & Customers
On surviving cancer, self-love, and working through trauma
Learn about Leanne Pero, who at 15 started her first business, The Movement Factory, to make something of her life and escape her abuse.
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After suffering abuse at the hands of a close family friend, Leanne Pero started her first business, The Movement Factory, at just 15 years old as a means to save herself.
She found solace in the artistic world of dance and used this as a way to develop herself, make friends and speak to youth workers who could help her to make something different of her life.
Unfortunately, at the age of 30, Leanne was diagnosed with breast cancer, which only further triggered those traumas she had endured from her past.
Instead of losing faith, Leanne shared both her story of abuse and fighting cancer to empower other women, and has since founded Black Women Rising to create an inclusive community for Black women battling cancer.
This is a story about how this business saved Leanne’s life and how she continues to be an inspiration to all.
Here’s her unfiltered advice below:
- Starting The Movement Factory aged 15 as a way to save herself from her abuse
- If you’re old enough to run a business, you’re old enough to know the processes you must adhere to
- The inspiration behind the book, Take control: Of your life before it takes control of you
- Are you using your business as a distraction from things in your personal life?
- Getting diagnosed with cancer and the past trauma it triggered
- Building a more inclusive community for women suffering with cancer
- Holding the world’s first all-Black female cancer portrait exhibition
- Running an enterprise that triggers your own personal experiences
- Learning to delegate and streamline your own role within the business
- How to measure the success and impact of your business
- Next milestones—Ghana, Nigeria, and self-discovery
- Coming to terms with your new identity
Starting The Movement Factory aged 15 as a way to save herself from her abuse
Leanne, let’s dive straight in. You started your entrepreneurial career when you were just 15, setting up The Movement Factory, teaching dance.
Can you just tell us a little bit about how, and why dance saved you?
Yeah, sure. I moved to London when I was 11 years old, I grew up in Peckham and there was a dance school attached to my secondary school.
So for me, I hadn’t had those opportunities when I grew up in Norfolk. And for me, it was just like, “Oh my God, I’m going to take this opportunity to do something I love,” just for fun, make friends. And I soon realised I had a massive, massive passion for dance.
It wasn’t until I got to Year 8, when I was going through quite a lot of stuff at home, and I admitted to my family that actually a close male that was a family friend had been sexually abusing me since we had moved to London.
And when I told my family I wasn’t initially believed.
And by that time I was 13 years old, I was in Year 8 and I went to move in with my dad, who was quite estranged in my life.
So it was a really, really difficult time for me, mentally. I just found that having that regular dance provision attached to the school really helped me.
And just going there and having that unit of friends and friendships and youth workers and people that actually really cared about developing me and helping me, that just really saved my life.
I don’t know what I would’ve done without that extra support because I wasn’t getting it from home.
How did that impact the relationship you had with your mother and your family?
Well, for two years, until I moved back home, it was really tough. It was really, really tough. There was a lot of conflict. It was a really, really difficult time for the whole family.
First and foremost, realising that this had happened underneath the roof of us, meant to be a safe space, but that someone that we trusted so much could have done something like that.
So yeah, there were a lot of conversations, there was a lot of healing to do, and a lot of relationships to mend.
But as I say, and I still say it now, I’m 37 years old, it’s just something you never get over. That’s not something that you ever forget. I have carried that since the age of 13.
I like to say I never started a business on purpose at 15, really, I had a driving force because I was like, “Hold on.” Well, the two people that I trusted the most in this world, which were my parents, for them to fail me at such a young age, who do I have?
So I’ve got to try my best to make my life a success and try and make something great for myself.
We weren’t the richest of families, we were quite poor. Never had money to do extra things, never had money to go on trips or vacations or anything like that. And I realised I wanted all those things for myself, I wanted those things for my life.
So starting the dance classes and being given these amazing opportunities to go and do the most amazing things and have these amazing experiences, I don’t know what spirit I had in me at the time to go, “Yes, yes, yes,” but I did it.
And my driving force behind that always, “Just make something really different of your life, Leanne.”
If you’re old enough to run a business, you’re old enough to know the processes you must adhere to
You found refuge and escape in dance, and you also found your calling as an entrepreneur and this brilliant businesswoman.
What kind of entrepreneur were you? How did you run that business?
With a lot of mistakes.
I just think there’s no textbook that can teach you how to run a business, and that is fact.
It’s great when people go on courses and all these sorts of things, but my best advice that I always got was from people who ran businesses themselves, because they could tell you a little bit about the mistakes they made and the lessons they learned from it.
