After a long day looking after two children aged three and five under lockdown, Sally Wilson would head out to the offices of her craft kit company and pack orders alone until midnight.
Sophie Birkert’s home-schooling lessons were focused less on fractions and times tables and more on shipping weights and consignment numbers.
Christine Kelly enlisted her children to make online videos while her business was mothballed. And, even now, Sarah John is self-isolating and running a company after a Covid-positive case at her five-year-old’s school.
This year, the Mail’s award for female entrepreneurs who start a business while their children are under 12 — the Aphrodite, part of the annual NatWest Everywoman Awards — could not be more relevant.
FEMAIL have taken a look at three women shortlisted for the Aphrodite award as well as three other businesswomen they loved (all pictured)
At a time of unprecedented challenge for business, female-led ventures have been affected more than most — often because women took on the lion’s share of Covid-era domestic responsibilities and home-schooling.
New figures show female-led businesses were seven per cent more likely to close between January and May 2020 than their male-led equivalents — which is why we are more impressed than ever with this year’s Aphrodite entries.
From toddler football worth £22 million to chocolate beer, these are extraordinary businesses thriving in extraordinary times.
So let’s shine a spotlight on our fantastic, resilient mumpreneurs. This is our shortlist of three — and three more we especially loved …
BREWING BOSS WHO TOOK A PUNT ON PINTS
Sarach John, 33, (pictured) set up Boss Brewing in Swansea and her beer is already sold in Asda, Morrisons, Co-op and Tesco
Sarah John, 33, single mum to five-year-old Esme, is founder and director of Boss Brewing brewery in Swansea.
In the heavily male-dominated brewing business, Sarah John has always stood out. Little by little, with her multi-award-winning Boss Brewing beers today sold in Asda, Morrisons, Co-op and Tesco, she is changing the face of the industry.
The venture began in 2015, when Sarah decided to turn a brewing hobby into a business. ‘At first, I’d always get mistaken for the sales rep or the “promo girl”,’ she says.
She didn’t take offence but did once make a point by breastfeeding in a meeting. ‘It was me and three men. I’m not sure they knew where to look, but my girl was hungry.
‘Those were the very early days of the business. Esme came to her first meeting at seven days old. I used to get people to come to my house and talk about beer over the playmat.’
Offering more than a dozen pale ales and stouts, including a chocolate and salted-caramel brew, Boss was initially hit hard by the closure of pubs over lockdown.
‘About 80 per cent of our turnover came from the pub side of things and I did think we could lose everything. But it became clear people were still drinking beer — at home.
‘We changed our focus to the supermarkets, where sales went up by 50 per cent, and set up our own online shop.’
Boss is still on target to increase turnover this year to £750,000.
The company weathered another threat last year when the fashion giant Hugo Boss called in lawyers to stop Sarah trademarking her brand name. After months of legal wrangling, the matter was resolved with Sarah agreeing to rename two of her beers.
Comedian Joe Lycett, meanwhile, changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss in support of the brewer and featured the David-and-Goliath legal battle on his Channel 4 consumer rights show.
FROM GARDEN DECOR TO COVID SCREEN SAVIOUR
Sophie Birkert, 36, (pictured) works for the company she set up in 2017, Screen With Envy, which produces decorative garden panels and fencing
Sophie Birkert, 36, lives in London with her children Dominic, seven, Elise, five, Sebastian, three, and husband Tom, 42, who also works for the company she founded in 2017, Screen With Envy.
The circumstances were hardly auspicious for starting a business when Sophie Birkert began Screen With Envy three years ago. She was heavily pregnant with her third child, her husband had just lost his job in property sales, and she was borrowing money from her parents to pay the mortgage.
‘My goal was pretty low at that point,’ she says. ‘It was really about keeping a roof over our heads. I thought I’d be doing well if I made £30,000 a year.’ She pauses and laughs. ‘It’s gone so crazy, we could do that now in a day.’
Indeed, Screen With Envy, which makes decorative garden panels and fencing to Sophie’s designs, is on course to turn over £6 million this year, with an ever-expanding client base and workforce.
