Swirlit

Angie Lang is a dentist and entrepreneur, who works in the field of oral health. She holds degrees in Nuclear Medicine, Dental Surgery and Health Law from the University of Sydney, and recently completed a postgraduate degree in Strategy and Innovation at Oxford University. In 2007, she founded the beverage company, Swirlit, with the aim to provide alternatives to sugary and acidic drinks with a focus on oral health.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I started out as an academic. I did nuclear medicine as my first degree and that opened up my eyes to so many new ideas and concepts. But I always had a knack for seeing the opportunities to apply that knowledge somewhere else to create a new idea. So then when I went on to do dental surgery, I started to see the connections between dentistry and nuclear medicine. I started a little book of my ideas. Some of them seem really crazy. I’ve always seen connections between things and wanted to try new things. I have a really exploratory attitude to life. I’m happy to explore on my own until it’s an idea worth sharing. A lot of the early concepts seem like madness… I really wanted to apply that academic knowledge in a new way that was my own.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Initially, an entrepreneurial endeavour can seem quite selfish, in a way, because you’re wanting to realise a dream of yours. If you have a crazy idea or a dream and you communicate that to most people, they might think it’s crazy or that it seems like really hard work. But you’ve got to believe in that idea enough to get your first followers. While it feels like you’re trying to fulfil your own desires, the underlying thing to keep in mind when starting an entrepreneurial endeavour is that it has to mean something to other people. It’s a dream with a purpose and hopefully something that means something to you, but also to other people as well.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I would say perseverance, inspiration (you’ve got to see inspiration in everything) and being open. Whether that be open to being wrong, open to changing your ideas, open to all possibilities.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
When you realise that what you’ve done is actually what you intended to do. You’ve set out on a path to build something or make something. When you can actually hold it in your hands that’s really satisfying. Even the times when things are difficult, it’s your baby. You’ve created an idea and you’ve put it into the world. That’s a really satisfying thing. It can carry you further. It can carry you through challenging times because you’ve got that to hold onto. There’s so many points of satisfaction: creating something, getting people to believe in your idea, getting people to buy your idea, having your idea recognised as actually fulfilling a purpose or improving someone’s life.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’ve actually been fortunate enough to meet one of the people that I really look up to, Richard Branson. Twice I was invited to Change-Makers, Rule-Breakers, which is his Think Tank that he does a couple times a year in his home. You get to spend five days him with him. And so there were lots of opportunities for conversations with him. The reason I really admire Richard Branson is because he’s done and tried lots of things. He’s failed at lots of things to, but that doesn’t stop him. He keeps on creating new things. We were there the day after Virgin Galactic had its first successful flight. We were there to have a conversation with him about it, which was a super exciting and emotional time for him. He mentioned that when he registered the name Virgin Galactic in the 80s, knowing that he was going to go to space one day, he also registered the name Virgin Intergalactic because he was already seeing the next step. Not only would we go out to space, we’d also be travelling between planets one day. That’s the kind of thinking I like. Looking ahead. While you have to focus on what you’re doing right now, keeping an idea on the long-game is key.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
We had a few setbacks, predominantly in the manufacturing process because we use a very specialised manufacturing process. There was a lot of trial and error. There were times when we had a production run that didn’t go to plan. That’s always a set-back. When timelines don’t go to plan. Or if you’ve got a big buyers meeting and that gets cancelled. With COVID, we had export plans that were put on hold. That threw a big spanner in the works with distribution as well. So it does pose lots of challenges along the way. At the same you’ve got to have a plan for how you’re going to move through it. Sometimes you have to just take a pause. I always thought that there was nothing we couldn’t do if we set our mind to it. But we’re still in the pretty early stages. When funds run low, when the business world-over is affected, there’s no harm in taking a pause and figuring out what your next move is and innovative new ways to do business, not just innovate new products.

How have you funded your ideas?
In the last couple of years we’ve had investors and we’re just about to go through another capital raise. Up until 2017, I self-funded. I sold my dental practice, I sold my home and put everything into the business. Once COVID hit, we had to pause our capital raise. So my husband and I self-funded for the last year as well. Ultimately, I’ve got a responsibility to my shareholders. I can’t just let things settle down and not have any kind of activity until we get our next round of funding. We’re invested.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
In Australia, the New South Wales Government has the minimal viable product (MVP) grant. We got that as well as the R&D grant. The R&D grant recognises research and development in new novel areas. That was an assistance to us, as well as the recognition. While I was at Oxford, I was in the first cohort of the Oxford Foundry. That was a great experience. I wish we were based in Oxford to be able to truly make the most of those resources. Pre-Covid, I was invited to speak at the Global Bottled Water conference in Dubai. We were recognised as being the world’s first functional water with an oral health benefit. That was recognition I was quite pleased with.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The Oxford Foundry is amazing and even though we were the first cohort to go through, and I think the subsequent cohorts definitely will be able to take advantage of the improvements in access to network. Having studied at the Saïd business school, the cohort I went through with in studying strategy and innovation, they were amazing. Even though they were coming from so many different industries, from so many different countries, there are always lessons to be learned through conversations with people. There’s something about being in Oxford, whether you’re at a college dinner, or you’re in the library, and you just share these ideas and you get these pearls of wisdom. In that environment ideas thrive really well.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I’ve been really lucky. I have been surrounded by really supportive men. The majority of my investors are male. I’ve been really well supported by all the organisations I’ve dealt with. I wouldn’t say I’ve had any specific challenges because I’m a woman, which I’m grateful for because I know it is something that so many women face. Something that we did notice at the Oxford Foundry, having gone through as the first Elevate Women cohort, is that there was some disparity as to how it was run in comparison with the first cohort, which was all male. They were given a lot of resources, prizes and funding opportunities. I know that they corrected that now. They’re a lot more inclusive with the cohort. They don’t run separate ones. That was probably one thing I’ve noticed.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
There’s one called Business Chicks, which has a big presence in Australia and US. There are a few in Australia, Angel Investor groups that are female-led. There definitely are resources out there. It would be great to be in a world where we don’t have to talk about male / female entrepreneurs, just people with ideas. It’s a long way to go before we’re there yet.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
With regards to the Foundry, because I haven’t been there for two years, I can’t say exactly what’s going on there. They have the most amazing resources, such fantastic mentors. It would be just great if the female-led ventures were given the same support as the other ventures. I’m pretty sure they have corrected that now. Going through business, there was probably about 35% females to majority male. Everyone had equal access to all of the resources. Oxford does it pretty well to be honest.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Trust your ideas. Talk about your ideas as well. I kept my ideas so close to myself because I was nervous that if I were to put it out there someone would jump on the idea and beat me to it. But doing that, you don’t give your idea life. When you talk about it, you create an energy and momentum with your idea. Sharing your idea with other people helps you to challenge your thinking and refine your ideas. As long as you take a little step every day, they’ll be some steps back. But if you keep taking a step forwards, you’ll see where it goes.

Any last words of advice?
Don’t doubt yourself! There isn’t a switch that will make you entrepreneurial. There are moments of self-doubt, especially if you’re doing it on your own to start with, if you don’t have a team. You can lose so much valuable time. Trust your instinct and see where it goes.

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