Who would’ve known that that would’ve been my greatest advice, because I spent a lot of time as a 15, 16, 17 year old, in those first initial years, going around to loads of different business mentors or organisations that ran business courses.
And none of them had ever run a business before.
So I think I’d got to a few years in, realising, “Hold on, these people don’t really have a clue because they’ve never run businesses before. We’re all just learning on the job.”
And it took a while for that to sink in.
But I just remember some of my first initial mistakes in running my business. And I think a lot of that was around finances and processes, just keeping track of spend, making sure that you’re not creating a loss. Setting up as being self-employed, not saving enough money for tax at the end of the year. Just little things like that I wasn’t doing.
And I can’t remember what it was, but I remember being fined from HMRC.
I remember being fined from HMRC. I went to my business mentor, and I was crying, I was in tears, and I said, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
And I remember him sitting down, and he said, “Look, no one cares that you are just 18 or 19 years old. No one cares.”
They were like, “You need to make sure you know. If you’re old enough to create a business, then you’re old enough to know.”
Honestly, that advice, I say it with everything that I do now. No one cares about your age. No one cares about who you are.
When it comes to business law, and taxes and money, you have to know that there are certain ways of doing it, and you need to know the legal implications of doing so. That was something that I learned very early on in my journey.
The inspiration behind the book, Take control: Of your life before it takes control of you
You learned through doing and through making mistakes. What is it that prompted you to write Take control: Of your life before it takes control of you in your late 20s?
I mean, I look back on that book now, and I’m not going to lie, I cringe a little bit. No, because it was great at the time. It was a great idea. No, it wasn’t really an idea, it’s just that when I got to 27, and I started trauma therapy, I started counselling.
I realised, I was really struggling, and it was a lot about the past. It was a lot about going through those really difficult times when I was a teen. And I’d work and work and work on creating such success in my dance world and things like that, but I wasn’t actually taking a moment to breathe and be me and focus on me.
So when I got to 27 I went through quite a bad, bad depression, I would say. I had to take eight weeks off work. I was really, really down. And I think that that kind of really, really changed my life, to be honest with you.
So what prompted me to write the book was when I got to 27, I had started therapy for all the other things that I’d gone through, and I remember after my first therapy session, the therapist stayed with me for three hours.
It was only meant to be a 60-minute session, and they were with me for three hours, going through different things.
And first and foremost, they just couldn’t believe that I’d got to that age and not had any therapy.
Anyway, I left that room. And the next day, I don’t know what it was, but I felt as if a weight had been lifted. And what prompted me over the next seven days, because there’s seven chapters in that book, I wrote those seven chapters in that book over the next seven days that followed.
Every day I woke up, I wrote a chapter of that book. And it took me three years to edit it to own some of the things in my truths that were written in that book.
I actually spoke about my sexual abuse in that book. I had to go and have a conversation with my mother about that. There were a lot of things I’d written that I had to come to terms with going public.
I needed to go and have conversations with various different people and almost come to some sort of peace with it before it was released.
So it took three years for that book to be released. And I released it on my 30th birthday, and it was just designed to kind of help people. And that’s what it was about, is about helping people.
Making people understand that you can go through all these things, but you can still make something off yourself. And I think that’s what I really wanted to do.
Are you using your business as a distraction from things in your personal life?
Do you think you realised during that process that the business had almost been a mask for you or a blanket, and you’d been using that to distract you from everything that had gone on in your childhood?
Yeah, 100%. I think that I had gone through this period of working and just constantly being on this treadmill of work. By that time it was about 12 years of just pretending as if everything was okay, and it wasn’t. And that was really hard. No, 14 years that was, that’s 14 years of just not ever talking about it.
By that time, I was having nightmares. I was having really severe signs of PTSD, and I was suffering with severe anxiety for years. And it was only when I went to these sessions that I realised, “Oh my god”, what it actually was.
I mean, I had never even have heard of PTSD.
You got to remember, this was a time where people weren’t so open with their feelings and weren’t open to share these experiences.
So yeah, it was a really, really tough time. Really tough time, but time of healing.
Getting diagnosed with cancer and the past trauma it triggered
And then shortly after you published that book, you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
Can you just talk us through what was going through your head when you got that diagnosis, and how did you cope with that really terrifying experience?
I just went, “Here we go again. What now?”
That was the honest truth, because I remember that evening that I came home after being diagnosed, I remember my older sister coming in my room, and she turned around, and she went, “Why is it always you?”
