Starting a sustainable business, balancing gender roles and thriving

As our CEO Jane Langley recently said at the What’s Next Summit, “Building a business doesn’t happen like magic. It took us 6 years after our launch in 2014 to re-work our business model.”

For Blue Patch, this meant that we spent our pandemic months in 2020 redeveloping our website and business model to re-launch with a fresh face in February 2021. It’s not been an easy road.

Today we’d like to feature 6 female business owners from various sectors, sharing their thoughts on starting a business, balancing traditional gender roles, their successes, struggles and advice.

woman holding a plant in her hands

On being a female entrepreneur in a very male focused industry: Harriet Thompson

“Horticulture as a whole is definitely a more male focused industry.  I was always very aware at the beginning of my career, that people would look twice at me as a female wearing work trousers and steel toe cap boots.  Comments were also made regularly about whether I needed help carrying big bags of compost, of which none of the men were asked.  Now, I personally see that as people wanting to help, but I know many people that would see this as a gender bias.

All growers that I deal with within my business are male and although many women are interested in Horticulture, I’m not overly sure how ‘feminine’ people find the career choice, which I obviously believe not to be true.  It’s really hard work and it’s a lot of heavy lifting, but Horticulture and the running of a business has been the best decision I’ve ever made.

To any women that want to follow their dreams and start a business, I would just say, go for it.  Be prepared to work the hardest you’ve ever had to work in your life, be prepared for people to tell you to take small steps even though your dreams are HUGE, even be prepared to sacrifice free time to get there.  It’s owning a business that’s made me who I am, allowed me to express my beliefs and ensured that I have 100% job satisfaction. It’s hard, hard work…but I love every second of owning my own business and I couldn’t recommend it more.”

woman with long red hair and stripy shirt in a greenhouse, growing house plants
Harriet, Harriet’s Plants

On balancing family with running a business: Lottie Davies

“Interiors and home decorating is a field that is full of women leaders. The challenge that I have faced is running my business from home and sometimes struggling to separate family management from work time. Having said that, I have also enjoyed the flexibility of being able to be around for my children when they’ve needed me. It’s a tricky balance to strike. My husband and I both work from home but I do 95% of the cooking as, being self employed, my schedule is much more flexible than his.

My advice to other women starting their own business would be work away from home as much as possible if you want to create clear boundaries between work and home life. And always try pushing doors, just in case they are ready to spring open and show you an opportunity. “

On turning a creative hobby into a thriving business: Liz Pearson

“I belong to an incredibly supportive, mostly female, maker community. What has been challenging is my utter lack of business experience and knowledge. I started as a hobbyist who had big dreams of making a living doing what she loved. As a sole trader, I’ve had to learn about all the many facets that make up a successful business and implement them. Now into my fourth year of trading I still feel like I’m only just beginning to get the hang of it all.

So my advice to other women thinking of making their creative hobby into a business is to dream big but be realistic. As women we can be our own harshest critics, so be kind to yourself and give yourself the time and space to succeed.  If you put the work in you will get there but it won’t be overnight, so keep believing in yourself.”

woman in a workshop wearing a green tee shirt with blond bob, holding a tool.
Liz, Love Heartwood

On the importance of a deep breath and a good support system: Charlotte Meek

“Working in the textile industry can be challenging at times, sometimes you have to take a very deep breath and dig deep to carry on. Generally though, I have found that if you explain your requirements clearly, treat people with respect and kindness that you will be treated with mutual respect.

Setting up and running your own business can often be daunting, but as long as you have good support and advice to start and at least one person who can keep you going when things get tough (and they will!), you should be fine.

The one piece of advice that I was given when starting out, and still holds true today is outsource anything that you struggle with to someone with those skills. For me, this is admin and accounts, my strength is in idea creation and I have an amazing team who sort all the accounts and day to day running for me. Louise, our finance guru, has been with me from day one, understands the business and keeps me on track financially. Whatever your strengths, play to those; identify your weaknesses and find someone to help with those – it may cost but in the long run it will work out much cheaper!”

On motherhood, and how that has influenced ambitions: Rose Fulbright

“I have recently started work again after taking three years off to have my two children, and have found what a challenge it is to run a business and look after toddlers who are not yet in full-time education. I am very lucky that I have been able to spend a lot of time with them in their early years, but I have also experienced the frustration and anxiety involved in getting back to work after such a huge lifestyle and identity shift, and such a long time away. 

It is no longer as simple as working a certain number of hours a week. The inevitable unforeseen time ‘off’ due to illness or doctors’ appointments, as well as childcare ending at 3pm, means the amount of time I can actually spend working, thinking, planning and concentrating has been much reduced. The fact that I run my own business and therefore answer only to myself, as well as not being the primary earner, means that I am usually the first responder to these interruptions, as my husband is expected to work a full day. The facts of my biology – having taken time to have children and care for them myself – rather put my business ambitions on the back burner for the past few years.

However, the value of things I have learned from my babies is huge – I have emerged from the early years of motherhood much wiser, more considered, more efficient, and more definite in my business ambitions. My husband and I divide our childcare duties as equally as possible, and he supports me in every way he can to run my business, but my main thoughts and concerns are that there should be a wider general acceptance of equally shared, and lengthy, parental leave.”

woman in mint green shirt, with tape measure around her neck, sitting at a table making a drawing
Rose, Rose Fulbright Credit -David Poole

On switching careers and utilising transferrable skills: Alessandra de Gregorio

I entered a male-dominated world when I studied a Masters in Financial Engineering, and subsequently worked in a Hedge Fund.  During that time, I was conscious of being the only female in the office and dressed accordingly. I felt the need to constantly prove myself, and most certainly was the lowest paid.  

After working for a few years, I finally felt valued. Then I started a family and had to navigate the challenges of being a working mother. Now, I have two boys and two girls and am teaching them lessons about resilience, equality and the fact that it’s not how you look, but rather what you do that is important.  

My current industry, the beauty industry is female-dominated, and it turns out that I am using all my maths skills for formulations, finance and computer skills for running day-to-day operations!

To other women looking to start a business, I would say the following: trust your instincts and use your drive to achieve your goals.  

woman with brown curly hair, smiling, wearing cream shirt with gold embroidery
Alessandra, Terre Verdi

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about to starting their own business?