Starting Out to Starting Up

– This Much I Know with Jim Holland, Co-Founder, Carma

The HR World speaks to industry leaders about their careers and life – what advice would they pass on and what wisdom brought them to where they are now.

Jim Holland reflects on a career which has taken him from the Navy to creating an environmentally impactful business.

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08 May 2024

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Story by
Jim Holland, Co-Founder, Carma

Jim Holland reflects on a career which has taken him from the Navy to creating Carma, an environmentally impactful business.

Careers are never straight-forward, even if you’re qualified and experienced

After 13 years in the Royal Navy as a Weapons Engineering Mechanic, I found myself back in my hometown of Barnsley. To be honest, leaving Barnsley in 1989 was the best decision I ever made. There were simply no opportunities. But here I was, medically discharged, returning to my old stamping ground. This was arguably the worst decision.

Part of the problem was that despite my degree in computing, my HND in electrical and electronic engineering, and my wealth of life experience, there was still little to no opportunity here. So I grabbed the bull by the horns and did what came naturally to any self-respecting matelot with an entrepreneurial streak and cash in the bank: I bought a town centre pub!

And I had a great time – particularly for the first six months – meeting new people, making new friends, and hitting the challenge head-on. I relished the new environment. I had 22 bar staff, six doormen, and four DJs. What could possibly go wrong? But what at the outset sounded like a great endeavour, an adventure of a lifetime, soon turned into a nightmare when the bottom fell out of the economy pre the 2007 crash. The pub started to lose money. I was drinking – to reconcile my mental health – and very quickly my personal circumstances started to deteriorate. I sold the pub, but not before making a catastrophic dent in my fortune. I now needed income and quickly. However, there was still a distinct lack of opportunity in Barnsley, and the only jobs I could get were manual labor jobs. I took them all too readily because I needed income.

Staying in touch can be a career lifeline

I had maintained strong relationships with old oppos in the Royal Navy and felt blessed when my former Petty Officer, Steve McCann, rang me to make a general welfare check. He couldn’t believe I hadn’t landed myself a decent role despite the experience and qualifications I had gained in the Navy. Steve quickly asked if I would be prepared to move, and I said yes, even before he had told me where I might be moving to! He went on to tell me that he was working at Vodafone with a team of Unix engineers and that his boss was looking to recruit some more. I quickly told him I was interested and sent in my CV. Within 10 minutes, his boss, Mike O’Connor, had rung me and said he was very impressed by my CV; however, he couldn’t see any reference to Unix on there and asked me what my Unix experience was. I quickly said, “Hand on heart, Mike, I have just Googled it. There are only 48 commands; how hard can it be?” He laughed and asked me to attend an interview in Newbury two days later.

Three weeks later, I started my corporate career as a Unix engineer at Vodafone UK in the service operations department. 18 months later, when I got promoted out of Mike’s team, I still knew very little about Unix; however, I had invested that time in understanding how the business worked and leveraging my people skills to get things done, which hadn’t gone unnoticed by the senior management.

We all need a place to belong

Looking back now, I realise what I was missing when I first went to Barnsley after leaving the Navy was my forces family, my purpose, and my identity. Vodafone gave me these back in spades: like-minded people working in a large organisation with a clear vision and measurable objectives. I was in my element and flourished.

I spent eight happy years at Vodafone in various roles, met my wife, Sally, there, and I’m now the proud father of four daughters who I adore. I never thought I would leave Vodafone, but I was gifted an opportunity at Sky UK, an opportunity which meant my wife could stop working and focus on the most difficult job in the house, bringing up the, as then, three children.

I spent two and a half years at Sky, one year as head of quality and compliance, and 18 months as head of sales. After leaving Sky, I took a role at Stansted Airport as head of commercial, on a mission to grow the airport from 25 million to 33 million passengers in seven years. Three years into this mission, in 2020, Covid-19 hit. I was very quickly furloughed and made redundant in September of that year.

Find the things that matter

It turns out COVID was a blessing for me. I got to spend an inordinate amount of time with my wife and children during the most beautiful spring and summer I can remember.

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It was during this time that I reconnected with some of my former Royal Navy rugby league teammates. Fourteen years ago, I tragically lost an oppo, Nigel Birkett, to suicide on his transition from the Royal Navy, and despite going to his funeral, I’d always thought I’d never quite done enough for him or others like him. COVID gave a few of us the headspace to form a charitable association called Intouch Royal Navy Rugby League. Intouch is built on three pillars: reset, reconnect, and relive. It’s aimed at service leavers and veterans, helping them on the pathway to resettlement, checking in on their mental health, and organising events where they can get together and relive historic moments of their past, both good and bad. Intouch is nearing its third year and has already positively impacted many lives.

It was through this process that I was fortunate enough to reconnect with the former Royal Navy Rugby League captain, Andrew Steele, who told me all about his endeavours with the Plant a Tree Today Foundation and the commercial arm of that, which is the Green Task Force. When Andy told me about all the good work the Green Task Force was doing with veterans and service leavers, providing them with positive pathways to employment through nature-based tasks, I knew straight away that I had to get involved and asked him how I could help. He replied, “It’s simple, Jim; the more trees we get to plant, the more veterans we can help, and the more impact we can have on the environment.”

When you plant a tree, things start to happen

It was at this time that Carma was born. Carma, short for carbon karma, makes social and environmental impact accessible to both businesses and consumers. Not only do we plant trees in the UK, providing veterans and service leavers with positive pathways to employment through nature-based tasks, but we also work with some of the most impoverished communities around the globe. We bring this to life on the Carma impact dashboard, empirically displaying the impact that people are making in terms of trees planted and workdays created.

When you plant a tree, these three things happen:

  • You employ someone, helping them with mental health and social mobility.
  • You naturally get Net Biodiversity Gain.
  • Over time, the tree takes in CO2 and breathes out oxygen.

Carma runs corporate tree planting days, has subscriptions for businesses and consumers to make monthly or yearly impacts through direct debit, and finally, has a product called ‘Pay as You Grow,’ whereby you can plant trees for every product or service sold, whilst proudly displaying your or your company’s efforts on a very visually pleasing and informative impact dashboard.

The most worthwhile journey

Running a start-up is challenging and not for the faint-hearted. Every day counts and brings with it a plethora of emotions, from jubilation to downright despair. Notwithstanding that, though, it is the most worthwhile journey I have ever undertaken, and I would encourage anyone who is thinking about embarking on this journey to think long and hard about their commitment. You have to be ‘all in’!

I am proud to say that Carma is a Social Enterprise, BCorp, and won the best start-up in the Soldiering On Awards in 2023.

Find out more at, and for a 10% discount on any plan or product, use the code PENNANT10 at checkout.

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