That’s what she said. “Why is it always you?”
And she said, “You have been through enough.” And she was absolutely crying her eyes out. And what I would say to that is, I’m not going to lie, I felt the same thing.
I was thinking, “Why is it me? What have I done to deserve this?” We’re not thinking about what would happen five, six years from then to where I am now. But at the time I was completely devastated.
Actually what it did is it brought so much stuff back up to the surface for me, a lot of trauma. I was so mentally unwell when I was diagnosed for mumps that in my hospital unit, they put me on this section where I was put on a watch list because they were worried about me and my mental health.
And that was tough. That was really, really tough.
Building a more inclusive community for women suffering with cancer
And what is it that made you start Black Women Rising?
Well, when I was going through my diagnosis, I found that when I was going to the chemo ward, it actually was the happiest place for me to go.
And I would take friends, family members, it turned into this place where I didn’t mind going. The hospital, when you were waiting for scans and everything, was so different, but the chemo ward actually, people there, you kind of knew where you stood with everyone.
Everyone was going there, getting this medicine that was going to hopefully cure us all. And it was just a positive place for me.
One day I was in, and the nurses, what they used to do is, every time a new person came in, they’d get me to sit with them. And particularly if the girl was young or whatever.
And they were pairing me up a lot with young Black girls or older Black women. And I noticed loads of these people were coming by themself.
So I got talking, I just did. Using that community spirit and community experience, I started talking to these women, and a lot of them had some really sad stories.
For example, a lot of them were hiding their diagnosis from their family and friends.
A girl was told by her father, “I don’t know where you got your cancer from, but definitely not from us. So go back to where you got that from.”
Another person was told not to take the drugs because Black people don’t get cancer. So many things that were just really, really unhelpful.
And it was when I turned up to a support group that was attached to my hospital, in the middle of south London by the way. I walked into the support group because I was really struggling, I only saw one other woman of colour in the support group alongside me, and the group was about 20 women.
I walked in and the person who was facilitating the group turned around and was like, “Can I help you?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m here for the group.”
And she said, “What, you are looking for your mum?” And I said, “No, I’ve got cancer.” And she said, “Oh my God, I’m ever so sorry, but you look far too young to be in this room.”
And don’t get me wrong, the group was lovely. Everyone was lovely. She wasn’t being racist or anything like that, it was nothing to do with that. But what it showed me was that there were no spaces for younger people, first and foremost.
Also, there was a load of Black women I saw coming into the chemo ward and in the breast care clinic, why were they not feeling comfortable to come to the group?
And when I got talking to a few people, they just said their experiences are different than ours.
And when I saw that, I was like, “Okay.” Well, using my usual community hat, I was like, “Right, we’ve got to do something about this. We’ve got to get women together.”
It took me a couple of months, particularly as I was also going through treatment. I waited until the end of my treatment. I also made an announcement online to my community of people because no one knew I actually had cancer, I went into hiding for eight months.
And it was when I published what I’d gone through, and I’d got so many more stories back from other women and echoing a lot of what these women were saying, but some of them far worse.
I was like, “Right, we need to start a support group.” And that’s how it started.
Holding the world’s first all-Black female cancer portrait exhibition
So you set out to create this safe, comfortable space for Black women dealing with cancer. How did you begin to really build and expand that community?
Do you know what? I just dipped into the toolbox from the stuff with the dance company that I had.
And I think when the places were going so quick and being fully booked so quick, I realised, “Hold on, I’m onto something here.” and I mean, I had people travelling in from outside London and all over the different parts of London.
As you know, London’s so huge. Taking a train or wherever down to Peckham, at all different stages of cancer as well, I knew that there was something here that needed to be done.
So initially it was all via word of mouth. And then it was when I’d done a very impactful project. At that time it was just a support group, it was just something that could help me.
And it was when I was about to get my double mastectomy surgery finished, and I asked a friend to take some pictures of me.
She showed me these beautiful black and white pictures that she took of me, and it was then that I realised, we needed to do these pictures for more women and get them put somewhere for people to see, “This is what we are going through. And please understand this could happen to you as well.”
And we did.
We set about trying to get eight women, but we ended up with 14 women and a waiting list as well. And we ended up taking all these pictures of the women’s scars, so it could be breast cancer, all different cancers basically.
Then we held an exhibition. And I always say it was the world’s first all-Black female cancer portrait exhibition, which it was. It was just a place to use art, obviously from the dance and my artistic background, use art as a way to get a message across.
