Angela Hobbs is CEO of Wilkinson Hall, a consultancy business based in Oxford. She has also recently launched her new venture, CarriMe, a business aimed at assisting women entrepreneurs and their start-ups, helping them to navigate the many obstacles for women in business, including health and well-being in ‘midlife’. Angela also works for the University of Oxford as a Resident Innovation Coach, and is a mentor on both the Santander Women Business Leaders’ Mentoring Programme and Aspire for Equality programme.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
At the start of my career, I worked for a large corporate company in London. When I got married and started to grow my family, I quickly discovered through maternity leave the lack of opportunities for flexible working in the early 1990s. Although the UK introduced its first maternity leave legislation through the Employment Protection Act 1975, something which was extended further in 1980, for the first 15 years, only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods of employment. It was only in 1993 when all working women were covered by legislation, and then it’s a jump to 2003 when paid statutory paternity leave began to be introduced for male employees. Taking all of this into account, I was struggling to find a way to drive my career, be a mum and continue to use my own experience and knowledge without being held back. Through speaking to many inspirational people who simply said, ‘do it yourself!’, I took this advice and began to find my own way to navigate these barriers. I was at a stage where I didn’t feel like I had a choice but to become an entrepreneur and do my own thing – you might say that I didn’t choose to become an entrepreneur, but entrepreneurship chose me!
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s about seeing a problem and wanting to solve it, except that your mission to solve that problem becomes bigger than anything else you want to do. You don’t have a choice whether to solve it or not, you just have this drive to make it happen. It also means being driven enough to contribute to solving this problem at any level. The ability to recognise that not everyone will run huge companies but being excited to move forward with any kind of solution is really what entrepreneurship is about.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I think the confidence in my idea came mainly from having experience in the field. When I first started out, I was fortunate to have large corporate companies as clients. Looking back though, I didn’t know enough about what I was doing, so had to learn on the job. Learning in real time really showed me how little help there was out there for women in business, and so looking back and reflecting on how frustrating the slow pace of change was – and still is, as last year the Financial Times reported that ‘eliminating the gender pay gap in FTSE 100 companies will take almost 200 years at the current rate of progress’ – I am and was in a great position to help businesses and individuals take advantage of all of the resources out there.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, always being open to collaboration and communication – I think this can be characterised as resilience and being constantly hungry to find out more. Another key skill that I think is crucial is an ability to recognise when it’s appropriate to change direction. Focusing on the process of learning rather than becoming attached to ideas and clinging on to them is important. Finally, I think a successful entrepreneur needs to have a complete understanding of both the market and their product. There has to be strong relationship between the two to succeed, alongside a good understanding of what you’re trying to do.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite part of being an entrepreneur comes from the people I meet – it is a real privilege and joy to listen and hear the stories of other business leaders. This is what inspires me to continue moving forward. Having the opportunity to make a positive impact by sharing resources and knowledge with people who may not have previously had access to them drives change for the women who receive this help and for the UK economy. Being exposed to so many innovative people is really valuable to me.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A whole range of inspirational women inspire me. The tenacity of those leaders whose mission is clearly greater to them than any financial goal continually inspire me to strive forward. In particular, Alison Rose (CEO of NatWest) and Anne Boden (CEO of Starling Bank) are great role models for demonstrating how recognising different barriers that exist for women in the workplace can really inform the work you do. I greatly admire Helena Ann Kennedy who is a Scottish barrister, broadcaster, and Labour member of the House of Lords. She served as Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford from 2011 to 2018 – another example of the wonderful opportunities we have in Oxford. I first heard her speak at The Oxford Martin School lecture for International Women’s Day. I am also a keen reader – and books are a great place for inspiration – so try Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and Pratima Rao Gluckman who wrote Nevertheless She Persisted, both true stories of women leaders in tech.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d love to ask them about their journeys, and what barriers they encountered. I’m sure they would have some fantastic tips for female entrepreneurs who are just starting out too. I think it would also be really interesting to get their perspective on where they think we’re at now with women’s involvement with business and where they think this will head next.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Last year, I was a mentor for the Santander Women in Business program. My mentee, Dawn Dines, founder of SOS Global, was hugely inspirational. She clearly had the energy, passion, knowledge and commitment to fulfil her goals, but her one gap was how to move her excellent ideas into a more tangible offering in a business environment. Through working with Dawn on the program, we were able to help with funding, business structures and ensuring that she was building a good team around her. Eight months on, she has secured National Lottery funding and actively delivering on the aims of her business. Dawn is a real success story and helping her was definitely a satisfying moment in my career – she was a person who was so capable but just needed the right tools to achieve her goals and we were able to help her with that.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to always ensure you have the right people around you. Listening carefully and understanding what people and customers want is also very important. The process of creating a start-up goes through several different stages: it’s very easy to see the excitement and energy at the beginning and then the end goal where the business is up and running. What isn’t often visualised is the bit in between. This is where you have to take the rose-tinted glasses off and learn to be a business, build a team, and constantly take things forward. The key thing is to have not only people around you – entrepreneurship can be lonely – but also to have lots of different people, those who aren’t the same as you and can instead challenge your assumptions and ideas.
