Su Sandhu powered through her son’s serious illness to build a £1.5 million business. Sharon Keegan was inspired to launch a thriving gym wear line by her experience of postnatal depression.
Freya Rose Archer refused to let Covid’s cancellation of weddings sink her bridal shoe company, and Daniela Nunzi Mihranian got so fed up being the only woman in high-powered meetings, she started her own design agency and hired an office full of them.
Each year we marvel at the resilience and creativity of the women who enter the Mail’s Aphrodite Award for female entrepreneurs, all of whom started a business while their children were under the age of 12. Aphrodite is part of the Everywoman Awards. But this year of financial instability and Covid payback — the seventh year of our sponsorship — has proved more challenging than ever for start-up mums.
Post-pandemic, according to recent research, mothers who run their own companies are still spending six to ten hours more per week on childcare than they were before Covid hit. That’s twice the increase seen by dads who run their own businesses.
Tenacious: (l-r) Su Sandhu, Freya Rose Archer and Emily Beckloff are some of the finalists of Mail’s Aphrodite award for female entrepreneurs
Almost certainly as a result, businesses owned by mums are 62 per cent less likely to have recovered from the chaos of 2020-21.
Women entrepreneurs have long fought a battle to access the same levels of investment as men — now they need to fight for equality in terms of childcare, too.
Against that backdrop, the achievements of these five brilliant women are even more exceptional. They are the female leaders and innovators the UK needs more than ever.
Here, we celebrate the imagination, ingenuity and sheer drive to succeed of our three shortlisted candidates as well as two entrants who were highly commended.
FINALIST: STRUGGLING SINGLE MUM WHO WON A ROYAL FAN
Freya Rose Archer, 42, founded her luxury shoe and jewellery business Freya Rose London in 2010. She lives near Portsmouth with husband Matthew, a lawyer, also 42, and children Jonathan, 11, and Willow, four.
The irony is not lost on Freya Rose Archer: nothing has given her bridal and luxury shoe business a greater boost than Covid, which wiped out weddings and cancelled parties.
‘It felt like a disaster, of course, and at one point it seemed we might have to close the business altogether,’ she says. ‘But it was the pressure to adapt that saved us.’
Freya’s shoes, with their gorgeous heel inlays of delicate mother-ofpearl — and hefty £500-plus price tags — were inspired by her love of jewellery, and it was to jewellery design that she now turned.
If women weren’t buying her shoes for weddings, perhaps they would buy her earrings — at a much more affordable £45 to £150 a pair — for calls on Zoom. A new range was launched and what happened next confounded all expectation.
For many years Freya’s shoes have been favoured by celebrities such as Kate Moss, Rihanna and Olivia Palermo, but never before had she had a royal fan.
‘A month after we launched the earrings, the Princess of Wales [then the Duchess of Cambridge] wore a pair of my earrings on her first outside engagement after lockdown. In fact, she wore them three times in one week.
‘Everything went crazy. Orders flooded in. We ran out of stock, but women were happy to wait six weeks for them on pre-order.
‘For the first time in ages I had a cash flow that I could properly reinvest in marketing the shoe business. It helped everything.’
Entrepreneurship is in Freya’s blood, she says. Her teenage years were troubled — she left home at 15, and in two years she moved ten times before finally becoming a student at the London College of Fashion.
Daniela Nunzi Mihranian (pictured) is 48 and runs a successful business whilst battling a serious illness
She launched her business 12 years ago, and its first year of business coincided with the birth of her son. ‘I was a single mum, working when my baby slept and muddling through in a tiny flat, living hand-to-mouth.’
The fashion industry, she thinks, is something of a closed shop and new comers face a battle if they haven’t got connections or money.
‘It can be hard to compete with designers who have celebrity status, or big brands with huge budgets,’ Freya says.
‘It’s a predominantly female industry, and I do feel that more could be done in terms of women supporting women.’
But slowly, the business gained momentum and its fanbase grew.
Now mum to Willow as well as Jonathan, she’s at last had the bumper year of weddings promised by Covid’s retreat.
‘I feel like my feet haven’t touched the floor this year,’ she says.
With a turnover of more than half a million pounds and products on sale in Harvey Nichols, Wolf & Badger and half a dozen stores in cities including Los Angeles, New York and Barcelona, Freya Rose London is a lesson in evolving to survive.
