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The Office's Julie Fernandez on starting her own business

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Disabled actress Julie Fernandez started her own business two years ago to supplement her acting income. She tells Mark Davidson her story.

For most people, when setting up in business, there are a number of hurdles to pass through, such as start-up costs and the time and effort involved. But what happens if you have a disability and want to start up your own company?

Julie Fernandez, who starred in the hit TV series The Office, alongside Ricky Gervais, recently set up her own business Beeing Crafty. She talks about what was involved in moving away from a career in the media industry.

“I have spent twenty years working in the media industry and have seen it grow and improve over the years towards disabled people," she says.

"Unfortunately, however, it wasn't enough for me to make a regular monthly wage. Like most artists, you spend more time out of work than in regular employment, unless you are one of the lucky few. I pride myself as being one of the most-known disabled actors in the UK and cannot wait until the next audition comes through from my agent - but until then I need to earn a proper living.”

"I told her she was crazy"

When Fernandez had a chat with a friend, telling her how much she loves craftwork; making things for other people through patchwork, quilting, sewing and knitting, her friend told her to open a shop – to show others the enjoyment gained from this pastime.

"I told her she was crazy," says Fernandez, "that I couldn’t do that as I didn’t know anything about running a shop. But it got me thinking and a few days later I decided to give it a try. I contacted another friend – and now business partner – Sarah Payne, telling her I had a proposition for her. She came over the following day and I put it to her that we should open our own craft shop and training centre. She said yes. We haven't looked back.”

The shop opened on August 6, 2011 but Fernandez says they started working on it six months' prior.

"We attended all sorts of ‘women in business' events, along with putting together our business plan and costing it all out. We looked for accessible and affordable premises, sourcing the suppliers and meeting with them and visiting our competitors to see how they operated."

Complications

After six months in the making, Beeing Crafty opened its doors, although this was not without problems. 

Fernandez explains: “We had all sorts of complications. Two women starting a business was a field day for some who tried very hard to put us down. We struggled with the planning department, who at the time wanted small businesses to open on failing high streets. 

"We wanted to be rural and our business needed to have free parking all day immediately outside the shop as ladies come to us to attend classes and bring their own sewing machines etc. We had issues getting what was a very small amount of money from the banks as a start-up loan. Luckily my wonderful friend Janet gave us money which then gave the banks the confidence to loan to us. 

"We had issues finding the appropriate shop but in the end we did it. Two years in and on our second birthday we are moving from seven hundred and fifty square feet to fourteen hundred square feet and cannot believe how lucky we are.”

Entrepreneurship and acting

Fernandez says she finds it easy to combine her business venture with working in television. 

She is able to combine both careers and she says her knowledge of the media industry has really helped as she uses her PR skills to market the business. In future, Fernandez has plans to grow Beeing Crafty, to include internet sales. 

For others with a disability who wish to start up in business, there are a number of initiatives aimed at those who want to work for themselves. 

Half a million disabled people are self-employed, making up fifteen per cent of all people with impediments in work, according to the Department for Work and Pensions. But the government has announced that people with disabilities will get more support to pay for specialised equipment, support workers and travel costs when setting up their business. 

Disabled people can also already get support through Access to Work when setting up their own business, if they are enrolled on the New Enterprise Allowance (NEA). The NEA provides expert coaching and financial support for jobseekers with a business idea.

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