The Leap Stories #18: Sonia Lear

I think we may have hit a jackpot of leaps this week. A big, Airstream caravan filled with pizza, adventure, vulnerability, love and even a set of twins, jackpot.

For me, reading this week’s story of how Sonia Lear and her partner Remi came to launch Happy Camper Pizza conjured up more questions than answers. And for that, I’m truly thankful. Because there is no one right answer, there is no one right way.

  • What happens when you’re on the sidelines to someone else’s leap and you don’t support it?
  • When you’re resisting their leap because of the major impact it will have on your life?
  • Can you adopt someone else’s leap?
  • What about when the leap you take actually re-ignites passion for the thing you leaped from?
  • Is a leap a way forward, or a detour? Does it matter?
  • Is creativity anything other than a series of leaps, of planting seeds and connecting them up?
  • Is it realistic to have babies and take a major career leap all at once?
  • What does an entire family taking a leap look like?
  • When the leap gets too hard, what do you do?
  • What’s the cost of not leaping?

This is a a warts and all story, that’s more about human dynamics and partnerships than pizza. It’s base is love, it’s toppings are kids, itches, loss, fear, surrender, money, acceptance, courage, redefining success and good dash of spunk. It’s heavily seasoned with reality. Just the way I like it. I hope you find it as tasty and inspiring as I do. Buon Appetito x

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What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

In Primary School, I found sanctuary from bullying in the alternate universe of books and wanted to share that gift by writing my own. My favourite teacher wrote me a note: “See you in print in the near future,” which has always stuck in my heart.

By mid-high school, I wanted to be a photographer. I’d discovered black and white photography and the wonders of the darkroom. Inspired by Dianne Arbus and her gallery of misfits, I wandered the streets capturing “real” people. I loved the buzz of approaching strangers and that split moment when magic happens before your eyes. It’s an addiction I still thrive on.

I’ve always been a daydreamer and a wanderer. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to travel the world, take photographs and write about my adventures. But I missed my calling as a travel writer because I was too scared of failure.

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What a photo! The gorgeous Happy Camper Van snapped at Uluru while travelling across Australia with Sonia and her family.

What did/do you study?

I studied Communications, majoring in journalism, at the University of Technology, Sydney. It had a ridiculous cut-off mark of 96.9 to get into the course and by the time we’d all critically analysed the limitations of the mainstream press, hardly anyone wanted to be a journalist anymore!

After my first career crisis, while working full time as a TV producer, I completed a Masters in International Relations and Politics at the University of NSW. It kept me sane while scrutinising laundry powder for Today Tonight.

I have University to thank for meeting some life-long friends (and learning to cook gnocchi), but the best journalists I’ve met are people who worked their way up without a piece of paper.

What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

 

I never expected to be nearly 40 years old and working in a pizza truck.

If you’d told me I’d be the owner of Happy Camper Pizza ten years ago, I would have thought it was completely beneath me. I was going to become a diplomat or film maker for the United Nations.

But all that ambition dissipated when I had children. A meaningful life is now what’s important to me – being present for my family and having time to work on projects I am passionate about.

Happy Camper Pizza is my way of “livin’ the dream” with family in two – to escape the rat race and go on new adventures.

But by no means has it been an easy leap.

For starters, Happy Camper Pizza was originally my partner’s dream, not mine. It took all my courage to support Remi in starting a pizza truck at a time when  I felt the most vulnerable and insecure I have ever felt. I was pregnant with twins, already treading water as a mother and I couldn’t fathom the idea of both of us leaving our careers when I felt so financially reliant on him.

Even scarier, was plunging $200,000 of borrowed money into a food truck with zero catering experience, and moving-in with my mum to make it happen. In hindsight, I can’t believe we did it.

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What were you doing before you made your leap?

Before the leap I was an ABC Videographer and Reporter based in Mumbai, shooting for ABC News, 7.30 Report, Newsline and The Australia Network. That’s where our first child was born. Two days after I gave birth, Remi confided he was bored of his engineering job and wanted to own a food truck. I told him to f@#$ off, in no uncertain terms.

Here I was, this kick-ass journalist, suddenly in the vulnerable position of being a mother, and financially reliant on a man for the first time in my life.

Even though I was used to taking crazy risks in the past, it was very confronting to have to deal with someone else’s desire to take a leap.

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

I have former newsreader, Katrina Lee, to thank for getting my foot in the door in the media. She was my TV journalism lecturer at university and gave the entire class the chance to do work experience at Channel Seven. The Chief of Staff offered some paid work to listen to the police scanners overnight – but only two of us took him up on it. Within six months, we were sharing the job of Assistant Chief of Staff in the newsroom.