FINALIST: MY EIGHT-YEAROLD SON’S STROKE WAS MY GREATEST CHALLENGE
Su Sandhu, 51, is founder and CEO of SkyBlue Healthcare Associates, which she founded in 2011. She and her husband Jagmohan, 49, live in Bishop’s Stortford, Herts, and have two children, Simone, 19, and Aaron, 14.
Su Sandhu’s healthcare venture was never ‘a lifestyle business’, she insists. ‘I understand that many women start businesses to fit around family or to do in their spare time, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the case with me,’ she says. ‘I’ve always wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and take things to the next level.’
One of relatively few female students at Imperial College in the late 1980s, Su ‘was often told by family back in India that I was overeducated for a girl’.
‘But I saw education as the ticket to my own destiny,’ she says.
Work certainly took a back seat to family in 2016, however, when her son, Aaron, then eight, suffered a stroke. ‘My husband had taken him to the swimming pool and he was actually in the water when it happened,’ Su says.
‘My blood runs cold now, but at the time I didn’t realise how serious it was,’ she says. ‘I got a phone call saying that he’d lost all movement down his right-hand side. I think I said it’s probably cramp, just see how he is in a while.’
In fact Aaron was suffering a bleed on the brain, the result of a benign lesion which had burst. At Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, surgeons operated to remove it.
Being diagnosed with MS was pretty devastating, but it made me more determined to succeed – DANIELA NUNZI MIHRANIAN
‘That was petrifying — we weren’t sure if he’d wake up not being able to speak or with memory loss.’
The operation was successful, however, and after weeks in a wheelchair and months in painstaking rehab, Aaron recovered well.
It was, says Su now, the most challenging period of her life — and of her career.
‘The business was obviously the least of my worries for a while, but my team rallied round, and with a lot of hard work, we managed to keep it all spinning,’ she says.
Su operates in a niche area of healthcare. While working in the pharmaceutical industry, she noticed that few companies were properly gathering or analysing data to work out un-met patient needs.
Her company brings together teams of consultants to offer that expertise. With a Covid-inspired mini-boom in demand and a £1.5 million turnover, she’s now in the process of scaling it up.
‘Women tend to underestimate their own abilities and think they need to know much more than they do before they can start a business.
‘But you can learn as you go along. I’d have been more ambitious in the early years had I known that. My top tip is to believe in yourself.’
FINALIST: I BUILT MY AGENCY WHILE BATTLING MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS
Daniela Nunzi Mihranian is 48 and launched Studio Minerva in 2014. She lives in west London with husband Baret, 53, her sons Lorenzo, 18, and Gianluca, 15, and stepson Freddie 23.
Growing up on an inner London council estate, as a child Daniela Nunzi Mihranian’s eye was repeatedly drawn to the sumptuously decorated golden labels on the bottles of whisky and cognac her dad, an Italian waiter, used to bring home from work.
‘Those pretty labels seemed so tactile and luxurious,’ she says. ‘I’d sit there and copy them for hours with my coloured pencils.’
Today Daniela employs 14 people in her own design and branding agency, Studio Minerva, which specialises in beautifully drawn labels and packaging.
Her high-end clients? Courvoisier, Bushmills, Laphroaig and Sipsmith among others.
But what makes Daniela’s entrepreneurialism especially impressive is the fact she runs her business while battling serious illness. It was in her third year at university that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
‘It was pretty devastating for a young woman, and I spent weeks in hospital unable to walk,’ she says. ‘But getting that diagnosis also made me more determined to succeed. I’m quite stubborn, and sometimes fear of a thing is worse than the reality of it.
‘I was told by a GP not to have children, for example, because it could cause a major relapse. But I got through both pregnancies without one. I’m the breadwinner in our house so I knew I had to work hard to give my family stability in case anything happened to me.’
It was post-natal depression that made Sharon Keegan, 39, (pictured) go to the gym. She is now founder and CEO of gym wear company Peachylean
Her MS is managed with drugs, a strict diet and exercise regime, and regular MRI scans to check for disease progression.
‘At the moment it’s stable. I do get numbness and pins and needles, but I’m good at putting it in a box in my head and not dwelling on it,’ Daniela says.
Studio Minerva was born of both passion and frustration, she says. For 20 years she worked for big design agencies but ‘got fed up with how male-dominated it was’ and how few women made it to top positions.
