At 17, Jessica Huie discovered she was pregnant. Her father wasn’t impressed, telling her that "you will only ever be a statistic".
This was the arresting start to last night’s "Mothers of Invention" event that I attended at the British Library, hearing five stories of remarkable, entrepreneurial women.
Jessica, now a striking 27-year-old entrepreneur and creator of the UK’s first ethnic greetings card business Colorblind Cards, has indeed become a statistic – one of the ambitious female entrepreneurs who today run one-sixth of London’s companies.
Hard work and drive are behind her success. With a young daughter to look after, for three years she juggled motherhood, college, work experience and a weekend job at a shoe shop. She also worked, for free, at Pride magazine and on local radio. Sheer persistence finally won her a job with the publicist Max Clifford.
Then came her eureka moment. Searching for a card for daughter Monet, she realised that there was nothing available that featured black or Asian girls. Persuading a well-known photographer to do a photoshoot for free, she launched Colorblind Cards, and eventually persuaded Clinton’s to stock them. Now the cards are in 70 shops and Huie’s eyes are on the US. "There’s a global gap in the market," she said.
Sian Sutherland was another entrepreneur looking to the US as a marketplace for her skincare range Mama Mio. (Read more of her story here.)
First tip from serial entrepreneur Sutherland: beware setting up a restaurant – "crazy chefs, crazy critics and crazy margins."
She also advised aspiring entrepreneurs to commit their business idea to paper. "The best discipline is to write your business plan down. It helps you to focus on what makes your business different."
Lorraine Heggessey, former controller of BBC1 and now CEO of Talkback Thames, brought her unrivalled experience in the media to the occasion. On managing a business career, she advised: "Have fun. If you do what you like, you’ll do it well."
She also got the biggest laugh of the night when she told the audience that, in business, "everyone is bluffing." It’s all too easy, especially for women, to be intimidated in commercial situations, she said. But, remember: "None of us think we’re as good as the next person". Her trailblazing career has involved taking on numerous roles for which she was not qualified, such as running BBC Science – "people with PhDs making programmes for people with PhDs".
Debbie Reynolds, founder of the School for Sign Language, was another woman who’d balanced being an entrepreneur with raising two young daughters on her own. The inspirational Reynolds, herself hard of hearing, explained that her business aimed to empower deaf people by training British Sign Language interpreters.
Starting with a £1,600 grant, her business has hit a turnover of £170,000, employs 28 deaf and hearing workers and volunteeers, and has wone several awards.
Last but certainly not least, Sam Roddick, daughter of the Body Shop legend Dame Anita Roddick, revealed that she had not realised she was opening a shop (her erotic emporium, Coco de Mer) until the day the customers started arriving. Describing herself primarily as an activist, her mission through her business is to "transform understanding around sexuality" and move sex retail out of the dingy back alleys and into a more positive, empowering arena.
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: "if you have a business idea, tell everyone. This is your first market research." Also, great ideas attract attention, she said. "They become contagious and people start knocking at your door".
"Mothers of Invention", part of the British Library’s "Inspiring Entrepreneurs" series (sponsored by HSBC) was certainly an inspirational night. Click here to find out more.
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