"A sister is both your mirror – and your opposite,” wrote the journalist and author Elizabeth Fishel. It’s amazing how we can emerge from the same womb, be raised under the same roof and emerge through the childhood forest of rivalry, jealousy and pushing each other’s buttons, yet still find ourselves to be completely different to our sisters.
Perhaps this is a blessing. Any elder sister who blazed a trail for an impressionable younger sister will tell you that sibling rivalry can be particularly pronounced when you have the same taste in clothes, music or academic subjects. But when you’re into English and your sister is a maths fiend, or when she’s picked first for every sports team as you hide away in the library, how does this translate into adulthood? We asked four sets of sisters with wildly different interests and careers what they’ve learned and how this has affected their sisterly bond.
Alison Edgar, 52, aka The Entrepreneur's Godmother, is the author of Secrets of Successful Sales, and works with start-ups and businesses all the way to large conglomerates, helping to develop their sales and productivity strategies. Her sister Norma Shields, 59, is the lead pharmacist for clinical trials at an NHS hospital trust, where she reviews research protocols and makes decisions on whether her hospital can accommodate trials.
“Norma was always a bright spark,” Alison recalls. “She was the pride and joy of the family and the first one in the wider family of around 50 to go to university. I can still remember our holidays to Thurso in the very north of Scotland. Norma’s favourite shop was the chemist. She loved the smell and the huge fake medicine bottles in the window. Becoming a pharmacist was always something she wanted to do.”
One of Norma’s biggest attributes – patience – meant she was always skilled at cooking, particularly baking, and knitting, sewing and studying. “All of these things I struggled with, both then and now,” Alison says.
Alison’s vast skills have always lain elsewhere. “I couldn’t socialise the way she did,” Norma admits. “I was happy at home reading a book while she was out talking or clubbing.” As such, Norma believes her sister is more like their dad in her outgoingness and ability to get her own way, while she more resembles their mum. “I’m happy to go along with things to keep the peace.”
To Norma, the talking, networking and socialising inherent in her sister’s job sounds like it takes “a lot of effort and energy.” “I do some facilitation or training on the odd occasion and it’s exhausting. I don’t know where she gets the energy. She has the personality for it though and enjoys what she does. I’m proud of her and that she had the inclination and bravery to set up her own business. I would not be able to do that every day.”
Alison was diagnosed dyslexic in later life, which explains why she struggled with school. “Dyslexia is a superpower that allows you to see things differently to other people. I’ve always known my strengths and been able to use them to enhance my life.” She says that pharmacy, and the chemistry that underpins it, has always “looked like mumbo jumbo” to her.
The Covid-19 outbreak has helped Alison to better understand her sister’s work. “I’m learning more about the technical things around how long it takes to create new medicines and cures for diseases. It’s fascinating and helps me to understand more about what Norma does.”
Alison is still not 100% sure what the pharmacy side of Norma’s job involves, but she’s interested in other aspects. They sometimes discuss what’s bothering them at work and what to do, say, if an employee isn’t performing well. “Norma is a great listener. I chat about my work all the time – she can’t get a word in,” admits Alison. “When she does, we talk about the people management side. I am a DiSC [personality test] practitioner, which means I look at interactions. The NHS uses a different tool, but we discuss how to build relationships with people.”
Norma and Alison’s admiration for one another’s strengths remains as strong as it ever was. “I’m impressed that she had the strength to start her own business and keep at it through the challenges of getting it off the ground and sticking with it to make it be so successful.”
Alison admits that, up until recently, she had taken the work her sister does for the NHS for granted. “I think a lot of people in the country have done the same with their family and friends in key roles. With Covid-19 changing our lives, we appreciate more what our loved ones who work in the NHS do. I love her anyway, but could not be more proud of the work she is doing at the moment.”
Francesca Oddie, 35, is an astrologer and her sister Milly Oddie, 29, is a personal trainer. Despite the obvious differences between their careers – one revolves around celestial bodies, while the other centres on the human body – there are also similarities as they’re both self-employed, including deciding what to charge for their services dealing with clients and, currently, using the internet to run sessions.
“My sister’s job is most certainly unique,” says Milly. “I don’t know anyone else who does it, so I find it fascinating. The business she has created is incredible – I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ve been to a few events with her and I’m always amazed at how much interest it generates. No disrespect to the astrology world, but it’s not for me.”
Francesca, whose work involves reading clients’ horoscopes during consultations and talking people through the astrology beyond star signs at events, was always the sister who’d either be made to stand in goal or could be found on the sofa reading and eating chocolate.
Milly, meanwhile, was constantly being awarded player of the match and held records for running races and throwing. “Milly was born to do sporty things,” Francesca says, “and lives her best Virgo life. She exercises, eats fruit and nuts, cleans up her house and then tells other people how to be healthy by giving them neat schedules.” Reading and languages have always been Francesca’s strong suit and alien to her, says Milly. “I’ve only read one book in my life!”