I’ve done it before with dance, I used dance as a way to express young people, community issues and all these things. On this occasion it was about using the art to create conversation and healthy conversation around cancer.
I remember those two events that we had. We did one, which was a VIP night and that was great. And I remember the second one being for family, friends and community. And it was a really hard event.
It was really hard because there were a lot of people from the community given opinions that were really, really unhelpful.
For example, people saying stuff like, “Oh, but can’t you go natural? Why do you have to take chemo?” And there were other opinions about religion and then other opinions about this and that. And, “Oh, you should be taking cannabis oil.”
It was a really frustrating night for us. But who would’ve known by the next day we had ended up on all these blogs, all in the newspapers.
We were on six o’clock ITV News. The project went viral, and it took me a couple of months, but we ended up then getting our charity status. And gosh, four years in now the project has expanded.
I’ve seen some of the photos from that exhibition, and they’re so beautiful and empowering and freeing. I think it was such an amazing initiative.
Running an enterprise that triggers your own personal experiences
You subsequently launched a podcast series, a magazine, but how triggering is it running an enterprise where you are constantly reminded of what you went through?
Yeah, it’s really, really difficult.
I constantly come back to the why, why am I doing it. Because there are so many reasons why I shouldn’t be running an organisation like this, because of the lived experience, because it’s very hard to move on from cancer, because the recovery after cancer is a long road mentally and physically. But it always means I come back to the why.
And off the backend of 2021 when we were just celebrating, oh, I think it was our second or third year, I was really unwell mentally. And I actually didn’t realise, but I just couldn’t cope really well.
There was one death after another of these women that you get close to, and you end up calling your friends and your sisters. And it just seemed like 2021 was relentless, this we just lost one person after one person.
And I was really struggling.
I ended up taking three months off work because I just couldn’t get out of bed, I was so depressed. I remember when I started to feel better, I was like, “I can’t go back into this work unless there are really, really healthy boundaries.” I had to create my really healthy boundaries.
It’s funny, I don’t really do many podcasts or talk about things like this. I’m doing this one for you guys because you guys are cool.
But I’d really stay away from talking about my own journey a lot. I speak about it very briefly. It’s weird, I have to take the emotion out of it.
And that might not be great for people to listen to on a human-to-human level, but I have to take aspects of the emotion out because it’s too triggering.
I had to almost, when they say someone is professionally briefed, PR-wise, like I had to do that to myself about my story and about my cancer journey, because what I found was, I was going to do these talks and then afterwards I’d be really depressed or really triggered.
So it was about actually being really strategic about what I would say or what I wouldn’t. And also, sharing responsibility and delegating.
I’m not the only person with a story, although Black Women Rising, and I’ve done some amazing things, the whole reason for me getting into this wasn’t about my story, it was about the women’s story.
So now it’s great because I can share all these other stories and I can let other people speak and come to the forefront.
Learning to delegate and streamline your own role within the business
What are some of the other changes that you made to your routine as an entrepreneur?
And in terms of that delegation piece, did you bring in any other people to help you at that leadership level? What else did you do?
100%, I did. I brought in a virtual assistant. She’s great, she’s based in Northamptonshire, and she comes down whenever I need her to and stuff, when there are big events and things, but she’s brilliant.
And actually just having her as my assistant, and she is able to really help me shape my day, shape my meetings, advise me, she’s had so many different experiences and stuff, actually bringing on that soundboard for me is great.
I can just call Marlin up and be like, “Okay, Marlin, what do I need to do with da-da-da-da?” It’s just having that has helped so much.
I think the second thing was to do was to prioritise what my role under the organisation was.
For example, one of my things was, okay, my role is going to be really focused on strategy, finance and building new partnerships. Then that means that I’m taking out other bits that I used to do.
Because as an entrepreneur, you do it all at the beginning, don’t you, until you’ve got the funds to go recruit people.
So when we did get that money to recruit, before I recruited, I’d done a really massive audit. And this was the same time around the time I got unwell, just shortly afterwards. I was like, “Right, this new set of money has come at the right time because I need to take other people on.”
And I think that that’s what really helped, was really thinking, “Okay, what is it that I want to do?” I love strategising, I love fundraising, I love partnerships and growing new partnerships.
Everything else, it needs to go. The public speaking, the social media design and management. You just do it all as an entrepreneur.
So it was about really getting clear what I was doing and what I wasn’t.
Yeah. Being really brutal with your time.
How to measure the success and impact of your business
How do you measure the impact that you are having with Black Women Rising?
