How Trauma Led to Purpose for MOSS Co-Founder Syreeta Challinger
Syreeta spent over thirteen years working in Product Development all over the world for global high street brands before reaching Hong Kong where she met her husband and MOSS co-founder Rob. Their careers were flying high and all was well until one day in September 2014, everything changed. At 37, Rob suffered a severe brain haemorrhage and stroke. He was in a coma for three weeks and when he awoke, he could no longer speak and was paralysed on his right side.
Suddenly, their lives were changed forever which led to some really dark times but Syreeta never gave up hope. And whilst caring full time for Rob, Syreeta revisited a business idea they had shared before — one which would create light out of dark… This led to them starting MOSS — to value and celebrate moments of light and joyfulness. As Syreeta says “The brand was born from a desire to create light out of the darkness; an innovative and conceptual approach to dealing with life changing events.” And that’s just what they have done.
Here’s Syreeta’s incredible story:
Newnham: What were you like as a kid — how would your friends and family have described you?
Challinger: I could be quite mischievous and my nickname was ‘pickle’! But for the most part, I was actually rather shy and sensitive. I could be quite serious at times. Always got described as a good girl; as I guess I was. I even made Head Girl, which as a scholarship kid from a humble home, I am still proud of but also find hilarious. My mum always said I was a good carer too; being compassionate and looking out for others has been part of my make up for as long as I can remember.
Newnham: How did you get into Product Development and can you talk us through some of your career pre-setting up MOSS?
Challinger: I took a Foundation course at Camberwell School of Art, and then went to study Textile Design at Manchester Met University. I started working straight after graduating on a Fabric teams for a high-end high street brand, developing, sourcing the fabrics alongside design teams for high end women’s clothing. We sourced within the UK and Europe for manufacture within Europe too.
I had the pleasure of working in both supplier and brand environments over the years. And after a change of pace, I moved into sportswear and the raw materials development is where my skills became more focused, yet whilst gaining international experience. I did this until 2011 when I moved to Asia for work, and became part of a team setting up the Shanghai office for Umbro under Nike Inc. This is where my skill set became all encompassing, not just the raw materials but the garments too from start to finish. The role broadened my horizons even further, exposed me to material tasks and really ticked the boxes when it came to travel too. I then moved to Hong Kong, where I worked on the supplier side once more, with global high street as my clients.
My career has evolved as the industry started to change with the gradual shift towards Asia sourcing and manufacturing. It’s been quite the adventure and I loved it. It’s not at all glamorous, but I loved the hands-on factory visits and seeing a sketch turn into realisation; a tangible end result to my efforts.
Newnham: In 2014, life drastically changed for you. Can you tell us more about what happened and the impact it had on your path?
Challinger: On 27th September 2014, Rob suffered a near-fatal brain haemorrhage and stroke. To make things more complicated, we lived and worked in Hong Kong but this all happened on the second day of a holiday in Sydney.
Life changed instantly. We went from being high flying Design professionals, working hard and playing hard, to dealing with intense trauma. It’s been incredibly challenging. Rob was induced into a coma for three weeks and when he came round, he had right-side paralysis and had lost all speech and communication.
Our life shattered to pieces. Where most people have one constant in their life to hold them up when trauma happens, we had nothing to hold on to; we lost our homes, our jobs, our lives as we knew it, and we had to start again. I felt like we were at sea. We were stuck in Sydney for three months until Rob was well enough to fly back. We had to move back to Lincoln, UK for family support and although I did try to maintain my old role, commuting between cities and continents is not ideal for anyone, let alone whilst trying to deal with life-changing events and be a carer! So I decided to give up work to support Rob in his recovery, as I noticed that he plateaued every time I left for meetings, plus the heartache of leaving him was becoming too much. If I was going to do this, I needed to be all in.
So Rob became my full time project and one that I am incredibly proud of. But life is very different, that’s for sure. And it’s not been an easy transition either, but I’d like to say we have done it with grace. As what else is there to do, except play the cards we have been dealt? Essentially though, it meant that every slate was wiped clean and we have had to start over again.
Newnham: Rob’s prognosis wasn’t good — but you didn’t give up. Can you tell us more about the challenges you faced and how you dealt with them?
Challinger: I didn’t give up, you’re right. In all this, I have taken the approach — treat others how you wish to be treated. I am simply doing what I hope would be done for me. But it’s not been easy. This all happened whilst on holiday; just the logistics of it were complicated enough, let alone the trauma and grief. I had to find accommodation, hire a car, try and stay grounded and healthy amongst all the insane circumstances.
