Ashley is a co-founder of The Wonky Food Company, which makes products from imperfect and surplus fruit and veg. It launched is range of relishes into the Midcounties Co-op in 2018 and now also supplies Ocado as well as a growing network of independent delis, farm shops, butchers, as well as cafes and restaurants. It also sells via its online shop at www.wonkyfoodco.com. The business has a small office based on the Blenheim Palace estate and partners with farmers to source, manufacture and distribute its products.
Ashley has an eclectic background. As an English student she knew journalism was her passion and spent eight years of her life in journalism and broadcasting, working for the likes of the BBC and Sky. However, she always had a desire to be her own boss and run her own business. She first got an opportunity to pursue this when she moved to the Republic of Ireland. A stay that was meant to last six months ended up lasting six years when she started her own stationery company. An idea that came to her after discovering the ROI had no companies of the kind currently and being forced to ask her mother to send cards to the ROI so that she could sign them and send them on to her friends for their birthdays.
She paused her entrepreneurial career while having children but found that conducting interviews for The Sunday Times provided her with plenty of opportunity to learn from entrepreneurs and became more inspired to start her own business again. Then came the idea for The Wonky Food Co, which she co-founded with her brother.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
My brother and I had always talked about starting a business together and used to have regular “beer-storming” sessions in the pub trying to find that lightbulb moment. Wonky felt like the right idea at the right time, and meets a growing consumer demand for more ethical, sustainably-sourced products.
I’ve always believed that business has a huge role to play in tackling some of the world’s problems (in our case, food waste). I think we’re living in an exciting time with a growing number of social enterprises and mission-driven businesses proving that business can be a force for good.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Being an entrepreneur is about having independence of spirit. You often have to face challenges that can seem overwhelming but need to remain ambitious in the face of them. It is interesting and varied and not your average 9-5 day job. It is about taking real joy in the thing you have created and gaining skills that can be applicable to many things in your life.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
My co-founder and I both had a definite gut feeling about the business. We had discussed previous startup ideas in the past and quickly discovered the logistics did not work but the idea for The Wonky Food Co felt like a lightbulb moment. Combatting food waste was an issue we were passionate about and we developed the idea well, confident from the beginning that it had legs.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Persistence and perseverance really do have to be a key skills. There are so many opportunities, crossings, and junctions in your entrepreneurial career where you could easily give up and only perseverance will stop you from giving up.
Resilience; you have to be strong in all sorts of ways. It is very difficult to balance the demand of a startup with all the other aspects of your life, something Ashley has found to be particularly true for herself as an older entrepreneur with more commitments.
Self-belief – different from arrogance or ego. Constantly doubting yourself and falling into the trap of imposter syndrome will make it far more difficult for entrepreneurs starting their businesses. Confidence in yourself and your business will help you find the drive to overcome challenges.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Much of entrepreneurship’s draw for me is the freedom it allows. I really enjoys being my own boss and managing my own time (even if sometimes it can feel like the business runs me!). The other great thing about being an entrepreneur is the pride you have in your business; it is no mean feat to create something and I can still describe the excitement we felt when we first saw our products on the shelves.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
Recently, I was inspired by a talk in Oxford’s Saïd Business School by Paul Polman, the ex-chief executive of Unilever, a huge global conglomerate where he put sustainability front and centre of everything he did.
The first entrepreneurial book I read was by Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, and it is still in my office today. I found her very inspiring due to the fact that she was a woman in business and because of her clear mission to focus on sustainability and ethical credentials in her brand.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would have asked what sacrifices Anita had felt she’d made in starting and growing the business. I would really enjoy hearing an honest appraisal of the negative sides of starting a business from a successful entrepreneur, particularly a successful female entrepreneur. I would then ask whether Anita considered those sacrifices to be worth it.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I suffer from being a thinker and not a doer. I like to plan and plan and this sometimes means I don’t always move as quickly as I should do. An early mistake we made at The Wonky Food Company was to not share our idea and get feedback from other entrepreneurs earlier; a mistake we quickly rectified when we joined an accelerator and found speaking to other startups really motivating.
How have you funded your ideas?
So far, The Wonky Food Co have chosen not to take investment (aiming to avoid debt and giving away equity too early) and have bootstrapped almost everything. Early on we won a local competition that gave us enough money to pay for some professional branding.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
I was a semi-finalist in Enterprise Nation’s female entrepreneur award. The Wonky Food Company has also featured for two years in a row as one of the Thames Valley’s ‘50 Game Changers’
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford is a great place for entrepreneurship as it has a really strong and very supportive business eco-system. There are many fantastic and active networks that you can get involved in. I am also part of the team running the eScalate programme, a joint venture between OxLEP and OSEP delivering support to social enterprises, charities and impact businesses.
The downside of Oxford is that it doesn’t have the vibrancy of London for the food and drink sector; Oxford could do more to join up and support each other. I also hope that there will be more cooperation and collaboration between the universities and businesses in the area. Overall, however, it is an exciting place to be.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I am hoping to see a new wave of start-ups post-covid and has been having many discussions about what can be done in Oxford to help these new businesses. I highly recommend seeking support from OxLEP, to gain one-to-one support and access to potential networks. In a more general way, I found reading books about productivity, improving your work flow and autobiographies on how other entrepreneurs became successful to be highly motivating and useful. Clarity, focus, motivation, and direction can be some of the most important things you have to cultivate as a new entrepreneur.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I think that women generally have more responsibilities than men (although this is beginning to change) and that can make it more difficult, although not impossible as I started her first business when I had my first baby.
I have noticed that female entrepreneurs – for whatever reason – tend to suffer from imposter syndrome more than men. I would love to be able to provide a simple way to overcome this but I believe it is more likely to resolve as female entrepreneurs become more common and visible. I remember listening to a radio interview where a female entrepreneur was recruiting but received no female applicants. The entrepreneur found all the men who had applied to not be qualified so she advertised the job opportunity again, this time with the salary significantly reduced, and received many applications from women (whom she hired and gave the salary originally advertised). I consider this to be typical of the way women can undervalue themselves and thus encourages self-belief and confidence amongst women entrepreneurs.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I recommend that women who want to be entrepreneurs should go into it with open eyes, fully aware that it is not the easiest path to earn a living but can be the more interesting and rewarding one. More than anything, you should consider what being an entrepreneur means to you. Entrepreneurial success doesn’t have to only mean financial success. It could be about achieving more freedom or personal fulfillment. It is important to be clear about your personal goals and values from the start. I also believe that we should embrace the fact that we are living longer lives. Maybe starting your entrepreneurial journey in your twenties and thirties is not right for you. The number of women starting their first business in their fifties and sixties is increasing and this is something to be celebrated.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Networking! I really would emphasise how invaluable having a network of other women, formally or informally, can be. It is important to connect with people that are in a similar situation to you who you can share knowledge with and take problems to.
Any last words of advice?
I feel very lucky to be doing something I want to and enjoy being part of a movement that is doing business differently. While the current climate may appear to be all doom and gloom, it is more important than ever before for entrepreneurs to seize the opportunities to use business as a force for positive social and environmental change.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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