In terms of throwing in your career to start a business, I have my family to thank for me believing it’s a “normal” thing to do. My father threw in his career as an chemical engineer to become a potter, and for a years had a pottery stall at Paddington Markets. My uncle quit his career as a graphic designer in London to live on a canal boat with his family and run Magical Lantern theatre shows around Europe for fifteen years. Both their marriages ended in divorce, but they weren’t afraid to take the leap in following their passion and I guess that’s something that has inspired me, whilst also making me aware of the pitfalls.

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What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?

In all honesty, I poo-pooed the food truck idea for a long time.

Remi is an aeronautical engineer and a very “stable” geek, so I couldn’t understand why he would want to schlep around making pizza. It took me nearly two years to understand that it wasn’t just a mid-life crisis, he was chasing a dream.

Post India, Remi went as far as building a Bunnings DIY woodfired pizza oven in the garden to convince me he could cook.

We were renting a house in St Kilda and he taught himself to weld on YouTube so he could to mount a 500kg pizza oven on wheels to make it portable. He then started making pizza and using our friends as guinea pigs.

It wasn’t until my best friend’s partner committed suicide, I let go of my irrational fear, and told Remi I’d support his leap.

What’s the worst that could happen? The business might fail? Bankruptcy? While the risk of him not following his dreams might lead to depression, destroy our relationship or even worse.

I gave birth to twins (and we moved that bloody pizza oven twice) before it finally happened. By that stage I was juggling three kids under two. But once I made the decision to get on board, things just flowed.

I was the one who came up with the idea of using a vintage Airstream. I fell so in love with Airstreams, I bought a 1968 Ambassador on eBay one night and convinced Remi it would be a great idea to travel around Australia in it, with the kids and the pizza van.

While the pizza van was being renovated, we headed to the Northern Territory, via the Red Centre, on a trial run. We realised in the first 24 hours driving with small kids is hell! After six weeks of whinging and broken sleep, we came home and launched Happy Camper Pizza in Melbourne.

How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping?

I am still shitting myself.

But realising you’re afraid, and that fear is what’s holding you back, gives you massive opportunities for growth.

I’m a big fan of Jeanette Winterson, whose characters are forever rebelling against conventional values. She is as brave in her personal life as her writing, and has the completely realistic understanding that happiness won’t suddenly come because you take a risk:

“It is a time of mourning. Loss. Fear. We battle ourselves through with questions. And then we feel shot and wounded. And then all the cowards come out and say, ‘See I told you so.’ In fact, they have told you nothing.”
― Jeanette Winterson

Change is scary. Every time I’ve taken a leap from a secure job or tackled the unknown, its led to bucketfuls of self-doubt, and criticism from my family right at the moment I need their support.

I think the key to dealing with that is to surround yourself with inspiring people so you can push through all the darkness and not spiral into depression. For me as a woman, it’s other women living their dreams.

There’s nothing more inspiring than a strong woman who is passionate as well as fearless, and at the same time isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. That’s what I aspire to be.

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How do you decide to choose courage?

I’m not sure most people who make a leap consciously choose to be courageous. It’s more a compulsion or desperation to change your circumstances.

Things get to the point where your soul feels like it’s dying not to live life on your own terms. If you don’t, that’s when you get sick or depressed.

I think we all have an internal voice that gets muffled by society’s expectations of us. It’s not until you can turn your back on what everyone else thinks, you can start taking the steps to a more meaningful life.

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What other leaps have you made in the past?

I left home at sixteen when my parents moved city. My brother is schizophrenic and I knew I needed to get away from the heaviness and focus on myself. At first my mother told me I would end up a loser, but in the end she admitted it was the best decision I ever made. Ironically, I ended up working in the kitchen at Pizza Hut to pay my rent while I finished school. I learnt everything NOT to do to a pizza!

In the middle of my Channel Seven career, I took leave to travel through South and Central America alone for 12 months. I was in a long term relationship, but so impatient to see more of the world I left everything and jumped on a plane.

It was liberating to go with the flow and exist in the everyday moment (except maybe the time I had diarrohea on a bus in Mexico). I trekked in the Ecuadorian Amazon; climbed a 6000 metre mountain, Huayna Potosi in Bolivia; ice climbed in the Torres Del Paine National Park; hired a car on the black market in Cuba and drove around the entire country (and drank too much rum) before enrolling in a month-long lithographic printing course in Havana.