‘I was repeatedly told that setting up my own agency was a pipe dream, but I wanted to create something with a more collaborative atmosphere.’
Now she makes a point of hiring women with young families. ‘Busy mums can get through a to-do list like you wouldn’t believe,’ she says.
HIGHLY COMMENDED: MAGICAL BUSINESS WAS A SECRET FROM MY KIDS
Emily Beckloff, 51, founded the International Elf Service in 2014. She lives in North London with husband Bruce, 50, and children Willow, 15, Noah, 14 and Finn, 11.
When Emily Beckloff started her business, it had to be kept a strict secret from her children.
You can’t deliver bundles of letters from Santa’s elves, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny without shattering illusions, after all.
‘You wouldn’t believe how difficult it was,’ she says. ‘I once had 600,000 sheets of North Pole paper delivered while the children were at school. We had it in the spare room, in cupboards, on shelves, under beds. Friends and neighbours would come round when the children were in bed and dash into the basement, very cloak and dagger, to help me make up orders.’
The business has since outgrown its cellar and is now outsourced to a very unenchanted suburban fulfilment centre instead.
Emily trained as an osteopath, but when her third child came along — Finn, who has Down’s syndrome — she decided to make a business out of a much-loved, self-invented Christmas tradition.
‘Each Christmas I’d been writing little notes from elves and hiding them around the house for my older children to discover. I’d modelled them loosely on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas, which I’d loved as a bookish child, and my kids loved these letters I’d compose, too.
‘When other mums got wind of it, they wanted notes for their own children. Little by little, it grew.’
When the venture eventually began trading, there were crises small and large. Paper sourced for its satisfying weight and texture was incompatible with the printers Emily used and, as if by magic, the ink disappeared from it.
Then, in 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. .
‘My worst fear was Christmas would have to be cancelled because I wouldn’t be well enough to write the letters,’ she says.
‘In the end, I had surgery and radiotherapy, but I didn’t need to have chemotherapy, so Christmas was saved.’
Now she works year-round on creating those illusions with more than 25 products, from wizarding newsletters to birthday wishes from fairies, and has an overall turnover of £200,000.
HIGHLY COMMENDED: GYM INSPIRED MY FITNESS WEAR IDEA
Sharon Keegan, 39, is founder and CEO of gym wear company Peachylean. She lives in Dublin with her partner Sean, 40, and children Liam, seven, and Bobby, four.
It was post-natal depression that made Sharon Keegan go to the gym. Only there, where her head could empty and her baby son, Liam, could go into the creche for an hour, did her low mood lift.
‘It was my sanctuary. I thought I was failing at everything in life, and especially at being a mother,’ she recalls. ‘At the gym I could go and lift weights and feel strong again. I honestly think the gym saved my life.’
Yet she felt uncomfortable in her old gym wear. Liam had been a huge 10lb 11oz and she’d put on 5 st during pregnancy. Her pelvis had ‘shifted’ during the birth and her pelvic floor was damaged and weak.
‘I was dealing with sensitive physical issues from the birth. These are problems we don’t talk about enough but they’re very real for many women,’ she says.
Her solution was to wear Spanx under her leggings — ‘but that wasn’t very comfortable either’, and she was sure she could devise something better.
Sharon’s company Peachylean, making structured, high-waisted, ‘squat-proof’ gym leggings to support the pelvis and the stomach, was born at the kitchen table and launched while Sharon was pregnant with her second son.
Women got it instantly; men did not. At a pitch for funding from an enterprise support group, ‘a man in his late 50s from a banking background told me “that will never work — it’s only women’s leggings”,’ laughs Sharon.
She had the words engraved on a paperweight that now sits on her office desk. Last year her business grew by 300 per cent and turned over £1.1million.
An appearance on Dragons’ Den in 2020 was the fulfilment of a long-held dream, but came amid devastating circumstances.
‘A week into lockdown, my younger brother died [after a non-Covid-related illness]. ‘We weren’t allowed to hug each other. Just five of us were allowed at the funeral. People lined the streets for him, but if I’m honest I don’t think I’ll ever get over that time and what it did to our family.’
Numb with grief, Sharon appeared on Dragons’ Den just weeks later, and walked away with £100,000 from three backers.
‘Inside I was struggling badly, but by then I had two boys at home and a thriving business to run. That’s what I got up for in the morning. The business made me feel like I had my identity back — I wasn’t just a mum.’
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