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Female founders share business inspiration on International Women’s Day

One in five women are considering starting their own business this year, according to new research from support network Small Business Britain.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic having severely damaged some long-standing businesses, and led many to lose their jobs or a large part of their income, budding entrepreneurs are looking to make the most of a bad situation. 

And a good chunk of them are women, researchas revealed on International Women’s Day.

A poll of 1,000 UK females, found more than a third wanted to start a so-called ‘side hustle’ to supplement their income, while 10 per cent have decided to go straight into the deep end and start-up a business as a result of a job loss. 

Michelle Ovens, founder of Small Business Britain and f:Entrepreneur, said its recent research highlights that female entrepreneurship continues to grow and flourish in the UK

Reconsidering current employment, due to the pandemic was also cited as a key factor by 17 per cent of women, while 14 per cent said they have been inspired to contribute to society.  

Small Business Britain’s f:Entrepreneur campaign, which has been running since 2017, calls for more recognition and support for female founders through inspiring events, content and storytelling.

This year it received a record number of applications from women to be part of its annual #ialso100 campaign, which showcases entrepreneurs from all over the UK. 

Michelle Ovens, of Small Business Britain, said: ‘Despite the significant obstacles thrown at women in the last year, female entrepreneurship continues to grow and flourish in the UK.

‘We have seen so many female-led businesses embracing change and generating and exploring new ideas during the pandemic, which shows how much female entrepreneurs thrive by connecting, reaching out to each other for support and inspiration, and rallying around their communities.

‘We saw a wave of start-up activity after the last recession, and with figures sadly showing that women have been particularly affected by recent redundancies, I believe female-led businesses will be at the very heart of the UK’s recovery.

‘We need to continue, and increase, our support for these incredible women and celebrate their amazing strength and success in the face of huge challenges.’

To celebrate International Women’s Day, This is Money spoke to four female-led businesses about how they fought on through the pandemic and other challenges they’ve faced along their entrepreneurial journeys.

‘I have to work harder to get investors excited about a female-focused business’ 

Alexandra Pluthero, is founder of Wear My Freedom, which designs and produces non wired bras for D+ cup sizes.

The 28-year-old was fed up of years of frustration with an outdated, and underserved D+ bra market and started developing the idea in 2018.

Alexandra Pluthero, is founder of Wear My Freedom, which sells bras for D+ cup sizes

Alexandra Pluthero, is founder of Wear My Freedom, which sells bras for D+ cup sizes

‘Of course, bra companies existed, but there has been a distinct lack of innovation, and understanding of what real women want from their underwear,’ she said. 

After a year spent tirelessly searching for the right designer and investing £15,000 of her own savings, Alex eventually gathered a team of three talented and determined women to make her vision a reality. 

Funding came in from friends, family and angel investors, which came with challenges of its own.

‘Finding funding is difficult in a world dominated by male investors, and while there is a lot of discussion around investing in female entrepreneurs, the reality is quite different,’ said Alexandra.

‘I have to get investors excited about an extremely female-focused product. 90 per cent of start-up resources available are usually for tech businesses, and so I find myself pitching to that sliver of people who are more sector agnostic. 

‘On top of that, we’re a female-only team with a very female product, so it is really difficult.’

But by February 2020, Alexandra was ready to launch her first product, the Freedom Bra, only to find herself staring down a global pandemic and the shock of lockdown – which closed her production factory.

She added: ‘We worked on other parts of the business in the meantime, but it was really a waiting game before production of our bras could start again. As soon as we had stock, we launched!’

‘But we have gone from strength to strength ever since. We only traded in the last six months of 2020 and in that time, we sold over 3,000 of our best-selling Freedom Bras and are on track to turnover half a million in our first year.’   

Alex has already increased the amount of sizes available from 22 to 54, and she said demand has only been growing as the vast majority of women are working from home and have realised they don’t need to suffer in uncomfortable bras. 

‘That being said, there’s no perfect time to start,’ she added. ‘It’s always risky starting your own business. I’d always encourage anyone to just start, you learn so much.’

‘The pandemic gave us more time to ensure our brand was perfect’ 

Another female-fronted business stonewalled by the pandemic but which has come through the other side better than it could have anticipated, is beauty brand REFY.

Founded by fashion and beauty influencer Jess Hunt and the brains behind glitter brand Gypsy Shine, Jenna Meek, the brand specialises in its brow collection Brow Sculpt. 

Brow beauty brand REFY was founded in 2020 by Jess Hunt (left) and Jenna Meek

Brow beauty brand REFY was founded in 2020 by Jess Hunt (left) and Jenna Meek 

The duo came up with the idea after working on a shoot together and found there was no go-to brand for all the products needed for eyebrow make-up. REFY aims to fill the gap in the market for ‘minimal beauty’.

Jess said: ‘All our products are new and innovating. We have created a simple, three stage brow process which allows everybody to create the perfect brow using only three products. They are all vegan and cruelty-free and recyclable too.’

Jess and Jenna hoped to launch in June 2020 but development and key dates kept getting pushed back due to the pandemic.   

However, they found this allowed them more time to ensure the brand was perfected before they eventually launched in November. 

‘Like any business, the pandemic brought challenges, but we saw the positives in the situation and think it has been a huge benefit to the success of REFY,’ Jess added.

‘We had so much time and it’s all we worked on for a solid year, nights and weekends. There’s no secret to when to launch a business, it just needs a huge amount of work and right now is perfect.

‘We worked extremely hard to ensure that the customers receive their products in the safest and fastest way.’ 

REFY sold over 100,000 units in less than two months and started shipping internationally from day one.     

The company is already working with a large US retailer and new collections to be launched later this year.   