It was clear that our life in Hong Kong was over. Once Rob was moved into a rehab unit, I went back for four days to pack up life as I knew it and ship our belongings back to the UK, address TBC. I became quite pragmatic and practical, trying to get things done as best as possible and radiate love to Rob, to keep him positive when my own heart was breaking. I simply had to keep one foot in front of the other and not give up hope. As I was so far away from home, from any kind of network or support, I simply had to dig deep. It’s incredible what you can deal with, when you absolutely have to.
I have been commended for my spirit by health professionals who have seen marriages of twenty years break down over similar circumstances, but the biggest thing that kept me going was love. We were very new in our relationship, yet it was deep and true. And the way he looked at me and tried to smile when he came out of coma… wow. I knew. I just knew that Rob and our love was worth fighting for. And that is what kept me going.
And there was also the mantra a dear friend shared with me; “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by hard it’s very hard.” I had to adopt the snail-like pace and do little things each day and I still hold on to that advice now. It’s the only way to move through anything. It becomes overwhelming when we stop completely or try to take it all on at once. So my advice is to just chip away, bit by bit.
Newnham: MOSS was something you had dreamt about doing — what conversation led to you starting it and what is the mission behind it — both for you professionally and personally?
Challinger: MOSS Moments of Sense & Style, was an idea we had a few years back. Rob and I used to brainstorm for projects — we spoke about it being a great idea, perhaps one day… and it got forgotten about. I then found the idea in a sketch book, when unpacking our belongings from Hong Kong once we finally got them out of storage. It came at a poignant time; I had just been told I hadn’t got a job that I really wanted — at the 5th stage of interview when I thought I had it nailed! This was yet another rejection, one of many which made me question everything. No doors were opening at all to me. I was also finding being in Lincoln very tough. So to come across that sketch book with MOSS in it ignited something; I knew I had to create my own door.
It started as a blog, a Tumblr at first, still unsure how or where to start but I realised that I had to get this story out of me. I shared a few snippets of our story, alongside words and imagery and, inadvertently, started creating a mood and direction for the brand.
The idea behind it is to remind people to slow down. To embrace the beauty of what it is to be human; our senses, our emotions and to feel them all. Take time for ourselves and to get connected again. The old adage rings true; a rolling stone gathers no moss. As life before what happened was always hectic and on the move. And only by this life-changing event stopping us, have we truly realised what it means to live, to feel and to be human. It was our time to take roots; gather moss.
Personally, it’s also a cathartic, creative and healing project to work on; to gain my sense of self once more, in amongst the daily routines of being a carer, which is fundamentally my main role. Professionally, it means I have an outlet for my skills and experience; I have a lot to offer and do not wish to lose it. I also have a strong work ethic, it’s not in my nature to kick back. And after having supported overseas manufacturing for so many years, I wish to invest in our local industry. I ensure I partner with family-run businesses within the UK to create each product, including all packaging and printing.
Newnham: That’s incredible. As a full time carer and now founder, what is an average day like for you?
Challinger: No week tends to be the same, nor day! I have to be very fluid, as fundamentally Rob’s needs come first; life with brain injury is complex and a huge challenge. Some days I can be flat-bound, when Rob is unwell, so I end up working from home. I’ve had to learn to surrender to this new way of working, taking each week as it comes. When things are good, I tend to work a few hours from my studio, a short walk from home and have some time to myself. The fluidity is a huge part of the reason for starting to work on my own too; it can be at my own pace to suit our life as it is now.
Newnham: What/who inspires you and your products?
Challinger: Storytelling inspires me; the human condition.
The inspiration behind the scented candles were a way of storytelling through scent; explaining why we started the brand, sharing our story in a creative way. It’s called The Foundation Collection as it’s the stepping stone for our new path. As we develop as a brand, the products won’t have such a personal raw element that’s attached to us.
Poetry, music, film are also a source of inspiration. All sorts really. Everyday little things and beauty in the mundane inspires me too. Inspiration is everywhere; we simply have to change our ways of seeing and look.
In terms of people, I find other small business owners, other women, truly inspiring. And there are so many I have met along the way; the fact we are all doing our utmost to create is something to be celebrated.
I love the photographer Ami Soux for forging her way and creating her own path, without any in roads, love her style too. I also love Mary Portas, her tenacious approach to life, plus her mission to reinvent the high street is inspired; after years of men in suits making decisions and cookie cutter experiences, I think she is leading the retail revolution.
Newnham: f you could go back in time — what advice, if any, would you offer a younger Syreeta?
Challinger: Oh goodness — not to go on the pill! I hold this medication to account for me sleepwalking through my 20s emotionally and making bad choices. Making mistakes is a symptom of being in your 20s, yes, but it definitely stopped me from listening to my gut and truly feeling and experiencing life fully. Our instincts, our bodies are one big sensory machine, every nuance guiding us through to the best path for us. There is a reason it’s called a gut feeling; it’s our intuition guiding us through, the feeling is stronger than any thought process. Learn to live by that, and you won’t go wrong.