Never in a million years did I imagine I would spend a day at a conference. Yet, here I am, in sunny Bristol, taking part in the Festival of Female Entrepreneurs.
There are almost 200 people intently talking, listening, networking here at the Science Museum, and almost all of us are women. The type of businesses represented in the group vary immensely; ranging from peak performance coaching, to high end retail management, developing to visual technology for searching the internet, to selling herbal hand cream, caffeine-controlled coffee, prams and breakfast packages, to motorcycle repairs and parts sold from the only woman-run motorcycle garage in the UK. And of course it wouldn’t be Britain if there wasn’t tea, so there is also a ‘mixologist’ of tea among the panellists. In fact, just to help me feel more at home, there are even a handful of other social enterprises present here too, which is unusual for an event primarily reaching out to small businesses.
For someone who has grown up professionally within the charity and not for profit sector, I arrive at event like this with trepidation. I am outside my comfort zone, in the company of people who dress and talk differently from my natural peers.
On arrival, unlike other people, I do not walk hand half extended with business cards at the ready, straight to the coffee queue to discover an instant connection with a total stranger, 199 times over throughout the course of the day. Instead, somewhat awkwardly, I claim the back corner seat with my backpack and take a moment to survey the scene and get a sense of the room… hoping and waiting for my mobile telephone to ring so that I can instantly look and seem terribly important, and unavailable for small-talk and business networking.
Then the inevitable moment came when I became self-conscious about my choice of outfit. This morning, on mustering up the courage to speak to the very impressive marketing representative from Facebook, I suddenly was acutely aware of the small but very visible hole in the front of my sweater. Oops. Note to self, more careful attention to the small matter of fashion and that ever so important first impression, next time.
I am thrilled to be here. This is a fantastic opportunity, and in fact one that I voluntarily sought out. I am here to listen to and learn from experts and creators, each of whom are very accomplished in areas that are different from my own. One of the panellists, a personal trainer, described a kind of “discomfort zone,” where we build resilience and learn from different challenges. That is how I feel here today. My senses are heightened and I am intrigued by the perspectives I hear, searching to find meaning that is relevant for me and to make connections that resonate with the work of Watipa.
Within moments, these connections appear effortlessly. Deliver a solution to a problem, that is better than anything offered by anyone else, said an entrepreneur who recently sold her online cleaning organisation for £32 million. Yes, I thought, Watipa does just that. We need to get better at explaining how we do this to other people.
Don’t be mediocre, be brave, was advice given by another entrepreneur, the Founder and CEO of the Cambridge Satchel Company, Julie Deane. She started her company from her kitchen 5 years ago with £600 and it is now valued at more than £40 million. Certainly good advice. At Watipa right now we are thinking through how and what to focus on first, in our first year, and equally how we will make sure that we don’t compromise the quality and principles of our work as we expand in the future.
The nuggets of good advice flow freely throughout the day. Always treat other people as we would like to be treated ourselves, said the Founder of a receptionist telephone answering company. Be aware of your weaknesses as well as strengths, said the Manager of a retail chain with 58 shops across the country. Only recruit people who are able to do the job better than you could do it yourself, said a Manufacturer of hand crafted bags.
Time after time I listen to the entrepreneurs talking about their passion, and how they converted that passion into a marketable idea supported by an appropriate business structure that enables it to flourish. I feel that at Watipa we are setting off in a good direction, with our best foot forward.
On reflection, there is a lot in common between the management and growth principles of businesses regardless of whether they are motivated by profit or social impact motivations, or both. Just because the ultimate goal varies, and the approach to the creation and distribution of profit, that doesn’t mean that we need to overlook the connections that are there in terms of day to day growth, innovation, accountability and management.
Maybe after all it should not be such a surprise that I find myself here today. The unexpected connections are there between the profit-oriented and community motivated entrepreneurs in the room. The world of work is changing all the time, and the biggest challenge is how we all grow and change with it.