For any aspiring entrepreneurs out there, Jess says: ‘Keep going and keep telling yourself you can do it! Self-belief is the biggest thing I can promote to anyone. It is not the skills, it’s the belief that everything else will work itself out.’

‘The Rose Review Female Entrepreneur Mentoring programme saved us’

But not every business was able to use the pandemic to their advantage. According to a report, The impact of Covid-19 on UK Small Businesses, by Simply Business, an estimated 234,000 SMEs had permanently ceased trading by September 2020. 

Ella Mesma feared for the survival of her company, Business Yoga, which offered in-person sessions to help workers learn how to improve their posture, handle aches and pains and learn other ways of improving their physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace.  

Lockdown meant Ella could no longer physically provide the service at client’s workplaces, so needed to think fast.

She accessed the Rose Review Female Entrepreneur Mentoring programme, run by Be the Business and NatWest and was matched with a business-focused mentor to help her rethink and develop my business. 

‘This support helped me to create our membership site where clients join as members, pay a subscription and access the contents and benefits remotely,’ said Ella.

‘It is still early days but we have developed six different products and services, and our best selling product now is our 23onMe online membership.

Ella Mesma feared for her company, Business Yoga, when the pandemic hit last year

Ella Mesma feared for her company, Business Yoga, when the pandemic hit last year

‘This involves just taking 23 minutes to focus on your own wellbeing, which in turn makes for a happier you, a happier workplace and more productivity!’

Ella is fortunate to have come out stronger after the pandemic and has learnt a lot including the importance of mentoring, no matter what stage you are at in your entrepreneurial journey. 

She said the programme changed her life which has helped her take huge leaps in her confidence as well as the business itself. 

‘I struggled with my own self-belief and learning and understanding the “business” side of running a business. At times it also felt like it was a struggle to have the business taken seriously,’ she added.

Mentoring is so important to help entrepreneurs, in particular women believe in themselves and empower their business. Having a critical friend in my mentor has given me a different approach to my company.

‘Not only is the practical guidance that my mentor, Emily Rider, of Hitachi Capital, offers exactly what I was looking for, but she is also very nurturing, and has my back.’ 

‘Some of the early work we did together was about tackling some of my own limiting self-perceptions. For example, I cringed at the notion of “selling myself” but Emily made me realise that the best way to sell yourself is to simply be yourself, and with conviction – something that I had always done, without realising it.

‘I now feel confident to speak, to go forth and to thrive.’

‘Every step is a new learning experience for me’

Unfortunately for some female entrepreneurs, there is also the added obstacle of selling a product or service that is sadly considered ‘taboo’ to some.

Ruby Raut, is founder of WUKA (which stands for ‘Wake Up, Kick Ass), which creates reusable period pants that completely replace the need for disposable sanitary products.

She launched the business via a Kickstarter campaign in 2017, which raised more than £7,000 to her going. It has been profitable from day one and has turned over seven-figures every year since.

But the journey to get there was a challenge, especially when she found herself being one of two women in a room full of men at a private bank during her hunt for funding. 

‘There is definitely both stigma and shame surrounding periods,’ she said. ‘I was surprised to see male entrepreneurs pitching their businesses to investors, showing examples of another five years of loss making and a weak business plan yet still being very confident in their idea. 

‘I always thought I had to make a decent profit and be armed with previous successes in order to convince investors. There was certainly a very interesting power dynamic in the room, which was a huge learning curve for me.

‘Even today, we often find that male journalists are hesitant to talk about periods in public, and so we speak to female journalists instead.

‘We also have created a product that means challenging the attitude and habits of people who have been using conventional pads and tampons for decades. Behaviour change is hard and certainly a challenge in itself.’ 

With perhaps a different approach to other businesswomen, Ruby lives by the mantra ‘done is better than perfect’ as she feels being fast-paced is essential and the only way to make progress.

‘We must ensure we are always making steps forward, even imperfect ones,’ she added. ‘Entrepreneurs can get distracted by the “shiny” parts of doing business such as coming up with a name or making a business plan with multi-year financials.

‘You need to ensure your product is needed by someone and think how fast you can validate that you have a product-market fit. Only this year have we started to look more than a year ahead in our planning; before that would have just distracted from solving the basic building blocks of an e-commerce business.

‘Good things take time but I can’t be an expert in everything so I focus on where I can make the biggest impact and get advice on areas that are new to me.

‘Since the beginning, I have invested hours in research in all sorts of fields, from manufacturing to PR. Every step is a new learning experience for me.’

Ruby Raut, 31, launched WUKA period pants in 2017

WUKA replaces disposable sanitary products

Ruby Raut, is founder of WUKA (which stands for ‘Wake Up, Kick Ass), which creates reusable period pants that completely replace the need to disposable sanitary products

WUKA doesn’t just sell period pants. Ruby is also one of the key campaigners in the fight for the removal of the ‘luxury’ tax from certain sanitary products.      

The Government removed the 20 per cent VAT from tampons, cups and pads in January this year, but did not include period pants. 

Ruby said: ‘This unfairly penalises period pants – a sustainable menstrual product that is quickly growing in popularity for its value, eco credentials and ease of use. 

‘By removing VAT from tampons and pads only, the Government is indirectly encouraging the purchase of disposable period products. 

‘This is irresponsible – our planet is overwhelmed by the waste created by humans and we are in the midst of an environmental crisis. We should not be encouraging more waste.’

WUKA has been campaigning through petitioning parliament, Early Day Motions created by supporter MPs, letters to MPs and the HM Treasury. It also invites the public to join its campaign at PeriodPants.org. 

Small Business Essentials

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