Tell us about your dream job as a child.
I have always been interested in the underdogs of society. So when I was around twelve years old I wanted to be a probation officer. Around the same time I had clothes making as a hobby and started making dolls for an orphanage in Kenya. So I had a little trade going from a very early age. That turned into a cottage industry when I was about fifteen and I started a little business making waistcoats and men’s clothes. I did that through my last year at school. My father’s idea however was that I should become a secretary, so when I left school I went to secretarial school.
“What everyone failed to see was that even in my early life I showed an entrepreneurial spirit.”
What do you think is the most significant barrier to women in business?
The most significant is that we don’t believe in ourselves. Generally if a man were to apply to a job and there were ten levels of experience required for the job and he can fulfil six out of ten he would still apply. A woman on the other hand might not apply. Firstly, she doesn’t want to be shown up. Secondly, she doesn’t feel worthy to being able to bluff. I don’t want to gender stereotype but on the whole women lack the confidence they need.
What do you do when you find yourself out of your comfort zone?
One of the ways to deal with situations that you are not comfortable with is to pretend. The first time I did any public speaking I had no experience at all. I was actually nervous that I had to speak in public but we were getting more and more press and the company was about ten years old. I had been asked and turned it down a couple of times. I even turned down the television work because I lacked confidence. I finally decided to test myself and went to a conference in Wales with an audience of 600 men and 3 women. I then realised that if you force yourself to do something you can actually achieve it.
Who or what has been your greatest influence in business and why?
Most people would come up with a role model or an influence. Growing up the only person I knew who was in business was Laura Ashley. One Sunday Bernard Ashley came to my parent’s house for lunch. I was in London doing my A-levels. After lunch he gave me a lift back to London. We talked all the way back about what it had been like running his business with his wife. So my greatest influence as a child would have to be the story of Laura Ashley and how she grew her business. Anita Roddick is another great influence and she was a real trail blazer.
What is the best and worst decision you’ve ever made in business?
My best decision was to listen to my customers in my early years. My worst decision was to try and do everything myself for too long instead of outsourcing and doing what I was good at.
“The most significant barrier is that we don’t believe in ourselves…on the whole women lack confidence they need”
What is the best advice you’ve received in business?
My best piece of advice to anyone in business is to ensure that brand consistency is 100% through every channel. Your business also has to be multi -channelled to succeed no matter what area you are in. So always make sure that one person remains brand custodian. I am still branding anything that is printed in the company whether it is a warehouse docket or a new ribbon that we use on our gift packaging.
What did you most fear in the early days of your business?
I have been terrified of money. Even now I am still very cautious and I can be very frugal. Even my children have to earn their pocket money. When you start off as a sole trader you always have o reinvest and build the business, even now I would rather reinvest and open a new store than buy a flashy car. Great businesses will go bust if they don’t have cash planning.
What is next for you in business?
It has to be our business launch in America. A lot of British brands try to launch in America and fail. We’ve been selling business to business in America for the past two years. We’ve grown to a reasonable size turn over and from next summer we are planning to have a distribution centre there so we will be shipping our products straight from the Far East to America.
What advice would you give to young women in business?
It is very important to enjoy the activities involved in the business you want to start. If you like Geraniums but don’t like being outside looking after your garden you are not going to be enthusiastic about what you do. My business involves design and I love designing clothes. It involves building which I absolutely love. I love to travel, going to visit factories is very important to build new relationships and look for new markets. I love attention to details and doing things well. Everything I do in my business I do for pleasure. You are going to spend a lot of hours on your business, so you have to be passionate about it. Don’t get yourself involved with something just because you think there is good money in your business model.
Would you say you do it for the love of what you do?
I do it because I love what I do but also because I have a great sense of responsibility for the business that I have built. I have over five thousand people relying on us for their jobs. If I make a mistake and the company goes under that’s a lot of people’s livelihood gone. So I have to be very sensible. Building the right team around you is almost as important as having the right product. You are going to spend a great deal of your life with them so it’s important that you like them even if you don’t get on 100% of the time.
Laura Tenison Jojo Maman Bébé www.jojomamanbebe.co.uk
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