Charlotte Hogg Meets Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder Kids Company

Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder and director of Kids Company, a London based charity which provides love, care and practical support for 14,000 vulnerable children who face challenges in their family homes, relentless violence and chronic abuse. Camila founded the charity in six converted railway arches in 1996. Fifteen years later, Camila has a team of 500 staff, over 10,000 volunteers and has raised £60 million to date. The NextWomen met with Camila to understand the woman behind the crazy clothing.

I walked into a colourful, warm and welcoming environment; walls decorated by children’s artwork and the rooms filled with love and care. As I sat down in Camila’s office, which is more like a family tea room, she embraces me and I am able to feel her warmth.

We sit down and as she sips her cup of tea she laughs ‘I’m sure most people wonder what my problem is’, ‘what is the bee in my turban’…  We chuckle before I ask her to tell me precisely what her problem is. She tells me of the brain research that has been conducted by Kids Company recently. Camila reels off figures, statistics and tells me of specific cases of children she has worked with over the years, detailing each one by name, her face full of emotion.

The research has shown that prolonged abuse in childhood has a significant impact on genetic make-up which is ultimately integrating violence into our DNA as we evolve.

Camila speaks of the London Riots, a particularly topical area for discussion and just a sample of the behaviour she and her staff witness on a regular basis; caused primarily by the neglect children continue to face. Her experience as a psychologist shines through as she begins to explain the biochemistry that supports this claim. The limbic system, which is situated in the middle of the brain, controls our emotional behaviour and well being. It is regulated, she explains, by our frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is damaged by long term abuse and neglect and for those children who have never formed an attachment to a caregiver, it will never have developed fully in the first place. If the frontal lobe fails to regulate our limbic system in times of stress or discomfort, our brain will become overwhelmed and shut down for about 45 minutes. During this time, we will be controlled by our brain stem which operates our core survival instinct. The outcome are outbursts of violence, anger and antisocial behaviour and it happens, almost like the flick of a switch.

As I begin to comprehend the scale of this problem, Camila hits me with two more shocking facts. 88% of children are abused by their immediate family and 99% of people who abuse, were abused themselves.

For the first time since I have entered the colourful cove Camila occupies, I feel a little sombre. This is an epidemic. I understand that I should perhaps feel inspired to make change but in honesty, I feel completely overwhelmed. ‘How on earth do you do it?’ I ask. Her face fills, more colourful than the walls that surround her, ‘the children’ she answers. She explains to me that she learns from them constantly and admires the courage and forgiveness they are able to show. It makes me wonder about her own childhood. Form previous research I know that she was born in Iran to a Muslim father, who practised medicine, and a Roman Catholic mother. 

She gained a first in Theatre and Dramatic Arts from the University of Warwick despite being severely dyslexic and unable to use a computer. Still I wonder, what really makes this woman tick, what really is under her turban. I ask. She, quite frankly tells me that she would be nothing without the work she does for children. She says that she has always had a desire to live outside the boundaries of her personal life. She explains that serving other people is a treasure, and one that she has placed at the core of her being. She tells that her Grandfather has had a huge influence on her life.

Of the two Grandparents she had, one was a self made multimillionaire, something Camila glosses over, dismisses almost like it is worthless as she begins to tell me of her other Grandfather who was a paediatrician.

He looked like a ballerina’ she beams. She tells me of his incredible grace and amazing beauty. She attributed all this to the impact of the helping profession and felt that this is where she should focus the huge amounts of energy she had from a young age.

I argue that this is still incredibly unusual – what makes a 9 year old understand the beauty and grace of her Grandfather? She tells me that she believes that her perception is, and always has been different from others.

She tells me of her birth – she was incredibly premature, weighing just 1 kilo and was not even put in an incubator as doctors were so certain that she was going to die. 

As she grew, it became apparent that some areas of her brain were incredibly underdeveloped whilst other areas had over developed in order to compensate for the areas of weakness.She believes that the biggest impact of this, is her understanding of death – something she says she has been aware of for as long as she can remember. She claims that this allowed her to understand her true zero thus allowing her to live without fear or boundaries for the entirety of her life. Aside from this, it has had a whole host of more practical implications on her daily life.

She is unable to drive, she cannot use a key board, is unable to write and was unable to tie her shoelaces until she was 12 years old.

It has an impact upon her vision, her perception and her thyroid function, causing her to carry excess weight and often feel exhausted. ‘I’m sure people think, why does she eat so much if there are hungry children in her care’.  We laugh.

It becomes more and more apparent that Camila is used to facing challenges and must have had a huge amount of determination to survive even the first few days of her life. ‘What is the hardest thing about all of this?’ I ask. ‘Well’, she replies, ‘My business is begging – and you give that a go honey’. In all seriousness, she explains that she too faces all of the usual challenges of a business only with no idea where her next bit of money is coming from and no product to sell in order to get it. She explains that Kids Company, along with most other charities, have to be subserviant in their approach. They will never be in an equal transaction with those who donate to them. I admire her for her sense of reality as she bluntly says, ‘the biggest problem is no one really gives a shit’. She explains that not even social services address the issues we’ve discussed, particularly in poorer areas, social workers will do almost anything to avoid taking on a case. Of the 1.5 million abused and neglected children in the UK, 640,000 will report their suffering to social services. However, only 40,000 of these children will be helped by social services and only 2,300 of these children will get help for more than a year. The figures are astounding.

I wonder what it would be like working for Camila. The more we speak the more I suspect she wouldn’t be a great lady to get on the wrong side of. ‘I am in love with excellence’ she tells me.

She is nurturing, facilitating and lethally rigorous. Of being a woman in business she says that she finds that her skills as a business woman are underestimated whilst her love for the children is overemphasised.

She has faced more stereotypes and has learnt not to fight them. She instead finds ways to compassionately work a way out of them – something she would advise others facing stereotypes to do.

As the interview draws to a close I know that I should ask Camila who her female hero is – I think it is safe to say that it would be every child that has shown courage and determination in the face of neglect and despair. So instead, I decide to bend the rules and ask, ‘Camila, why do you dress so funny?’ ‘Oh’, she laughs, ‘I make my own clothes – there are designs all over my floor that get sewn together for me. And when I get fed up, I chop them all up and start again’. I am left almost speechless. ‘I’ve always been like it’, she continues ‘I was forever painting my shoes, stretching my jumpers, cutting things’. It is certainly an unusual approach but one which has Camila labelled as the most colourful character in charity, recognisable by most of the public and a fashion icon to some. To me, they will just be the clothes that dress a truly incredible woman.

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.