Francesca believes her younger sister inherited her sporting talent and “long skinny legs” from their dad (Milly is 5ft 10 to Francesca’s 5ft 5), but is more like their mum personality-wise. “They worry about little things and spend hours cleaning every day. They are both life path sevens,” she explains, referring to their Life Path Numbers in numerology. “Mum and Mill prefer to gloss over everything to make it more palatable and ‘nice’, whereas Dad and I are more direct.”
Back in the day, Milly and their mum would get up early for school and be downstairs for ages, showered and watching GMTV with a proper breakfast long before Francesca emerged. “I was in bed until the very last second, draining a cup of tea as I ran out the door and was late for the bus every single day,” Francesca recalls.
Notwithstanding the differences between them and their careers, the sisters are a vital source of professional support for each other. “We often discuss working with clients and our relationships with them,” Milly says. “We both provide a service that clients become reliant on and can become quite dependent. I often get clients texting when I’m on holiday and likewise with my sister. We discuss the irritations and how to manage this.”
Francesca adds, “We’re both very friendly in real life and on social media. It’s difficult to convey being ‘out of office’.” Setting boundaries with clients is thus a major talking point.
They also discuss the struggles that come with running a business in terms of marketing and pricing their services. “We both found it difficult putting a price on our work when we started, so would encourage each other to have the confidence to increase our prices over time,” Milly explains.
Francesca continues, “I always ask how many hours she works and what she charges because I find the way people value themselves fascinating. With jobs like ours, we make the rules and when I started out I had to work all the hours in the week just to survive because I was so cheap! I didn’t mind at first because experience is everything, but I would always encourage people to put their prices up sooner. I lived on fresh air for a few years.”
There’s a lot they appreciate about each other. Milly particularly admires how her big sister has created her business. “It’s incredibly unique and requires a lot of motivation and drive to do it on her own. On top of this, she’s always looking to further educate herself, which I know I would struggle with.”
Francesca, for her part, admires Milly’s ability to stick to routine and be neat, tidy and organised. “She’s dedicated to health and fitness – and very regimented with her biscuits. She can also make her own decisions. Mill doesn’t give into peer pressure, she knows what she wants to do and that’s it. I also admire her height!”
Jennifer Bailey, 42, is CEO of the comfortable footwear brand Calla Shoes and a former senior marketer at a university, while her sister Angela Lambert, 40, is an NHS biochemistry specialist biomedical scientist in research and development, which involves processing samples and validating results for clinical trials and routine laboratory work.
“I don't really understand my sister's job, or really take the time to understand it!” confesses Jennifer. Although she was academic enough to study science A levels herself – chemistry and physics, at their dad’s insistence – “it never really excited me the way that it did my dad and now my sister,” Jennifer explains.
Angela doesn’t mind others not being able to apprehend her work. “Neither my daughter, partner or friends understand what I do. I work in a large department where I talk about science all the time. I get to go to a job I love, do something rewarding and learn new things every day.” On top of that, she’s doing a master's in biomedical science and appreciates her family’s support and pride in her. “They don't need to understand what I do.”
Jennifer, meanwhile, has been excited by marketing ever since she first studied it during university. “Marketing is my passion; I love how powerful strategic marketing is at the heart of all successful businesses, and that’s why I was confident I could set up my own business and make a success of it.”
Jennifer was actually the more academic sister when they were growing up, both women say. “It took my sister a little longer to mature academically and figure out what she was good at and what she wanted to do,” Jennifer explains. “My dad was the same; he was a biochemist at a university and he only did his A levels, degree and PhD late in his twenties – after leaving school at 15 with nothing. There is no way that I would be remotely interested in what Angela is doing now – she’s incredibly passionate about it, as I am about what I do. That's what makes us both good at our jobs.”
The family are close and meet up for regular dinners, often sharing their career highlights or ‘wins’. Because their other sister is also a marketer, Angela rarely gets her time to shine. “We have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about half the time,” Jennifer admits. “It's a bit mean, really!” She adds, “Her communication skills are typical of many scientists – I worked in the science and engineering faculty at a university for several years – and Angela’s often unable to use layman's terms so that her audience actually understands what she’s talking about.”
Angela says she does often talk to their mother, an NHS nurse for more than 40 years, about her job and used to talk about science with their dad, who had a PhD in protein crystallography, all the time before he passed away nine years ago. Jennifer believes her sister “is definitely our dad reincarnated – from a brain and a personality point of view. Our mum is a nurse and although she isn't at all interested in science, she is very good at maths. I’m more like Mum with my personality traits.”
Of the four siblings (they also have a brother), Angela is the only one with a scientific career. “When they’re talking I don't understand [either],” she says, “and no one ever understands what I do, even when I try and explain it. I do ask how Angela’s business is doing and I am extremely proud of what she has accomplished.”
