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photo of alumna Emma Britton outside with sketches

19 Nov 2018

Loughborough University celebrates Women's Entrepreneurship Day

Today (Monday 19 November) is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (WED). WED aims to empower, celebrate and support women in business across the world, and the University has spoken to a student, a staff member and an alumna about their entrepreneur journeys and what advice they have for other women who may be considering starting a business.

Sports Science student Ashleigh Ponder is the founder of a protein brownie business called Bake Balance. Alongside her studies Ashleigh works on her business, which provides a nutritious twist for one of the world's favourite bakes to help those who are looking to eat healthier but don’t want to miss out on tasty food in the process.

logo for Bake Balance - white text with a brown background

Image: Ashleigh's Bake Balance logo

In 2013, Dr Sophie-Louise Hyde created The Student Wordsmith, an award-winning publishing and writing platform. Sophie set up The Student Wordsmith to inspire students, graduates and writers to build their confidence and develop practice via the online platform, which has helped over 300 writers since launching. Dr Hyde also works at the University as a Student Enterprise Advisor, inspiring and engaging with enterprising students to develop their skills, expertise and knowledge to help their businesses.

photo of business cards for The Student Wordsmith

Image: The Student Wordsmith

Emma Britton is a decorative glass designer and began her business venture in 2010 with her self-titled company. She graduated from Loughborough University in 2008 with a degree in printed textiles, and used the knowledge she gained from her studies to create a successful entrepreneurship journey specialising in designing bespoke glass splashbacks along with matching accessories such as trays and tea towels.

Q: What inspired you to start your own business?

Ashleigh (A): I've been a food blogger for the last five years, qualified as a personal trainer and regularly devised recipes for various nutrition brands across the world. It occurred to me that the fitness industry is incredibly guilt-driven, and would sell notoriously chewy protein bars, grainy protein shakes and other questionable supplements with a promise of "body transformation". As a Sports Science student, I understand the importance of quality nutrition - but I dispute that a nutritious diet should be unenjoyable. A sustainable way of eating is one we can see ourselves sticking to day-in, day-out - not one of temporary diet cleanses, disgusting protein bars and expensive pills.

It was a couple of years ago that I began to dream of running my own food business. I'd been making some money producing recipes, but as soon as I'd pass those on to companies, they were no longer mine. I still do food photography and reviews for brands - but it struck me during my first year that I genuinely have the skills to bring a food product to market. I can make recipes. My online presence via my Instagram blog demonstrates competency with promotion and food photography. I am passionate about improving health and fitness in the wider population, without sacrificing peoples' relationship with food. So, I started by trying to make a product.

After six months of recipe testing, and many failed batches of brownies later, I had my recipe. Every challenge that I faced, I just tried to make small steps towards launching my product. Small steps have led to a huge amount of progress over this last year - I am now officially registered as a food business, have finalised my recipe, have my branding, online presence and costings... and feel prepared to take on a very large industry!

Sophie (S): The inspiration for starting my own business came from a blog that I started back in 2012. I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing at the time and quickly realised that diversifying as a writer and standing out from the crowd - as well as having a form of online presence - was crucial in the industry. I set up my own blog under the alias ‘The Student Wordsmith’ to share my own writing – the readership and interest grew from there and I realised there could be both commercial and social impact with it.

Emma (E): I graduated in the summer of 2008 which was exactly the same time as when the recession started. No-one was recruiting, and it was hard to get a job. I studied Printed Textiles and should have been a textile designer, but I just ended up doing lots of free placements. I eventually got a job in Sales Development for a glass company, and it was here that I learned about glass, and my business idea came out of a desire to merge my textile design skills with glass and do something original.

photo of Dr Sophie Louise Hyde with her book

Image: Dr Sophie-Louise Hyde with her published book, 'You is for University'

Q: Did any women in your life inspire, mentor or encourage you to start a business?

A: My mum has always been a huge inspiration to me. As the breadwinner in my household, she has regularly defied expectations; my father looked after my brother and I growing up whilst my mum worked multiple jobs simultaneously, working self-employed as a tutor alongside managerial work.