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When I got home, I tried my hand as a political advisor on the NSW State election campaign. The process made me feel dirtied, so I went back to my old job at Today Tonight – where everyone was at least honest about the shit we were dishing up.

A few years later when I was working as a Producer for Sunrise, I decided to leave Channel Seven for good. Everyone told me I was mad to throw in my secure and well-paid job. But there were a series of circumstances that made it easy to leave. So I did.

I didn’t have a “plan”, I didn’t have a job to go to, I simply bought a plane ticket and flew to London.

I had just started working at Associated Press Television News (APTN) when the London bombing happened. It was intensely depressing to cover. I decided News was not my thing, I wanted to become a documentary maker. So I leapt again.

This time I bought a video camera. I hadn’t had any formal training but I had an eye for photography and knew how to produce for TV. I taught myself how to edit on Final Cut Pro and decided to start a career as a video journalist.

While the transition was going on, I managed to get sidetracked. For nearly 6 months I worked for a Spanish media company selling advertising for The Times. I lived in Tanzania, followed by the Bahamas, then the Dutch Caribbean.

I was paid peanuts but had the most incredible time of my life. I went on Safari in the Serengeti National Park, lay around in hammocks in Zanzibar, spent two months living at The Hilton in Nassau, and did my Padi Open Water diving course in Curacao before (stupidly) heading back to the “real” world.

Some people have huge ambitions and a clear vision of what they want to achieve, but that is definitely not me. I never planned to have a television career and I never aspired to own a food truck. I’m one of those annoying “go with the flow” believers.

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What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

I’ve had a few failed leap attempts, but they were clearly never meant to be.

I once went for a job as a Long Haul Flight Attendant with Qantas. I went through to the final round of interviews before I admitted how much I hated flying.

Another hair-brained idea I had was to become an International Spy with ASIS. I got through the application process before failing on the psychological testing.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a leap that doesn’t work out.

If you really want something bad enough, you can make it happen. It’s all about perseverance. The leaps that haven’t worked for me were purely because my heart wasn’t really in them.

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Dessert pizza? Yes, please!

How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

For me, making the leap is not black and white. Some days it feels like a 10. But there are days where, just like in everyday life, you want to crawl into a hole and never come out.

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

In terms of starting Happy Camper Pizza, there have been many upsides – feeling challenged, building a business from scratch, self-employment, working with a crew of vibrant, young staff, meeting new people, catering at Music Festivals, going camping with our kids for “work,” and eating yummy pizza whenever we feel like it.

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What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

No time for sleep, financial insecurity, never feeling like your work day ends, feeling burnt out from juggling the demands of a business while parenting.

We weren’t very realistic about how demanding it would be to run a food truck with small kids – both financially and personally. Remi ended up going back to engineering because of the sheer overheads involved in the first year. Ironically, I’m the one now running the business.

For six months Remi was working seven days a week (day and night) until that took a toll on our personal life and we decided to take on permanent staff. Now most of the money we earn goes on paying staff, so our focus is on how to build the business so its viable long term.

I think it’s infinitely harder to make a leap when you have small children. The insecurity and sense of responsibility you feel can be crippling. You don’t have the free time you need to dedicate yourself to your business in the way that you’d like and as a result you feel like you’re half-assed at everything you’re doing – parenting and work!

We have a long way left to go to make this leap a true reality, but the “dream” is keeping us going. Happy Camper Pizza represents much more than a business. Ultimately we’d like a whole lifestyle change to go with it.

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What might be your next leap?

Back to the media? Running Happy Camper Pizza has helped me come full circle in terms of re-re-igniting my passion for story telling. I have started talking to old contacts about freelance television work.

But first, I want to help my partner fulfil his dream of quitting his engineering job for good, so he can run the business and free me up to do other things. In order for that to happen, we need to expand Happy Camper Pizza.

Financially, it’s impossible to do that with the same model of Airstream pizza truck. We just can’t afford to build another one. But last week I had the crazy idea of setting-up a mobile trailer-style oven to service some of the smaller functions and leave our Airstream free for large catering jobs.

Remi thinks I’m insane, but he let me buy a 1962 Chevrolet truck to put a wood fired oven on the back. So for my 38th Birthday, I bought a rundown old truck and have started doing it up. (It’s the only way for me to get my hands on a hot rod, which I’ve always been secretly obsessed with).

I am also currently working on a documentary – The Happy Camper – that combines my filming skills and our pizza truck. It’s about families living their dreams with kids in tow.

