Carrie Lomas runs two ‘purpose with profit’ companies, one in EdTech (educational technology) and the other in sustainability for retail, which connects consumers to their buying choices. The EdTech enterprise, EYFSHome, provides online lessons to young children who are at home during the coronavirus pandemic. There is a team of nine, of which Carrie is the CEO. Thanks to a government grant, EYFSHome has been able to offer this free of charge during lockdown; providing a daily programme of educational and entertaining activities for the children it supports, the parents don’t need to search for suitable materials & for nurseries & childminders; we take the leg work out of planning. Meanwhile, the sustainability for retail company is called Brand Conscience, which provides a universal scoring & labelling system enabling consumers easily to compare the sustainability of their clothes. Carrie terms both businesses ‘purpose with profit’ in that they both seek to bring forward a socially-motivated aim; and believes that does not exclude being able to make a profit. The focus is conscious capitalism, not just do not harm, actually make better. For Brand Conscience the belief is that by giving consumers easily-accessible information about the sustainability of their clothes, better buying habits will be encouraged and as people buy more of these products the supply chain will move faster towards a circular, sustainable economy. Brand Conscience created a Social Charter for doing good that underpins the company culture: ‘do we care enough to save humankind?’
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Although I now run two startups, for my career (aside from the usual part time jobs to get through school and university) I have worked in just two technology corporations: Intel and IBM. I learnt to code at eleven, did a technology focused degree, and then started at Intel at 22, two weeks after my finals. I adored working at Intel, and stayed there for twenty-four years. I got to travel the world – I’ve been to 46 countries – as well as making great friends. I started working in the sales organisation, and then I moved more into e-business and IT. I lead a team in EMEA that set up the e-commerce platform in 1998. We were part of a global organisation that was led by an amazing woman. I then led a team we used to call ‘skunk-works’, because we were operating outside of enterprise on projects that protocols such as Rosetta hadn’t yet got to but were crucial for Intel. I moved back to sales because I missed working directly with clients and closing deals that you knew would improve outcomes and were win-win. Most of my career was working with Intel not to do with PCs but with embedded technologies, which was really great because there as such latitude in what we were doing. I could be really creative and also got to lead in some close-knit high performing teams. After 24 years I moved on for a new challenge as I was fascinated by AI and Intel hadn’t yet move into this area. I joined IBM where I was effectively running an artificial intelligence ‘startup’ within the company as part of a small team of 500 across the EU. That was really cool too, but eventually AI(Watson) became mainstream and merged with the rest of the company, losing what I came into it for. The two GMs that I worked for both left IBM and I found myself running a Cognitive Solutions Practise not a P & L.
That brings me on to why I decided to become an entrepreneur. My son went down with glandular fever, although the docs didn’t know that that’s what it was at the start. I looked after him for six months as he slept a lot and was horribly poorly and in and out of school, and then I got it myself! That took the majority of a year, but I spent the time reading whilst I was looking after him, thinking about what I wanted to do next. I’d been reading a lot about sustainability, and how fast fashion is a dirty industry and we need to change, but it struck me that when you choose clothes you actually have no idea whether they are sustainable, even if it’s from a company that advertises about being green. One product may be but another not – all clothes are not made equal. I had an ‘a-ha’ moment and set up a business around sustainability in retail.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
People think that entrepreneurship is just about running a business, but it’s actually much more than that. It’s about innovating something new that changes existing models and power structures. It’s about looking at dynamics and doing something innovative with these. It’s about gathering and garnering people to make a change. Systems thinking is an even greater more powerful way to innovate, changing the whole paradigm, business model, structures, power and interactions leading to new value
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
With Brand Conscience, there was a really clear ‘yes!’ moment, actually. It was when my son was ill with glandular fever, and he asked for some Bran Flakes. I looked at the Bran Flakes and I saw the nutrition scores were three yellow, one green. These indicate fat, saturates, sugar and salt and I realised that without even knowing it, my son had been asking for some sugar and salt – not consciously, but his body must have needed it. And then the idea struck me; I’d been able to notice that, I’d been able to inform my son’s nutritional decision, because of the traffic-light system on the front of the food packets. This kind of fused with all the reading I’d been doing about sustainability, and the idea of creating labels that enable consumers to compare the sustainability of their clothes – Brand Conscience – was born.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, you need to be able to bounce: entrepreneurs always get loads of rejection. You need to be able to bounce and bounce higher: you need to learn how to grow from the experience. I’ve definitely had moments of having to do it myself, it’s something you just can’t get around if you want to be an entrepreneur.