How have you funded your ideas?
Initially, I funded my idea through an opportunity from Research England. They were running a specific project called ‘Impacting Business by Design’. They were seeking applications from founders who wanted to create something which solved a problem, focusing on design, implementation, iteration and development. When applying for such things, though, never assume that your audience has a full understanding of your area. My application was based on the barriers women face with their physical and mental health – an area which some members of the audience knew very little about! Make sure you go back to basics, so the audience is on the same page.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
I looked at several different funding routes, including Innovate UK. Other things included speaking specifically to female-led investment companies, and they always provided useful and positive advice. My key tip would be to ensure that you spend time looking at what investors invest in. Do your research to find the right people – this will increase your chances of success.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford really is, in my eyes, one of the best places to be an entrepreneur. We have such a vibrant community, with amazing access to knowledge, information and opportunities. In the early stages of my start-up, I attended several lectures at The Martin School [University of Oxford, Social Sciences Division]. I was astounded by them and felt really privileged – I listened to some fascinating people, for free, and also met others in the audience who were on a similar path.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would firstly start by questioning them all about their idea: what they wanted to solve, what their mission was, where they were at on their journey, and what their story was. Every entrepreneur needs an authentic story! There are lots of resources in Oxford: the university Start-up Incubator, the Enterprising Oxford IDEA scheme and OxLEP are great places to start.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
One particular obstacle I have come across is gender fatigue – this is the attitude in some organisations where they think the job, in terms of gender equality in the workplace, is done. They’ll quote figures, percentages and stats as if no more work is needed. The COVID pandemic has added more barriers for women in business, with increased responsibilities in social care away from the workplace. I think the main thing we can all do is to keep the conversation alive and continually draw attention to these issues. And it’s not just women who face such hurdles in the workplace, there are many groups across society who struggle. Taking the facts and data available to continue developing this conversation is really important.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
There are lots of resources out there to help in the early days of a start-up: the Strategyzer website is a great place to gather key bits of data and build a strong foundation to work from. Particularly though, The Lean Canvas is a 1-page business plan template created by Ash Maurya that helps you deconstruct your idea into its key assumptions. It replaces elaborate business plans with a single page business model, which enables people to capture ideas succinctly and challenge their assumptions. It offers a simple way to begin piecing together your business without filling out a daunting report. I’d also really recommend the university’s Incubator programme which I’m working on. We’re currently running a 12 week course which takes each start-up on a journey: from establishing your USP and the problem you want to solve, to customer relations, the market, collecting metrics and eventually preparing for launch, we cover it all.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
It would be great to have more networking events to bring people together, hearing stories from a range of people and industries. Listening to stories and sharing tips and ideas is so useful, and often makes you realise that there isn’t such a thing as a silly question because everyone has been through it. The university definitely has the capacity to create these collaborative spaces so I would love to see more of this.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Oxford is a wonderful place to meet like-minded people, so build a strong network and don’t go it alone – there’s so much more energy and motion to be gained from working together. Find out as much as you can about your customers, and develop solutions that those customers really want. Always remember to celebrate the wins, as often as possible!
Any last words of advice?
Being an entrepreneur is such hard work, it’s more of a total commitment than a job. But it can be the most energising, positive experience. You need to have energy, passion and be innovative, with a real desire to start solving something. If you wake up in the morning and cannot wait to start searching for solutions to problems, you can forge a fantastic career.