Cork teen Sophie chooses to matter

A Cork teenager features alongside heavy hitters like Sheryl Sandberg in a new book, highlighting her work in food security and anti-bullying. EMMA CONNOLLY catches up with Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale
Cork teen Sophie chooses to matter
Sophie Healy-Thow

AN award-winning Cork student is the only Irish person included in a book that celebrates leadership in women across the globe.

Sophie Healy-Thow, from Kinsale was singled out to tell her story in Choose To Matter, by Julie Foudy, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and features along with heavy hitters like Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg for her work in highlighting food security and anti bullying.

Sophie, 19, is no stranger to the spotlight having been part of a team who won the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in 2013 for a project which examined the use of natural bacteria to increase crop output, with the same team going on to take a top prize in the Silicon Valley Google Science Fair in 2014.

There was also the none too small matter of her being named one of Time magazine’s ‘Top 20 most influential teens’ in 2014.

Her accomplishments are impressive but she admits when first approached on social media by Julie to feature in the book she thought it was a prank.

When it became clear it wasn’t, the pair spoke a number of times before a Skype interview was set up.

“It was very informal in style and fun to do — Julie called it Sockstalk — she wore her favourite socks and asked each interviewee to wear their favourite socks. So I did the interview wearing socks and putting my feet on the desk!

“She approached me because she had heard of the work I am doing in the areas of food security, in particular as a Youth Leader for Zero Hunger, gender equality as a Trustee of ActionAid UK and anti bullying with the ISPCC.”

Sophie, who is a Leaving Cert student, speaks honestly about her own experience of bullying in the book.

It started with small, under the radar, sly remarks; escalating to comments on social media.

“Being bullied really took me back a few steps — I never thought it could happen to me. It wasn’t something I ever thought about. For a while I didn’t know how to react as I thought those girls were friends.

“It affected everything for a while, I thought I had no friends, I felt paranoid. After it had been going on for a year, I did confide in my mum and am only sorry I didn’t speak out sooner — it could have avoided it escalating.”

'Choose to Matter' by Julie Foudy
'Choose to Matter' by Julie Foudy

In the book, she writes that her biggest concern is when you start to believe what the bully says.

“You can’t let them get inside your head. And bullies have some weird power to make it happen. You just can’t listen to it. The most important thing is that you find pride in who you are.

“You’ve just got to embrace all your uniqueness, and your weirdness and your nerdiness, or your sportiness or your artiness. You’ve just got to embrace it because that is who you are.

“When you realise that and you open up yourself to the world and open up yourself to people, that’s when they accept you for who you are.

“And I think that’s a life lesson that everybody should at some point in their lives learn. Just to be yourself. Don’t listen to anybody else.”

Sophie decided to turn a negative into a positive and became an Anti-Bullying Shield Youth Award Ambassador for the ISPCC.

In Choose To Matter she also talks about what leadership means to her in her everyday life and how she tries to inspire people her age and younger generations.

“Leadership to me is making sure that everybody’s individual strengths and talents are seen. As I said to Julie in the interview, I’m not like a tour guide holding the umbrella with a group following, I’m more of a quiet leader and prefer to push others forward. You don’t have to be the one at the front of the group to be the leader. You just need to find your leadership style and that’s what the book is all about.

“I think it’s important to show young girls that it is possible to achieve what you want and be your own person. Through leadership roles as a Trustee of ActionAid UK and a Youth Leader for Zero Hunger, I want to show that young people can speak out and they will be heard.”

Other women Sophie admires in the book include Robin Roberts, the anchor on Good Morning America, “because she is a strong leader and battled her illness courageously in public, and achieved the best she could be in sport.

“I’m also in awe of Sheryl Sandberg because of her achievement in her working life, as an author and her role in the ONE Campaign and Women for Women International.”

Despite being proud to be in the book, Sophie says she doesn’t focus on ‘achievements.’

“I focus on doing things that matter to me, making a difference, working on issues that mean something to me. I think my family see it the same way, though they were very happy to get a copy of Julie’s book — my mum’s ordered more copies!” Living in Kinsale with her family, she has one sister, Esha, who is in Transition Year, while she is facing into a busy few weeks ahead of the Leaving Cert and hopes to study International Deveopment and Food Policy in UCC.

It’s an area she’s very invested in: “Half the world goes without food; by 2030 we’ll need 50% more food to feed the world. And it’s something that everyone can help with — by not wasting food; by recycling by using organic food; by doing something as simple as growing tomatoes.

“It was when I won the Young Scientist competition and we were speaking to young people that I realised they had no idea about any of this — that people their ages could not go to the fridge for food — that I thought I wanted to work in this area.”

And she feels the starting point of it all was winning the Young Scientist competition and urges all students to consider getting involved.

“I was so quiet before that — it was hard to get a word out of me.

“But it launched me into a new world and gave me so much confidence in myself and what I can do.”

Julie wrote a personal message to Sophie when she sent her the book: “Thank you for your time; you’re inspirational — keep up the hard work.” Hear, hear to that.

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