STARTING AND RUNNING A BUSINESS AS A WOMAN – Birds on the Blog

STARTING AND RUNNING A BUSINESS AS A WOMAN

STARTING AND RUNNING A BUSINESS AS A WOMAN
EKO FOOD

Christine Adeosun, CEO

My interest in food goes back to my childhood. My grandmother used to sell food in the local market, and my mother was a great cook too. We were a family of three girls and four boys, and my mother taught us all from very young that being able to cook for yourself is a vital life skill. She believed that if you can cook, you can make it in life. Home cooking can be cheaper and healthier – no junk food – and it teaches you self-reliance. That is something I have passed on to my own children as well.

I started cooking at a very young age, and gradually food became a passion for me. At college I studied biochemistry, and even as a student I began to cater for friends’ parties. My studies taught me more about the processes behind cooking and how you can scale the preparation of food from a small kitchen operation into something much bigger. One of the challenges of African cooking is that it is very time consuming and the preparation takes a long time. So we have a processing factory in London and Nigeria where a lot of our products are made. We developed a sauce that is the baseline for most African dishes, so you can get the authentic flavour but also save time – perfect for people who want to cook authentic African food but have busy lives. The sauce is now widely distributed both at home and overseas.

At the same time, I was learning about the aesthetics of food. For me, food should be a pleasure for all the senses, right down to the packaging and the décor of the shops where the food is sold; it is all part of the experience. When we got started, we were offering very beautifully packaged products that were quite different in look and feel from what people were used to. With our brown beans, for example, we took the trouble to remove the stones to make life easier for our customers, and that is still the essence of what we do. We make it easy for people to prepare and enjoy African food – no additives, no colouring, nothing unhealthy.

I do all my own research. I am always thinking about methods and ingredients and processes. One of the gifts that God has given me is that I only need to taste a dish once to be able to tell what is in it. I love excellence, and I am always looking around, trying and testing new things to see how we can do even better to improve the quality of the end product. As I always say in my cooking shows, you are what you eat, and I have shown that high quality food can still be an affordable value for customers.

I started my first company in Nigeria when I was 19. It was called Collars Nigerian Ltd. It was set up to offer a wide range of business lines. Then, when I got to university, I catered for parties for friends. I would ask friends to help me serve at these private dining events, and the business took off by word of mouth.


TAKING THE PLUNGE
After I graduated, I told my parents that I wanted to start a kitchen company. My mum was really mad! She thought I was wasting my degree, but I told her it was my passion and that I wanted to cater for people, not get involved in the science and manufacturing side. I did initially get involved in the chemical side of food production (e.g., looking at new techniques for drying cassava flour using special machines rather than the traditional way of sun drying, which takes a long time and leaves a smell you have to get rid of).
After university and working for my father for some time, he gave me some money to set up my own business. I began from scratch on a very small scale, spreading interest by word of mouth and doing roadshows and parties. People began to take an interest in what I was doing and the way I was packaging food. And then, in 1991, I decided to try my luck in the UK.
I settled here and got my first shop on Tower Bridge Road. One of the first things I did was make my specially prepared chicken wings and Scotch eggs and sell them in 7-11 stores. I also began to cater parties with African food. Initially I did parties free of charge so that people could see what my business was like. Eventually I decided to take the big step of approaching the supermarkets. I secured a big order and got together premises and all the equipment I would need (I was still cooking from home at this time). But then the store changed its plans, and I lost my original buyer. I was absolutely devastated, but when I have a setback it always makes me more determined. Disappointments are life lessons that help you to become more resilient.
GROWING THE BUSINESS
After that experience I decided not to market to multinationals; I pivoted the business towards the service sector instead. I won some contracts to start supplying IKEA and began to approach schools. Because of our experiences with some of the bigger shops, we decided to open our own chain of retail shops.

We now have shops on the high street with plans for at least three more. I think these outlets have really changed the face of African food.
Our shops are quite different from other African stores, in terms of presentation, operations, customer service and so on. But along with stores, we cover the whole supply chain, from sourcing and selecting ingredients to processing and exporting, all the way to retail, wholesale and catered services. We cater for five schools currently, as well as lots of weddings and parties, and supply to other African stores too.
Our customers are very diverse. Naturally, we appeal to Nigerians and West Africans but also to an African population more broadly. African people are marrying more and more among different ethnic groups and are keen to get to know each other’s traditional food. And more widely, people in the UK are always interested in trying cuisines that are new to them.
In all this I work with my husband, who is a pillar of support, and gradually we have built up a great team of people around us. We have people who have been with us for 20 years and shared the journey. I am the face of this company, but there is no way I could have done all this myself.
Funding has played an important role in the growth and development of the business. Lloyds Bank has been extremely helpful to us, and our relationship manager is someone who genuinely understands our sector and knows what our business is about. The bank listens to you – it is like our heartbeat.

WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS: BARRIERS AND REMEDIES
Only one in three UK entrepreneurs is female, and an estimated £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men. The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship (2019)1 looked at the barriers facing women entrepreneurs and suggested some practical remedies to address this imbalance:


1. Increase funding directed towards female entrepreneurs. Startup funding is the number one barrier mentioned by women non-entrepreneurs: women launch businesses with 53% less capital on average than men, and only 1% of all venture funding goes to businesses founded by all-female teams, inhibiting scaleup.
2. Provide greater family care support for female entrepreneurs. Women are twice as likely as men to mention family responsibilities as a barrier to starting a business, while for female entrepreneurs with children, primary care responsibilities are the number one barrier to further business success.
3. Make entrepreneurship more accessible for women and increase support locally, through relatable, accessible mentors and networks. Only 39% of women say they feel confident in their capabilities to start a business, compared to 55% of men, and women are less likely than men to know other entrepreneurs or have access to sponsors, mentors or professional support networks. Women from minority ethnic groups experience all the same barriers, the report notes, but to a greater extent than other women.

OVERCOMING BARRIERS
It is much harder to be an entrepreneur as a woman than a man, and especially as a black woman. I think if I were a man, we would have expanded more rapidly and grown even further than this by now. For example, I’m blessed with quite a deep voice, so sometimes when I go out to a meeting, I can tell that the other party – a man – was expecting a man: Christian, not Christine. They find it hard to hide their look of disappointment. As they get to see how I operate, they start to relax and realise that I know what I’m doing. But that initial sense of doubt or disappointment is a hurdle that no man ever faces. And who knows how many opportunities I have missed out on because the other person discounted me outright and did not give me a chance to prove myself.

As a female entrepreneur, people often judge you at face value or leap to instant conclusions about you based on their own preconceptions. I think this bias has also counted against me in terms of securing funding and investment from other sources over the years because a lot of male financial decision makers have built-in doubt about a woman’s capacity to deliver. But I always say: a brain is a brain. If you have the experience and the expertise, you can do the job, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. Of course you have the ability. No one can take that away from you.
It is hard work because as a woman, and especially a black woman, you have this extra hurdle to overcome every time. You must prove yourself in a way that a man – especially a white man – would never have to. On one occasion, I went to meet a man about a new shop. As I was walking towards the guy, I recognised him and started to wave in greeting so that he would know right away that he would be meeting with me. The look on his face – he couldn’t even mask his disappointment. As soon as I reached him, he said, ‘Sorry, the shop’s gone.’ I said to him: ‘I knew it would be the moment you saw me.’ But these setbacks just make me more determined. And I said to him: ‘You know what? I’m going to be on these high streets one day, whether you like it or not.’ And now we are.
Let me give you another example. When I first started doing ready meals, I contacted a local council and spoke to the man in charge of food. I introduced myself: ‘My name is Christine. I’d like to introduce my range of African meals for schools.’ The man snapped, ‘I don’t need your African food!’ I was so upset I dropped the phone. I went away, crying. But then I called a good friend of mine, who said to me, ‘Come on. It’s not like you to take no for an answer. Go back and give him a call and tell him off!’ So I called him back and I said, ‘You know what? You are going to have my African food.’ And later, when I got the contract from the council, I called him again and told him: ‘You discriminated


against me. You don’t even know me. Well, let me tell you the good news. I’m now supplying four of your schools…’ These are the kinds of things I have experienced. And they only make me more determined. I think: like it or not, you’ll see my face!

Currently, only one in three UK businesses is run by women, and that is probably because some of them get tired of the discrimination, the negative attitudes and being treated as invisible. But things are improving, and as women we must keep on pushing. You have got to fight for yourself. You have to stand firm and get to the next level. At some point, they will have no choice. They just have to accept you. We lead by example by employing lots of women and people from minority backgrounds and through the attitude of the men in the business. In my business, the men are sometimes approached for a decision. But they say, ‘No, you have to talk to Christine, she’s leading us.’

As a woman entrepreneur, you cannot afford to keep quiet.

Work-life balance is another issue. Too often, the woman in a relationship is expected to do more of the parenting, for example, which inevitably makes it harder to get a business off the ground. I find that schools are not always aware of this issue either. They sometimes arrange meetings and appointments at times that assume you are a mum who is sitting at home all day. I say to them, ‘But some of us are working mothers. You have to make provisions for us too.’ And they do respond – you cannot be afraid to ask. This is very

  important, I think: if we women want things to change, we must be prepared to make our voices heard.

Similarly, I would like to see more funding and government support aimed specifically at supporting women in business. Women face challenges that men do not, so it makes sense for some of the support avenues to be specific to their needs too. When men and women are lumped in together, there is always a chance that things like unconscious bias will have an adverse impact.

MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD
If you do, you’ll get pushed around, and that will affect your business. I used to cry when people upset me or ignored me, but I don’t cry any more. I answer back. When I go to speak to women at business events, I tell them that they need to be strong. You need to be strong for yourself and for the women coming after you. When I meet women who are starting out on this road, I like to tell them about some of the hurdles they might face – not to scare them off, but so they are prepared.

The most important thing in starting and growing a business is to have a focus. Know what you want to do, and never lose sight of that goal. You need to keep putting yourself forward, have faith, and not let setbacks discourage you. There is no shortcut to experience, but if you can learn from those knocks you can build the resilience and the courage to keep moving towards your goal.

REFERENCES

1. ‘The Alison Rose review of female entrepreneurship’, HM Treasury, 8 March 2019. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-alison-rose-review-of-female-entrepreneurship.

2. ‘UK VC & Female Founders report’, British Business Bank, February 2019. Available at: https://www.british-business-bank.co.uk/uk-vc-female-founders-report/.

As a woman entrepreneur, you cannot afford to keep quiet.

www.yesbusinesscan.com

Author: Christine Adeosun CEO

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