Coming from a working-class background, she endeavoured to get both my brother and I into the best position we could be and pushed us at every turn. The devil's-advocate style conversations I have had with her have been brilliant at keeping me grounded in everything I aim for, ensuring I check all the boxes - even the more boring ones! It's always been my mum that has pushed me, but she's also been there when things have got too much.

S: Yes, absolutely! Over the past six years, there have been several women who have inspired me, both in life and in business.

My mum is definitely one of them – she’s worked so hard her entire life to provide for myself and my sister and to see how hard she worked encouraged me to do the same. Megan Powell Vreeswijk  (Graduate Enterprise Manager at The Studio), as my business mentor, was a real inspiration, too.

She really believed in me and my idea for a University guidebook publication and the commercial value of this and the arts – she pushed me to let go of my perfectionism and share my work with the wider world when it was ready.

Finally, I would have to give a shout out to Frances Collins (A Dozen Eggs). She was a key member of The Studio, and her peer support while I was working on my business was invaluable – whether it was for a hug when things were getting tough, or to assist me with my website, design and branding, she was a superstar!

E: To be honest I think it would have helped me to have encountered female role models in business, but most start-ups and established business owners I met were men. My Dad has a company and that inspired me growing up; I knew it was possible to run a business, it was a viable option of employment.

Marina Pickles who was the University’s Enterprise Manager at the time encouraged me, and I got a lot of funding and support from her and the University.

I was lucky enough to receive an Enterprise Grant, to win an award from one of the local Loughborough businesses and I also came second in the University Business Plan Competition in 2011. It sounds cliché, but I think my parents were both pivotal. Although my mum as a nurse is in a secure profession, she never said to me ‘that’s a bad idea’ or ‘it’ll never work’, and now she is so helpful to me in my business with words of praise and encouragement. I was encouraged to study Art, to study what I wanted and what fulfilled me. People think you can’t study Art and make a living from it but you can, and I know lots of successful businesswomen in the creative industries! 

close-up image of Bake Balance brownie

Image: Ashleigh's Bake Balance brownies

Q: What words of encouragement would you share with students at Loughborough University who might be considering starting their own business?

A: Start small. If I had continued to focus upon my fears of the health and fitness industry being huge, with large firms having more resources at their disposal than I could ever dream of... my passion to change how people approach nutrition would be completely dashed.

Worrying about the logistics of how you'll achieve certain other things - set them aside and focus upon one thing at once. I needed a brownie recipe before I worried about the logo, or the packaging, or how I'll post it. If you get too bogged down with added details (and end up procrastinating the big tasks!) you'll spin your wheels.

Use every resource at your disposal, and don't be afraid to jump at opportunities. Be prudent with what opportunities you go for, however; it is very easy to burn yourself out. It's sometimes entirely necessary to have a break and to address other areas of your life outside of your business idea.

S: I think one of the key things I’ve learned over the last few years - which is really important in the technology-driven and fast-paced world we live in where we hear lots about people working all hours, burning out and suffering in terms of their own mental health and wellbeing - is that it is still okay to take a break! In 2015-16, the platform and I took a break so that I could focus on my PhD thesis and other commitments, and this was actually crucial for the business, too! I came back after a year off with a fresh perspective, new ideas and the quality of what we put out improved, too – we saw our highest sales and submissions at that point, and I believe it was all because I took a break, took a step back, re-evaluated and moved forward from there!

E: Research (a lot!), go out and meet people, and believe in yourself - if you do you will succeed. Apply for every opportunity of support in your field. I received every bit of funding I have ever applied for my business.

Don’t compare yourself to other people and think 'I want that' or 'I want to be there', just take each day at a time and work through everything. And when you pause for breath, you will be amazed at what you have achieved. Go for it! 

 photo of Emma in her studio

Image: Emma Britton in her studio (photo credit, including main photo: Elly Lucas)

The Loughborough Enterprise Network (LEN) supports students and graduates throughout their enterprise journey. The Network consists of the LSU Enterprise Hub, The Studio and the brand new Start-up Lab. For more information visit the website.