A large part of that expansion is down to Covid. Orders poured in at the start of the first lockdown as people spent more time and money on their gardens.
Then Sophie had a brainwave.
‘If you’d told me at the start of the year that I’d be designing indoor screens to protect people against a pandemic, I’d never have believed you. But that was the next step.’
Her flower-covered Perspex screens to protect customers and staff against Covid in restaurants, offices and beauty salons now make up 20 per cent of her business.
‘We hired aggressively, from one staff member last year to 30 now. Lots of them work for me remotely and I’ve never met them, but we have managed to create this incredible team that just gets the business.’
She was less impressed by the venture capitalists she approached for funding: ‘I walked away in the end. It seemed to me they made little effort to understand the business, and the only time I ever came into contact with another woman was when I was passed on to one to put an appointment in a diary. They are missing a trick.’
LAWYER WITH A KNACK FOR CRAFTING
Sally Wilson, 36, (pictured) is the managing director of Caterpillar Cross Stitch and spent her nights packing orders until midnight every day
Sally Wilson, 36, is founder and managing director of Caterpillar Cross Stitch. She lives in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, with husband Tim, 37, and kids Felicity, six, and Hugo, four.
For Sally Wilson, last spring felt like a reprise of the earliest days of her business. Every day at 4pm, after hours spent looking after the children while her engineer husband worked, she headed out alone to the offices of her craft kit company, Caterpillar Cross Stitch, and packed orders until midnight.
‘Some nights I could have cried with exhaustion. I was living on caffeine and sugar. On the one hand, I was looking at the sales figures and thinking we should be celebrating. But, on the other, doing it alone felt almost impossible.’
Sally usually ‘thrives on a to-do list with 50 items on it’. A former lawyer, she suffered with postnatal depression after the traumatic birth of her first child and, partly as a distraction, spent her maternity leave in 2014 researching business ideas.
‘Every nap-time, every weekend, I was learning about websites, coding and working out what product I could offer.’ She hit on cross-stitching as a craft due for an update, and never went back to law. ‘I needed to replace my salary but I also wanted to finally satisfy a creative side of myself that had always been there,’ she says.
Sally set about creating modern designs with not a kitten or teddy bear in sight — funky alphabet samplers, modern nursery wall hangings, even wifi passwords in cross-stitch. Although 99.95 per cent of her customers are female, their average age is just 42.
After year-on-year increases, she is now looking at a turnover of £440,000 in 2020. Orders rose sixfold during the first lockdown.
SHOEMAKER WHO TROD PATH OUT OF DISASTER
Helen Chapman, 47, pictured) founded Dotty Fish in 2006. She lost £30,000 to a fraudster but in 2004 when given a pair of soft-soled leather shoes for her son and daughter, she became inspired to create her own shoes
Helen Chapman, 47, founded Dotty Fish in 2006. She lives in Farnborough, Hampshire, with children Sophie, 16, Josh, 15, and husband Fraser, 48, who also works for the business.
Helen Chapman is upfront about the lessons she has learnt in business — including the £30,000 she lost to a fraudster.
In 2004, when her son was a few months old and her daughter just two, she was given a pair of soft-soled leather baby shoes. The children loved them but they were pricey, at £20 a pair, so Helen decided to make a version herself and started creating the designs — stars, rainbows, cute animals —that became her signature.
Several years later, recession began to bite and hard-pressed families needed cheaper clothing.
After sourcing a factory, Helen began selling the shoes for just £3.99 a pair, with a tiny profit margin. Her gamble paid off.
Then, in January 2010, disaster hit. ‘One day the factory owner called to say he’d lost my latest order and it would take a few more weeks than normal. Then he said his wife had died. Then I was told he’d broken his back. Over a few months, it became clear that none of these things was true and he’d just taken my money — £30,000.’
‘I had to start again almost from scratch. We put the house on it, literally, with a loan for the money we’d lost and, this time, I had a rule that I would never use a factory I couldn’t safely fly to. Now I use three factories in China and I visit them all three times a year.’
That fledgling business became Dotty Fish, with a turnover today of more than £2 million.