Angela always shares Jennifer’s social media posts about Calla Shoes and is very supportive. “She built up her company alone, based on her own idea and has produced a product, not only that she can be very proud of, but that has helped so many women who were previously unable to find comfortable, pretty shoes. I admire her determination and hard work, and couldn’t have done it myself.”
The admiration goes both ways. “When we were younger, Angela didn't really know what she wanted to do and jumped from one thing to another. I’m incredibly proud that she’s found her passion and is pursuing it with commitment and success,” Jennifer reflects. “I had once considered doing a Master’s but the thought of doing it alongside a full-time job felt like too much, but that's exactly what Angela’s doing now, that takes guts and determination as well as brains.”
Shawna Alpdemir, 31, from San Francisco, California, is the senior customer onboarding manager for commercial at the US customer engagement platform Braze and formerly worked for Apple on its App Store. Her younger sister Sibel Alpdemir, 25, is a painter and art studio assistant in Los Angeles.
“My sister has always been the social butterfly of the two of us. She flourishes in group settings, and has always had both a natural talent for and a deliberate dedication to bringing people together,” says Sibel of Shawna. “I, on the other hand, was the angsty, quiet, shy younger sister growing up. This personality difference is reflected in our careers.” Shawna now fosters and manages relationships between companies and consumers, while Sibel currently works with a small team of artists during the week to support her own art career.
“From 15 to 22, I was obsessed with figuring out what I was supposed to be,'' admits Shawna. “I had to get the right grades to get into the right university, the right degree, the right job and live happily ever after.” At 18, she began an international relations degree and at 22, took an ill-fated job with an archaeological research group, before quickly pivoting into tech and moving to San Francisco. Over the next seven years, she “ping-ponged from one job to another”, including three years at Apple doing developer relations for the TestFlight and App Store teams, which ended up being the turning point in her career.
“For good reason, Apple is secretive with its process and employees,” says Shawna. “Developers never knew it was me on the other side of correspondence and I could often sense their frustration at the perceived lack of human interaction. I decided to go into an externally facing position where people could put a face to my name.” She adds that she’s “finally found the right industry and role” to match her social, managerial and tech skills.
Sibel, meanwhile, has always been more artistic. “She’s unique, edgy and stubbornly herself. She embraces counterculture and new fads. I tend to be more self-conscious and concerned with what people think,” says Shawna. Some days, Sibel’s career sounds glamorous – “she tells me stories of parties in Beverly Hills mansions or West Hollywood art gallery openings” – other days, she sends selfies “wearing a gas mask to stave off paint fumes or pictures of her hands after a day of stretching canvases… It sounds like a cool existence, but also like one that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.”
Sibel couldn’t picture herself in Shawna’s shoes either. “If my sister threw me into her office and left me to fend for myself, I don’t think I’d be able to do a thing, other than send a chaotic work email and make a desk sculpture out of her office supplies. Even the thought of a job that requires hours behind a computer or, god forbid, in a cubicle, gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
They each inherited traits from their parents, but both say Shawna is more like their dad Ahmet, an engineer who went to graduate school, founded a company, and has patents in his name; Sibel is more similar to their creative mum Carlota, a crafter who always made their childhood costumes. “Our dad is practical, goal-orientated, serious and deeply emotional. Our mom is a little more relaxed, creative, silly and equally emotional, but in a lighter way,” says Sibel. “They complement each other but are polar opposites.”
Sibel and Shawna have a similar relationship – they help each other through work difficulties despite their differences. “I’ll talk to my sister about the challenges I face with customers or coworkers, and she’ll tell me what she’s been creating or what challenges she faces as a young artist learning her craft and building her brand,” Shawna says. “We don’t get into the nitty-gritty because it goes over both our heads.”
Sibel says Shawna has been “an invaluable resource” in helping to establish her career. “She’s guided me through what to expect in interviews, proofread countless cover letters and emails, and I’m sure I’ll be asking her for help with my taxes this year! This, dating back to the first grade, has always been a major perk of having an older sister – she’s very graciously, if not sometimes begrudgingly, been my own personal career and learning centre.”
Shawna seems to relish her role and admires what Sibel has already achieved. “When I saw the first art show she ever worked on – for a well-known LA artist – I was blown away. Sibel can describe to me what she creates, but seeing the finished products in person is a completely different experience. I finally got it.”
For her part, Sibel reveres her sister’s insistence on “maintaining her sense of self no matter what workplace she’s in”, considering the challenges of the corporate world. “She makes her voice heard and commands the attention and respect she deserves from her peers and coworkers.” This allows Shawna to “perform at high levels without sacrificing her own wellbeing” – something Sibel respects greatly. “A healthy work-life balance is hard to achieve, and I admire her commitment to sustaining one. My sister is the definition of work hard, play harder. She gets sh*t done in the office, and always has time for her next adventure.”
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