As a result of our food truck, we have met some incredibly inspiring people. Some have hit rock bottom before they took their leap, others just seem to have been born fearless. The aim of my documentary is to share their stories, as well as my family’s journey, in the hope of inspiring other families who feel stuck that it still is possible to pursue your dreams when you have kids.

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Sonia and her gorgeous children with the Happy Camper Pizza Van.

What are your favourite words to live by?

“Set no path, never lose your way” – Unknown

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

The creator of Lunch Lady Magazine, Kate Berry, who just happens to have that quote permanently inked on her body. And her passionate other-half, Rohan Anderson from Whole Larder Love. They are both incredible human beings who have inspired me to be less afraid (and to eat more kale).

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A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

You’ll know when you’re ready to leap. Take baby steps. And try not to have too many expectations of the outcome. The journey is by far the most important part.

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If you’re having a bad day, pour yourself a glass of red and read poetry to put your insecurities to sleep.  I currently have an obsession with Christopher Poindexter who I discovered on Instagram:

“We have blemishes and we carry scars. We are tarnished, tainted, and decorated with filth; but beneath the dust, the dirt, there lives always diamonds, and behind the cloudy night, lives always, a sea of endless stars.”

Right now I’m: deciding what colour to paint my 1962 Chevy, while daydreaming about moving to Byron Bay
Hearing: Fanny Lumsden’s new single “Soapbox” in an attempt to pacify three-year-old twins. She was the first live band they saw and they have a “We Love Fanny” sticker on their Lego box
Eating: Happy Camper Pizza
Drinking: Red wine but fantasising about drinking a French martinis (preferably in a bar in London)
Reading: The Wanderess by Roman Payne
Loving: Beginner adult ballet class. Seriously it’s the best work out ever.

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Never forget about your diamonds. Always be on the look out for stars. Keep building that courage muscle one small act, one slice of Margherita at a time. Onward sweet kin.

I’d love to know what thoughts Sonia’s story bought up for you. Please leave a comment and share your words.

 

Kylie x

p.s. This interview came about because I’ve been cross posting these blogs on LinkedIn. Sonia emailed me via LinkedIn and we got chatting. So your challenge for this week is to update your LinkedIn profile! It works!

p.p.s. This is the song Sonia is listening to.


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  1. I loved this Kylie and Sonia – thank you so, so much for sharing. So many little pieces of gold in your story Sonja, so much I could take away and use to build on my own little bundle of courage. I also giggled a lot, especially at your initial reaction to your hubby’s dream! 🙂

    “I am still shitting myself.
    But realising you’re afraid, and that fear is what’s holding you back, gives you massive opportunities for growth.”

    ^^^
    These were perfect words for me right now. My little heart is still thumping with excitement at what could be accomplished with the acknowledgment and acceptance of fear, not as an impenetrable wall, but simply a stepping stone to amazing growth. I have an upcoming opportunity that scares the crap outta me because I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it. Eff that. You’ve just given me the guts to go for it 🙂

    Thanks again ladies. Golden.
    xox

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  2. I found Sonia on instagram a couple of years ago. I adored reading about her journey here. The leap is not always glamorous. In fact, it can be a bloody hard slog. What a perfect quote for her as her path is forever changing but she is never loosing her way. I love an adventure seeker. What a beautiful rich life. Nellie x

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  3. Oh I really did love this particular post! Haha it would seem that all good Leap Stories are a wonderful mixture of creativity + fear + courage and Sonia and her family’s adventure is certainly that. Wish them all the best xx

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  4. Sonia and Kylie – wow what a treat to read this and Sonia and Remi, I was reading it whilst waiting for someone to pick up a gear in their birth process. 🙂 It was a treat for me to have met you in your Mumbai chapter and I often tell the story of the absolutely delicious meal Remi created, pre hospital, on your daughters birth day! You are truly inspring, the gems, diamonds, struggles, love and fulfilling (if not a little crazy and difficult at times) life that your paths have joined and travelled on are such adventure. Australia is on my bucket list and when I make that leap, pizza, red wine and stories to catch up on will be in my plot! And of course I would love to see your growing up daughter, to meet the twins and hang out with the kids and send the two of you out on a date if the kids are okay for a few hours with a Scottish Asian midwife x Please write a book and make a film!

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  5. […] journey and what you’ve missed, I’d love to share a recent interview I did with Of Kin about our adventures so […]

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  6. A wonderfully told and bravely shared story Sonia. I always thought you’d be an author. And by ‘always’, I mean since primary school. I’m feeling every moment of your “half-assed in everything” period of life, but like you, can no longer imagine NOT setting my own destiny. Keep going for it. Thanks for the profile Kylie.

    Reply

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