Advice for Women Entrepreneurs
4 Apr 2016
For March’s Underground Session and Women’s History Month, we hosted a special event on women and entrepreneurship. Inviting four inspiring female founders to the panel, we covered everything from raising investment to the challenges of growing a business – and even what to do when you find yourself crying on the floor of TOPSHOP. Our panelists included Amber Atherton, founder MY FLASH TRASH; Leila Rastegar Zegna, founder Spring Partners; Sharmadean Reid, founder WAH Nails; and Renée Elliott, founder Planet Organic. Between them they’ve launched multi-national companies, been awarded an MBE, kickstarted the UK’s organic food scene and pioneered a new way of funding early stage businesses. Here’s what they had to share…
What was it that made you get started?
For Renée, an optimistic American living in an overtly pessimistic London, “I always knew I had to work for myself. I wanted to use my life to make some sort of positive change. I wanted to transform the supermarket experience, promoting healthy eating and changing the way people eat.”
Amber, who launched her first business aged 9, credited her drive to run her own company to her parents. “they gave me the belief I could be independent.” During her school years, she tried everything from starting e-cards websites, cuddly toy companies, a trucker hat label before launching MY FLASH TRASH.
As an entrepreneur and an investor, Leila shared her insights on what VCs look for in entrepreneurs, “it’s about having a relentless drive to go and do something and make your mark on the world. You don’t have to start with a winning idea.” If you have the right character and determination, you’ll get there in the end.
Sharmadean’s idea was born out of frustration – why couldn’t UK nail bars offer the same service and quality as the ones in New York. When a beauty salon refused to give her a ‘Dior Double French’ she decided to take matters into her own hands and founded WAH Nails. Her company manifesto now reads “we have a whatever you want on your nails policy.”
What can be done to close the gap between male and female entrepreneurs?
Sharmadean, suggested “more women need to work harder to know more about the business world,” something girls are not always pushed to do from when they're young. Amber agreed, “this needs to start from an early age, we need to be encouraged right from the beginning.”
Renée also pointed out that children had a huge bearing on the gap between male and female entrepreneurs: “It’s tough for women. If you have kids, I don’t know how you ever start something – your self-esteem is low and you’ve missed out on so much stuff. Or you start a business and then you have kids – then your split in half.” The question she struggled with, “do I pay someone to raise my kids or do I pay someone to run my business.”
Becoming pregnant at the same time as setting up WAH Nails, Sharmadean made sure her partner handled the childcare equally, “when it comes to kids, you need to be clear from the start how it’s going to work with your partner. We split the time looking after our child completely equally – we each took half a week. Bur it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t ask. You need to ‘Lean In’ even as a mother.”
When it comes to getting funding have you felt a gender bias against women?
Leila, pointed out in the investment community less than 4% of investment partners are female, which leads to lack of understanding of consumer paying point. “we need more diversity and a better eco-system in London,” she advised.
Sharmadean’s experience with investors backed this up, “I get interest from investors, but I mainly end up talking to middle-class white men – not many of them know anything about nails to understand why it’s important.”
However, Renée was pointed out, “there’s plenty of money out there! If you’re creative enough to come up with your own business you can be creative enough to come up with ways to get funding.”
For Amber, that meant calling up and arranging meetings with people she’d never imagine she’d be able to get in front of, but she did: “you need to be so sassy and confident,” which is something the whole panel agreed women tend to struggle with more.
Another thing all the panel agreed on was that entrepreneurs need to remember investors are not mentors. Entrepreneurs need to separate the two if they want to get the most out of the relationship. Mentors, as Renée pointed out, are extremely important for entrepreneurs, even more so than having strong role models and young entrepreneurs need mentors who can give them “encouragement, focus and direction.”
What have been toughest points and how have you got around them?
Sharmadean’s lowest point was finding herself in TOPSHOP at 1am, trying to move in all her stock for her WAH Nails pop-up. She ended up crying on the floor. It took a call to a friend and a quick reminder she’d stayed up partying later before, to get her back on her feet. “Entrepreneurship grows you as a person and as I’ve gone on the mini breakdowns have got less and less. Now I try and allocate myself time to tiny freakouts. I make a conscious effort to minimise the sad times.”
Amber echoed this, “you have to be prepared to have so many ups and downs. That happens all the time so you need to be resilient. Ultimately I believe you decide your own fate. So enjoy the journey.”
When her business partner tried to cut her out the company, Renée had to take him to court. 14 months of litigation, an 11-day trial, £550,000 in legal bills – it was bankruptcy or take the prize. It was a holiday in the Lake District that gave Renée the clarity of mind to realise it was worth the fight. Even if she lost she would walk away with grace and dignity. Thankfully she won: “when I did it was so sweet.”
Leila reminded us that, “women feel a great onus to be a great wife, mother and business person – we try and do everything. But we need to remember to be kind to ourselves, we can be our own harshest critics.”
The session wrapped up with a final thought from the inspirational Zaha Hadid who had sadly passed away the same day: “For everyone who doesn’t like me it goes mind over matter, I don’t mind and you as a person don’t matter.”
And here’s one final piece of advice from our panelists:
For the full podcast, head over to our Soundcloud account here.
Thanks to everyone who supported this session, especially Wild Renata Flowers, Eat Cookoo, Dodds Gin, Rebel Kitchen, Mallow and Marsh and Sibberi Birch Water. Get in touch is you’d like to be involved in our next Underground Session: The Spectacle, on April 26th: firstname.lastname@example.org