We always have to do, just because of our funders, we just have to do reports every term. We have to do registers all the time. We have to do impact case studies as well. We do a lot of case studies and things like that for our own use, like social media, blogs, and all of that.
But what we also have is we have a membership. That membership is really important because we started off with, I remember in the first year, or about a year, 18 months, we had about 100 members.
And I remember we had to implement, especially when we were setting up the charity, we had to implement all this GDPR stuff.
So when we were looking at things, we realised that we actually, those members, we couldn’t register them as members because we hadn’t got permission.
So we had to go back to the drawing board and contact everyone and say, “Look, if you want to star on our books, you have to fill out a proper membership form and give us permission.”
Oh my god, we lost about 60% of those women because they had already come into the programme, got what they needed and quite rightly so.
And now they’d gone on to live happy, healthy lives and whatever.
And we lost about 60%. And I was like, “Oh my god, we’ve only got like 40 people left,” or whatever.
So it’s taken me a really, really long time to build that membership back up. And we are now helping, registered under our care, and receiving regular care, we’ve got 300 women, which for me is a huge thing.
Last year one of our grants that we got were dependent on us, and we set it as a target, we wanted to grow our membership by 50%. And would you believe, at the beginning of 2022, considering all the other little things that we had to do, we had about 150 members.
And now it’s the beginning of 2023, and we’ve got just over 300 women.
So that’s for us a huge thing that we’ve been now documenting and putting together something now, for not just our AGM that’s coming up, but also for our funders that gave us that money as well. These are just huge milestones for us.
Next milestones—Ghana, Nigeria, and self-discovery
And what’s next for you, Leanne? What’s the next milestone you are trying to hit?
Oh God, that’s a really good question. I don’t know. I suppose I’m one of those people, I kind of just go to the beat of whatever my heart tells me, to be honest with you.
But weirdly, last year, the back of last year, I did so much strategising because I was able to, because like I said, I delegated and stuff. And so this year it’s already planned, and it feels really, really good that everything’s planned.
So I’m looking to take pockets of time during this year for myself and my own projects and little things that I really, really want to do.
And what I’m really looking forward to the most is in June I am heading to Ghana and Nigeria, which is where I’m from. And I’m going to be doing two weeks of humanitarian work out there with the breast cancer communities out there.
So this is just this really amazing pilgrimage that I’m going on just for self-discovery, but also help out where I can and do a little bit more research that can support my work over here.
So I’m really looking forward to that trip coming up.
Yeah, that would be such an amazing experience.
Coming to terms with your new identity
You talked about that long road to recovery, and I know that you said, “I’m never going to be the same woman that I used to be.”
How have you come to terms with that new identity? How would you describe yourself now compared to then?
It’s been very, very difficult to come to that because there’s a process of grieving that you just have to go through, if you are lucky enough to get to be told that you are in remission.
You actually go into grieving mode because you realise, actually life will never be the same again. You can never, ever take your life or your health for granted again.
There’s always that thing in the back of your mind all the time, “Is the cancer going to come back?” That’s just something that any cancer patient will tell you, that’s the biggest worry.
So to accept that and manage that has been such a huge, huge process. And I’ve said, breast cancer particularly, it robs you of the things that society tells you makes you a woman.
The drugs make you put on weight, you look bloated, you lose your hair. You lose your breasts in most part, one breast, two breasts, some of the breast, you’re going to lose that. And you put on weight, you’re just not the same.
And for someone who came from a dance and fitness sort of background, it was just a huge thing for me body image-wise. I found that really, really, really tough. I’ll be honest with you, the journey is still continuing for self-love.
But what I will say is, I am a much happier person now than I was before. I don’t take life for granted anymore. It made me make some real huge changes in my life that I’m so thankful for now.
I wouldn’t take back these experiences, however awful they were, all these traumatic experiences for the world, because I’m really proud of who I’ve become because of those experiences.
And I’m lucky enough to have used these really bad experiences and turn them into good and help other people. So for that I’m really proud of.
I think for me, that it is just always important that whilst I’m doing that work for others, I’m also doing that for myself, because I haven’t in the past got that balance right.
And now I do that really well, focus on myself, do that bit for the community, but always making sure that my cup is full.
Because the journey and the self-acceptance journey after being through something as bad as that, after being through something as bad as my childhood has been. And the depression and all the therapy and everything I’ve gone through in my early years, I think you have to get to a point where that always comes first, no matter what.
Dealing with that and dealing with that journey always has to come first and everything else second. And that’s what I do now, and I do that well.
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