Covid has thrown Helen a series of curveballs, including soaring air freight costs and her son’s private school going into administration. ‘It has run me ragged but also focused my mind on things I can improve,’ she says. ‘Sales doubled over lockdown.’
CLUB OWNER ON A WINNING STREAK
Christine Kelly, 49, (pictured) founded Little Kickers in 2002 which teaches football to toddlers
Christine Kelly, 49, founded Little Kickers — a toddler football class — in 2002. She lives in Chester and Toronto, Canada. She is also mum to Lukas, 20, and 17-year-old Chessy.
When Christine Kelly lost her City job with scandal-hit U.S. firm Enron in 2001, she had several months off to consider the future.
‘In those days, a City career wasn’t really compatible with having a family. I was doing meetings at 7am and 7pm.
‘During that time off, I spent every day with my toddler, Lukas, and really started to appreciate the freedom.’
Today, there are dozens of organised activities for pre-schoolers but, back then, the market was far less crowded.
When Christine looked for a sports club to teach the rudiments of football, she couldn’t find one — so she ditched the City and set up her own. In the end, the hours were just as hardcore, but ‘everywhere I went, Lukas came too’.
Today, the franchise Little Kickers operates in 34 countries, with 65,000 children attending a class each week and a turnover of £22 million. With its global reach, Christine is uniquely placed to understand the idiosyncrasies of childrearing —and football — in various nations.
‘Our franchisees in Brazil quickly realised that no self-respecting Brazilian parent would send their children to a football company run by the English, so we launched an English-language component to the programme too, and that did very well.’
In Indonesia, Malaysia and India, the emphasis even for tots is on academic learning rather than sport for fun — so Christine introduced badges for ‘confidence’ and ‘listening’ to show parents what children were achieving.
Depressingly, in the early days of the UK operation, she also encountered ‘people who were reluctant to send their children to football classes run by someone called Christine’ — but found that if she changed her name to Chris on flyers and posters, they flocked to them.
Today, getting more girls into football at the earliest age, and mentoring female business owners, is a priority for the company.
Covid shut down classes across the world in March, and plans to roll out eco-friendly football strips made from reclaimed ocean plastic, rather than polyester, were postponed.
This month’s new lockdown looks likely to close franchises in England again, although others around the world remain open.
CANCER SURVIVOR’S GIFT TO THOSE GRIEVING
Nicky Sharwood, 49, (pictured) founded her business Angel & Dove in 2016. The company creates sympathy cards, memory books, candles and keepsakes for when loved ones pass away
Nicky Sherwood, 49, founded Angel & Dove in 2016. She lives in Twickenham with husband Greg, 48, who works in the wine business, and their children Sam, 14, and Louis, nine.
Some people react to a life-threatening illness by running as far as possible from its shadow. Nicky Sherwood did something quite different.
Seven years ago, at the age of 42, Nicky was diagnosed with breast cancer and, with the help of family and friends, ‘muddled through’ a year of treatment until, eventually, she was given the all-clear.
Yet the experience changed her deeply. ‘I’d had this really quite serious brush with my own mortality and I couldn’t just forget about it.’ she says.
‘My background was in marketing and beauty but my heart wasn’t in it afterwards. I think I wanted control back, and one of the ways to do that was to take some of the fear of death away.’
With two sons then aged eight and three, Nicky abandoned the beauty industry and took a taboo-busting job with a funeral director instead.
‘I think my family and friends were all horrified,’ she says. ‘That sort of work still feels very secretive and hidden.’
For Nicky, dealing every day with the bereaved, it was clear that it was women who were often making decisions on funeral details — and not always finding what they wanted.
‘Relatives want something that really reflects the life of their loved one and not a generic package. Celebrations of life are becoming more popular but, at that time, there weren’t many products catering for them.’
So she started Angel & Dove, an online business selling her own beautifully designed sympathy gifts, memory books, candles and keepsakes.
It is a contemporary, feminine take on a business more usually associated with dour men in Victorian black and, in four years — from kitchen table to dedicated offices — has grown to a turnover of more than £500,000.