Tales From the City: Cherelle Khassal
|Author: Hope Hopkinson||Published: 5th December 2020 15:51|
In this week's instalment of Tales From the City, I had the chance to speak to Cherelle Khassal - Managing Director of Empire Digital in Portsmouth and Semi-Pro Footballer for Crystal Palace. For many people being successful in one field is a challenge, but Cherelle's passion, drive and prioritising has helped her achieve great success in both.
"I actually started off as an Irish Dancer," Cherelle told me when I asked about her early experiences in sport. "I did it from about 2 or 3 years old, as soon as I could walk, really! I travelled around quite a lot with that as a child, and my mum and dad were really supportive."
It wasn't until Cherelle was twelve years old that she discovered her love for football. "I would always see my brother play, and thought it looked quite cool. I kicked a ball for the first time and thought: you know what, maybe I could do this too. Before I knew it, I was kicking a football about more than I was dancing!"
Originally hailing from Ireland, Cherelle and her family moved over to the UK around the time at which football was becoming a bigger part of her life. Having played on boys' teams back in Ireland, Cherelle started at the Portsmouth Football Academy when she was 13 years old.
"I loved it at the time and played there for a few years. When I was 15, I got scouted to play for Arsenal and went to the Arsenal Academy in St Albans. It was such an amazing experience; we trained with the First Team and played against different academies too.
"It was at the time when Arsenal were winning everything too - they were dominating women's football and it was amazing to be part of that mix at the time!"
Once she turned 18, Cherelle had the opportunity to move across the pond to the United States - playing for both the LA Strikers and Santa Clarita Blue Heat.
"Being in the US was incredible - partly because it was really sunny all the time! Where it was so hot, we were only able to really train in the evenings, so we had the daytimes to really make the most of it and explore. I was surrounded by lots of fellow international players, so we stuck together and had an amazing time, I'm so grateful to have had that experience."
I asked Cherelle how her brother felt, having introduced her to the game and seeing her achieve such incredible things at a young age. She laughed, "He actually just quit one day! He lost interest in football but got really into skating. Now when I talk about football he's not interested!
"I also think that men's football is completely different because of how competitive it is. Women's is definitely becoming more that way, but men's football is definitely more competitive to get into professionally."
Cherelle has since represented her home country - The Republic of Ireland - and has played international games at a senior level. She is now signed to Crystal Palace, where she plays semi-professionally.
"I've had a few injuries and obviously Covid threw a spanner in the works for a while, but we've been back training and doing matches since our league began in August, it's been amazing.
"It's obviously all felt very different playing behind closed doors without the crowds, but we do make sure to make as much noise as possible if we're on the bench! If anything, we've actually been a bit more switched on this season. Because there's no fans in, there's less pressure and distraction, but at the same the atmosphere just isn't the same.
"We would usually get a load of die-hard Palace fans who scream and shout for us just like they would at the men's games, so we really do miss them in matches, it just gives you that edge over the opposition.
"We've started off the season well though! We've got a few wins and draws under our belt, and we're playing Liverpool away this weekend, so fingers crossed for that too - we've got a long way to go otherwise!"
Whilst Cherelle's passion for the game was evident in the way she talked about it, she was just as excited to tell me all about the other side of her life - her role as Managing Director of Empire Digital. Helping small businesses in Portsmouth and beyond with websites, apps, and all things digital marketing, it seemingly couldn't be more different from the day-to-day of training and football matches.
"It's definitely very different from the football world," Cherelle agreed. "We've been going three years now, and we're lucky that it's grown quite rapidly. Especially since lockdown, it's been going crazy. Now that our name's out there, we're expanding really quickly and have loads of happy clients. That's really what the vision for Empire is based on, making sure that you as a client are well looked after.
"Something that has carried over to the business from my background in football is the drive I have - I'm all about achieving the end result through hard work. Since day dot, I've wanted my own business, which I think has also come from my family's background. My nan used to own a lot of pubs in London, so I've always had that spirit in me.
"With Empire, there's nothing better than watching businesses grow and become successful by working with us to use digital methods. People come to us with nothing more than visions, and we take that and put it into reality. It definitely isn't always smooth, but for us it's a challenge and we love that! It's so rewarding watching businesses go on those journeys, I have such a passion for it."
With weekly matches and training for Crystal Palace, as well as managing the needs of Empire's clients, Cherelle certainly keeps herself busy. I asked how she manages to balance the two very different responsibilities in her day-to-day life.
"It's definitely not easy! For instance, yesterday I was up from 6am and didn't get home until 12am. The training times make it hard - we train on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and have games on Saturdays and Sundays. We sometimes train from 8am to 10pm, and if you think about the travel time too, they can be very long days.
"With the business, it's difficult because it's not really 9-5 hours, so you can't really predict what your week will look like. The most important thing to me is prioritising my health, and mental health too. It's so important to take time for yourself and your family and just be realistic.
"All my clients know I do football too - it's kind of unavoidable! They all understand and a lot of them are actually really interested and ask for links to stream my games, which is really nice. It can be a really good balance, and when I eventually retire from football I'll really miss that side of things, but I'm excited to put all my time into the business too."
Hearing all about Cherelle's success in football and business alike was inspiring, and I was heartened to learn how passionate she is about helping small business owners, particularly those in Portsmouth. Before we finished our chat, I asked her if she had any advice for young people who were once in her position - wanting to follow their passions to achieve success.
"I would say just do everything you can to get what you want to get, and don't hold back, as the minute you do, fear sets in and you end up putting it off. You don't want to be asking yourself ‘what if,' or thinking about what you could've done.
"There are so many opportunities and so many people willing to talk to you to help you along - I'm always here for that myself! In Portsmouth particularly there are so many good people who are happy to help, so never be afraid to reach out. Even if it seems like a silly question - I've definitely asked my fair share of silly questions to directors! But you have to start somewhere, so I'd just encourage you to go and get whatever you want, because opportunities really are everywhere."