Entrepreneur Turns Personal Loss into Life Through Leadership

As chair of business and tech hubs including Hartham Park plc and Corsham Institute, Jeffrey Thomas provides growth platforms for British business and drives digital innovation in the UK.

But last year the Wiltshire-based entrepreneur swapped the office for the great outdoors when he founded Leadership Challenges, a social enterprise that uses endurance events to promote personal development.

Coming at a time when the successful businessman wanted to give something back to society, the new venture is rooted in personal tragedy: in October 2009, Mr Thomas’ daughter, Antonia, died following a short asthma attack.

“Antonia’s death was sudden, very fast. The episode probably lasted less than ten minutes and caught us completely unawares,” Mr Thomas says.

“She was an active 10-year-old who enjoyed going for walks in the countryside and cycling. She was also a great swimmer. She just loved being at home in the countryside,” he remembers.

Jeffrey’s wife, Jennifer, describes her daughter as “a very gentle, gracious little girl… always cheerful and well loved.”

“Antonia was polite and well-mannered and got on well with everybody,” she adds.

Antonia’s death prompted an outpouring of community support, at the same time Asthma UK published a study which concluded that nearly half of asthma-related deaths could have been avoided with better routine care.

In response to this personal tragedy, a charity bike ride was organised to raise funds for Asthma UK and increase awareness of the condition which the study deemed could be taken more seriously by doctors and patients.

In June 2010, on what would have been Antonia’s 11th birthday, 29 local cyclists pedalled the 174 miles from Corsham to Crickhowell, Wales, and back. Almost £50,000 was raised in the process, which was put towards specialist equipment and training for nurses based in Wiltshire. The event also unified the local community, drawing overwhelming support from friends and family.

Following the ride, Antonia’s riders relived their adventures over a pint and a curry and realised that they could not let their experience fade; new friendships had been forged, new fitness levels achieved, and vital community resources had been generated.

A new cycling club in Corsham was established, founded on the principles that had been forged on the road to Crickhowell: adventure used to develop fitness, strengthen communities, and raise funds and awareness for Asthma UK. Antonia’s Riders Club (ARC) was created.

Work for Asthma UK continued in 2014 when former Bath and England rugby legend, John Hall, formed the London Pride Spinhalers team, with Martyn Grant, Sir James Fuller, and David Shephard. Captained by Hall, the cyclists took on the mighty Race Across America (RAAM). First conceived in 1982, the non-stop 3,000-mile race takes competitors across 12 states, from California to Maryland, and is considered the world’s toughest two-wheeled endurance event.

The Spinhalers’ success led to a larger team tackling the race the following year, coinciding with the Rugby World Cup 2015. Headed once again by John Hall, the Ruck and Rollers comprised eight ex-international rugby players, including former Scotland and British & Irish Lion, Rob Wainwright, and former Wales and Brive star, Alix Popham.

Alix remembers: “It was just a phenomenal experience from start to finish. From general support staff to cooks, from trainers to those pedalling the whole distance, everyone put in such an amazing effort.”

“It was all about teamwork and helping each other every inch of the way, and what a thing to have achieved together – cycling right across North America from west coast California to Maryland on the US eastern seaboard,” the ex-backrow forward adds.

Far more than the experience of a lifetime, two years of cycling RAAM raised over £140,000 for Asthma UK, but it also prompted Mr Thomas find a way for his daughter’s legacy to continue to flourish. The result is Leadership Challenges which sent a four-man and an eight-man team to compete as Antonia’s Friends in RAAM 2016.

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About Leadership Challenges

Upholding the values of ARC, social enterprise Leadership Challenges operates under the strapline, “Be all that you can be.”

Whether climbing a mountain, swimming a sea or cycling across a continent, Leadership Challenges puts together adventures to stretch participants both mentally and physically, develop leadership capacity and raise much needed funds and awareness for charitable causes.

To this end, Leadership Challenges has three fundamental components: former professional athletes bring the inspiration and form the Elite. The Academy calls on members of wider society, from high-flying business people who are after an epic challenge, to less advantaged individuals searching for an amazing experience and a fresh direction in life. Thirdly, the Veterans comprise ex-service men and women whose experience and knowledge galvanise the organisation and all those within it.

Mr Thomas says, “In Antonia’s case, we can’t turn the clock back. All we’re really asking and praying for is that some of the work we’re now putting into gaining a better understanding, improved education and world class research will have a better outcome for asthma sufferers today.”

Click here to find out how Antonia’s Friends got on in the Race Across America 2016