Alice Curry is founder and CEO of Lantana Publishing. Named after lantana camara, ‘a flowering plant in the Verbena family with many-coloured petals on a single stem’, used as an allegory for children of all colours reading happily on one earth, Lantana’s mission is to promote diversity and inclusion in children’s literature. The award-winning publishing house gives authors and illustrators of colour a platform to publish, and gives children of diverse backgrounds ‘a chance to see themselves in the books they read’.
Since launching in 2014, Lantana has published 28 titles, many of which have earned their own awards. In 2017, Curry was awarded the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for women of promise in publishing, and in 2018, Lantana was selected for the Oxford Foundry’s L.E.V8 accelerator for high-potential ventures.
Curry earned a BA in English Language and Literature from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, in 2005, and went on to earn an MA and PhD in Children’s Literature from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where she also worked as a lecturer.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I think of myself as an accidental entrepreneur. I didn’t have a grand plan; in fact, if someone had told me earlier on in life that I would become an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t have believed them! It came about because I had identified gaps in representation in children’s publishing through my academic work and my professional work freelancing for an education charity. On a personal level, my sister married a man whose parents had immigrated from Hong Kong, so I knew there was the prospect of biracial children in the near future. I wanted these future nephews and nieces to find themselves in stories and have recognisable heroes and heroines to aspire to. And I thought, ‘If these books don’t exist, who is going to publish them?’ I had the means and the privilege to try, so it almost felt like a responsibility at that point– I couldn’t not do anything about it.
When I finished my work in Australia and moved back to the UK, I was presented with a clean slate of sorts. I thought that if there was any time in my life to take a risk on starting a business, it should be now.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship for me is seeing a gap in the market and being brave enough to find new ways to fill it.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
When the first book we ever published went on to win the Children’s Africana Best Book award, with an award ceremony at the Smithsonian in Washington and a book reading at the Library of Congress!
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
First, stamina, grit, basically the ability to tough it out and be resilient. Creativity is also hugely important. When you come across a brick wall, you’ve got to be able to work out how to climb it or go around it or knock it down, because you will encounter a lot of barriers. And third, I think you have to be able and willing to fail.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The freedom! The sense that I can wake up in the morning and completely choose my path. There’s a lot of privilege that comes with being your own boss. It’s really exciting to have something you want to achieve and actually have the space and scope to try to put it into practice.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’m inspired by B-Corps: social enterprises marrying purpose and profit in a package that appeals to customers’ consumer instincts and their better nature. Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s are good examples.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d ask them at what point they had to make their first really big decision to spend over the odds, or take a financial hit, in order to create a model for the social or environmental impact they wanted to see. I’d want to be a fly in the room in the conversations they had leading up to taking that risk before they had proof that the social enterprise model was going to be successful for them; I’m sure it would say a lot about ingenuity, determination and faith.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
There are many business milestones I could mention – awards won or deals made – but I think I’m honestly most proud of those moments when I meet children who read and love our books, and can see themselves reflected in our characters and settings, possibly for the first time. The look of joy on their faces is priceless.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Very early on, I contracted a book by an Indian author. It was beautifully written, but it was far longer than the traditional picture book. It was in a difficult space– not for young kids, not exactly for older kids either– and it dealt with a difficult topic, bereavement. I had been advised that we wouldn’t find a place for it in the UK market, but I just fell in love with it and published it anyway. It was early days when every book really mattered; we were still establishing our brand. And everyone was right. It barely sold in the UK. It was not only a financial failure, in the sense that we lost money on it, but it was also a real knock to my confidence that I had made such a drastic mistake.
But a couple of years later, Penguin Random House in India contacted us because they were interested in the title. They ended up buying Indian Sub-Continental rights to it and it went on to sell in huge numbers across India and further afield. It became really well-loved; it won awards. It felt like such a vindication of my choice. Now, I’ve still not made it work in this market, so it was still a lesson to learn from, but when it found its place, the book soared. Sometimes you just have to hang on and live with a mistake for a while until it becomes clear what lesson you need to take from it.
How have you funded your ideas?
Organically, for the most part. The initial team– before we could generate earnings– each contributed funds of our own. We started selling as soon as we possibly could and we’ve been a revenue-generating business for a long time now, growing year on year. So far we have made it work without outside investment. We have had a couple of small grants, but that’s been it. The question now is whether we can meet increasing demand with our current staff and revenues. We’re in a good position, but we’re constantly having to review it.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
St. Hilda’s College kindly offered me membership of the Senior Common Room, although that is sadly disrupted by COVID-19, and more informally have given me a platform to discuss my work and showcased Lantana to their students and alumni. I have found the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship a useful resource since we very much consider ourselves a social impact business. We have also run over 30 internships for students so far, the majority of whom have identified with under-represented groups, through the Careers Service Micro-Internship Programme and the Crankstart Scholars programme.
I like having a give-and-take sort of relationship with the university. I’ve done some mentoring for the Skoll Centre and sometimes speak at careers and other events. And the interaction with interns is always valuable: we provide work experience; they bring fresh ideas and ways to raise our profile.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Most of the team actually works remotely. But we started out in London and moved to Oxford in order to join the Oxford Foundry’s L.E.V8 accelerator programme. One downside is that, prior to COVID, there was a lot of travel back and forth to London. But publishers are becoming increasingly aware of the downsides of having a London-centric publishing industry. It doesn’t allow for a diverse workforce, in that you have to be able to afford to live in London unwaged or low-paid while you enter the industry. Some of the bigger houses are setting up local offices in other regions to try to combat this, so that pattern of always having to come into London might change in the future.
We feel that Oxford is a really productive space for us. We stayed here after the programme ended because it’s a lovely space to work in; it’s a vibrant atmosphere; there are lots of networks and sources of support to tap into.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
To the Oxford Foundry! It depends on what resources they’re looking for, but OxFo is great for networks, connections, practical start-up advice, classes, talks and events. It is a fantastic space if you’re thinking about nurturing an idea, even if you’re really early-stage, and a wonderful, friendly place to receive support, both business and pastoral.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
What resources would you recommend for other women?
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Any last words of advice?
I’m trying to decide between ‘do what I did’ and ‘do the exact opposite of what I did’. What I did was barely any research; I just jumped right in because I was really enthusiastic, and the enthusiasm got me through. As I said, there can be some strength in approaching an industry with fresh eyes. But all the advice I’ve received is to not do that, but instead do copious amounts of research before you start. So my suggestion would be: if you are passionate about an idea, then put whatever measures you need in place. So for someone who feels more confident with a highly-researched plan, do that. If you just want to get going, then get going.
But above all, it hinges on passion. If you are in any way thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is for me; maybe I just want a proper job’, then you will find it really tough. There’s a lot of uncertainty, long hours, difficult days. You have to really, really want it, but it’s an absolute privilege if you can make it work. For me, when I read some of the joyful responses to our books on social media from parents of children who’ve recognised themselves in a story for the first time, it makes everything worthwhile.