Clarissa Brooke-Turner is founder of online business Now You Know About (www.nowyouknowabout.com), which makes educational DVDs for children. The former television presenter and Vogue journalist moved from London to Geneva in 2001 in search of more space for family life. After requalifying as a teacher in Switzerland, she founded the company, for which she travels regularly to further her mission to inspire the next generation with great historical figures. Her sense of adventure was formed during her youth, when her father’s diplomatic career took the family to live variously in Rome, Helsinki, Moscow, Brasilia and Boston.
Every morning in summer before starting work, Clarissa Brooke-Turner dives in to Lake Geneva with her dogs, a golden retriever named Stella and a black labrador called Bingo. “It is the best alarm clock in the world,” she says, “although once October arrives, I hang up my swimming costume for the winter until May.” For someone who deals mainly with the UK, the advantage of running a business from Geneva is the time difference: “I can be back at home by 9am, looking out over Mont Blanc, while Britain is still getting out of bed.” She then works through lunch to finish by 4pm, when her working day finishes and family life begins.
This was exactly the work/life balance that she was hoping to strike when she made the decision to leave London 10 years ago after the birth of her second child. Back in 2001, Brooke-Turner and her Dutch financier husband Egon Vorfeld were struggling with the pressure of work: “Egon would often get home from the office at 10pm.” With Brooke-Turner at Vogue and appearing weekly on the This Morning television show, “Family life was getting squeezed, and it was time to change the pace.”
Switzerland was chosen as a good base for her husband to build a private client asset management business, which he merged with The Forum Finance Group in 2009. Brooke-Turner requalified as an English-language teacher, which was to sow the seeds of her business idea.
“What you notice when teaching are the gaps in children’s knowledge, and I started to think about the gaps in my own children’s development.” Her son Johannes and daughter Cecilia are both trilingual, a benefit of growing up in Switzerland, but knew no Christmas carols and had recently asked, “What’s ‘cricket’, Mum?” One day, driving the children past a field of sunflowers, she asked them, “Who painted the famous picture of sunflowers?” Silence followed. “I reckon by age seven they should have come across Van Gogh somewhere at school,” she says. So she set about sticking half a dozen famous paintings on the kitchen walls. “There was something about it being a visual exercise which made it easier for them to absorb.”
From the kitchen table in 2007, the idea grew into a company, following the business model of the Baby Einstein videos. Brooke-Turner made five 10-minute films of artists’ lives, interspersed with their paintings. She wrote and narrated the stories, commissioned the artwork and included works by Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Goya, Gainsborough and Rembrandt. The first DVD was an instant success: “The feedback was that it was as good as a bedtime story, and the kids were learning without noticing.”
She set up a website and customers emerged from all over the world. She wrote and produced a second DVD on scientists and found a new market in museums, most notably the Science Museum in London. “The Science Museum was a big leap,” says Brooke-Turner, “because they also want to take future DVDs on inventors, astronauts and medical and flight pioneers.”
The third DVD, 2009’s “Explorers”, was funded by a sponsor keen to introduce children to the Chinese explorer Zheng He. “Zheng He was sailing the seas in junks three times longer than Columbus’s ship, and travelling further than Columbus 50 years earlier,” she says.
With sales of each of the DVDs now climbing to 25,000, Brooke-Turner was able to introduce a charitable element to the company. “I set up a One-for-One scheme, where for every DVD sold, we send one to a state school in the UK for their after-school clubs.” Brooke-Turner is regularly invited to these schools. “I get to throw balls around to illustrate Newton and gravity, or fling our toy monkey at the children for Darwin. Children need to find it fun if they are going to learn.”
All the to-ing and fro-ing back to the UK has tested Geneva’s reputation as a European hub. The couple rent a three-bedroom house in the canton of Geneva, 11 minutes from the city centre in Presinge. “We just couldn’t find a place we liked. We were spoilt in London but in Geneva family houses are in short supply because of company rentals.” Instead they bought a family home just over an hour away in the ski resort of Villars. The property has eight double bedrooms and five bathrooms, and has yet to be fully restored from its previous function as a girls’ boarding house at Aiglon College, where her husband is a governor.
Is there anything she misses about her life in London? “Yes,” she laughs. “The British sense of humour. There is a rather unkind saying about the Swiss: ‘In Switzerland a joke is no laughing matter.’ But if it is all getting a bit serious, I am soon on a plane to London – packing my monkey and juggling balls with me.”
Geneva: Centre of it all
● Geneva is a European centre for diplomacy, global corporations and international organisations and the third European financial centre after London and Zurich
● According to the Mercer Quality of Living study 2009, residents have the third-highest quality of life in the world
● Geneva is the geographical centre of Europe with access to lakes and mountains
● The 2010 Mercer Cost of Living survey ranked Geneva as the fourth-most expensive city in the world
● It is outside the European Union and has limited culture and entertainment
● It follows a conservative way of life, so would not suit urban “creative” types
What you can get for ...
● SFr6,950 (£4,540) a month. Four-bedroom villa in the leafy suburb of Veyrier. Available through www.ariex.ch
● SFr7.5m (£4.9m). Five-bedroom chalet in Villars. Visit www.swissproperty.org