Becky Fishman is an independent communications consultant, specialising in ventures and SMEs. Her main goal is to help businesses and individuals set solid foundations for their companies, tell their stories and connect with their audiences through strategic marketing and comms. Formerly working at the Oxford Foundry, Becky is now engaged in a variety of innovation-focused projects, including the role of Community Lead for the Oxford IDEA initiative, focused on increasing diversity in enterprise activities.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs
I grew up in London, and came up to Oxford to get my Modern Languages degree, then did a Postgraduate diploma in Publishing Studies. I started my career working in international sales for traditional academic publishing companies in Oxford and New York. I then worked for some smaller organisations in London, focusing on digital content. My twin passions are words and people – writing and exploring relationships has driven my career in marketing, communications and community partnerships. These transferable skills have allowed me to work across a range of sectors and businesses, from large multinationals to smaller agencies and even a workers’ cooperative. My experience working with venture-backed start-ups led to my husband and I launching our own ed-tech start-up in 2013, focused on 3D printing and education. Through going on a couple of commercial accelerator programmes, I was immersed into the start-up world and have enjoyed working with small, agile businesses ever since.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship to me is an instinct which goes beyond wanting to grow a profitable business – it’s a mindset and approach which can be applied to anything you set out to achieve. I’ve often heard it described as this visceral urge to chase down a dream, and although that may sound lofty, there is some truth in that. One of the things that characterises many of the entrepreneurs that I’ve met is a desire to make a difference, have an impact, and change lives through addressing inequalities.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Tenacity is definitely a core skill – not giving up at the first hurdle is important, and recognising that there will be setbacks along the way but still maintaining the belief in your idea and having dogged determination is key. I think creativity is also a top skill, one that doesn’t just apply to what you’re creating through your business but also as something that characterises your whole approach. Solving problems creatively and harnessing the resources you have at your disposal is another attribute of a successful entrepreneur. Finally, having the ability to adapt is hugely important. The early stages of developing a business are the ones I love the most, and this really stood out to me in my time at the Oxford Foundry. This adaptability at the beginning, where everything is unformed, and being willing to work well beyond your official remit or role, is really key. Getting stuck in and facing challenges head on is an attribute of a successful entrepreneur.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Although I don’t currently think of myself as an entrepreneur, my favourite thing about working with entrepreneurs is seeing the speed at which things can happen. There are so many talented people in Oxford, and this, combined with the great opportunities, networks and resources here, means that projects soon start to fly.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Professor Sarah Gilbert, who led the development of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, and who is also a co-founder of Oxford spin-out Vaccitech, is very inspirational to me. She is an amazing individual who has handled this pandemic and her work with such calmness, determination and humility.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’m really interested in the human stuff. This last year has been so intense for Professor Gilbert and her team, and they must have been through such highs and lows, particularly with the vaccine rollout, and the stop/start safety concerns and distribution challenges – I’d like to know how she stays calm and grounded, and what she does to release tension!
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
In the early 2000s, I worked for a small but disruptive science publisher, where we were challenging some of the big industry names. My role was to build support from the universities and institutions who could sign up to our new model of open access publishing. I signed all ten sites of the University of California, and the World Health Organisation. It really proved to me that a small, young, up-start company could challenge and change the status quo. With the right people on board, and grass roots support, we can change systems for the better. Another highlight for me was working with so many impressive ventures on the Elevate Accelerator Programme at the Foundry. I saw so much personal and commercial growth which was a real privilege.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
When my husband and I were in the early days of our start-up, we experienced some tough times. There were some great experiences too – we won pitch contests and got our first paying clients. But we did have quite a few knock backs, and lots of dead ends in terms of funding. We had a young family, and I was working a part time job alongside trying to develop our start-up. It can take more time and money than you think to build and launch a venture, and it can lead to a stressful home life. We eventually had to accept that there wasn’t a strong enough market for our idea. I’m still so glad that we did it though, and it was really helpful to draw on these experiences later on. All experience is valuable.
How have you funded your ideas?
We considered doing it on a bootstrap for a bit, but that was painful! We managed to get onto some commercial accelerator programmes where funding was attached. Bethnal Green Ventures offered funding support for social enterprises. We also qualified to join a cohort in the Wayra UK (Telefónica) accelerator, which was an amazing six month programme, consisting of intensive education and bootcamp-like training. These opportunities came with funding, which allowed us to focus on developing the business.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We were finalists in the Virgin Pitch to Rich contest, and also at the Pitch at the Palace contest in 2015. Both were great experiences – Sir Richard Branson loved our idea, so that was fun!
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
It’s just a fantastic ecosystem, both in and beyond the university. You are always making new and interesting connections, and networking with so many different people. This can also make it difficult or overwhelming to navigate because it is so broad and so big, but really it is brilliant.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There are so many: Enterprising Oxford, the Oxford Hub, the Foundry, the Entrepreneurship Centre and the Skoll Centre at SBS are great places to start. In particular, the Enterprising Oxford website includes a map which shows opportunities for entrepreneurs at every level, from the early stages of an idea right up to the launch of a start-up. It’s a really good resource map which shows where you can plug in and what you can get access to.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Again, although I’m not currently an entrepreneur, I have had a lot of experience as a woman in the workplace. I grew up as quite a confident and outspoken person, but I soon noticed in my professional life that I was becoming quieter around certain types of colleagues. I didn’t have the innate elbows-out, brusque and brutal approach that some people around me had, and I was made to feel that I was therefore somehow deficient – I now know better! I also remember a few meetings where the men would talk over me or attempt to ignore or marginalise me if I was the only woman in the room. In terms of overcoming these things, I think speaking up and sharing experiences is key. But this has to be more than just having a moan over a cup of tea – we need to find ways to actively support one another in business, developing peer-to-peer support. And we have to include men in this, and give them some practical ways to be conscious supporters and allies too.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
There are quite a few I could recommend. The MPLS-supported RisingWise programme, the skills workshops and Elevate programme from the Oxford Foundry, as well as the new initiative from Enterprising Oxford, IDEA Women. This focuses on sharing good practise, research, and opportunities, and provides a space for people to ask for help, and provide support to others. Peer support is so important.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Listen, give them experiences and opportunities, show them that entrepreneurship is a viable career pathway, and it’s for all disciplines – including Humanities! As a modern languages undergrad in the 90s, I didn’t even consider that I could be an entrepreneur, or that that pathway or skills were an option. It seemed remote and closed off to me, a very senior and male world. I think that’s changing, and initiatives like IDEA are looking to accelerate that change. I’m excited to see what we can collectively achieve for women and other under-represented groups in this area.
Any last words of advice?
My main piece of advice is to continually cultivate your network and relationships. Take the time to truly connect, it really is so valuable. Switching to consultancy during the pandemic has shown me the value of my professional network in action. Contacts have come through for me and reached out with work opportunities. So, join groups, attend skills workshops, experience what it’s like to collaborate with others. Take advantage of all of these great programmes to develop your problem-solving skills and to make it clear why your idea is unique.