Secondly, and it’s related, you need to be able to pivot – to go down a different route if an idea that you had isn’t working in quite the way you thought it would. If going down Route A seems impossible, then it’s up to you to find Route B, which might actually lead you to the solution just as easily. Use others, experts and advisors to ideate and create and test. You can innovate alone but its far more likely to be successful with others input, ideas and experience.
Finally, it’s important to be authentic and trustworthy. This is just as true in the rest of life as an entrepreneurship, but it’s particularly important as an entrepreneur because you’re going to need people to help you, and people are only going to want to work with you if you are transparent, open and you: you can then surround yourself with great people.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love bringing together an amazing team that then does even more amazing things – a really great team can be so much more than the sum of its parts. Particularly when there are people on the team who didn’t believe in their abilities at the start of the project, I think that being able to watch someone do so much more than they would have believed themselves capable of is such a rewarding process. So it’s being a leader, being creative and getting to see the outcome of this leadership and creativity.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many – it’s impossible to choose! I’d start really traditional and go for my parents; they’ve informed so much of what I see as important today. My mother worked for the government at sixteen years old and coded with punch cards, and then worked part time while having a young family. She then retrained in Early Years education and ran a non-profit nursery. She was an amazing volunteer, winning the Mayor’s Award. My father was Sales Director for Medium Enterprise for most of his career, then in his 50s set up and ran his own company with a friend from his teens, where he developed and held patents. Going into my job at Intel, which was to do with tech (I was also working in sales), you can really see how both of them influenced me. I volunteer in schools and camps in STEM and focus on enabling girls to do sport/trips/ camps so they can realise their potential. I also feel so inspired by so many companies, organisations and individuals outside of my family. I adore Paul Polman, who was the CEO of Unilever for more than ten years and is now Chair of Said Business School and CEO of Imagine, and also Andy Grove, who was the third employee and then the third CEO of Intel. There are also female leaders who I look up to a lot. A good recent example of a young leader is Grace Beverly, who graduated from Oxford recently, did an Internship at IBM and is now doing amazing things in the sustainable fashion industry through her brand, TALA. She is unafraid.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I chose so many that this might be hard! My parents, thankfully, are still alive, so I can still discuss with them. I’d talk about how some of the things they taught me very early on, throughout my childhood, have remained so important to me throughout my career so far. Work-life is a great topic. For example, people talk about a work-life balance, but with my parents it was always more of a work-life blend, so we’d have my father’s clients over for dinner. Even as children, we always knew that when they were there, we’d have to be on our best behaviour! Also, small children from my mother’s nursery would be at our house as their parents were running v late.. . These people and behaviour-focused nuances have been important lessons throughout my career. At Intel, in Sales you worked from home when not in a client meeting, even in Ebiz/IT we pioneered two days a week at home in 2001 (something which has become a reality for far more people because of the pandemic), and this was great for me because I’ve never believed in stop and start (though I do believe in being present and mindful) ; everything’s always been a blend. Another example is my parents used to throw company parties at our house when I was young. My parents both really care about people and this is the most important thing that I’d want to talk about; the importance of cultivating caring, even loving atmospheres, wherever you work.
I would ask all of the people and companies I admire what their motivation is and what one simple change/recommendation they would give others.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
There have been so many. Some stand out examples; Firstly, we’ve built up a truly diverse team at EYFSHome, and I love that the academic and home backgrounds of everyone I work with are so different. That we’ve created a team with such diverse and different skills makes me proud that together we are disrupting education, moving from worksheets to digital; plan in the moment delivery is incredible. Secondly, we made a book called Bounce Back Jack, which is about teaching kids the importance of resilience. This is such an important lesson that they have to learn so early, because of COVID and the effects of being separated from their friends. The ‘Jack’ of the book is based on Jack Maunder, an English rugby union player who plays scrum-half for Exeter Chiefs. For World Book Day, Jack and some other of the Exeter Chiefs players read the book live for a children’s hospital. Our whole team needed tissues such was the feeling! That was a really proud moment, for sure. With Brand Conscience the scale and potential is enormous which means taking on a fickle world. Both sides Consumers and the brands, retailers and supply chain need to drive change faster towards conscious consumption. Lots of talk and great excitement is there for the sake of people and the planet: more forward momentum and results are needed and we think we can help. My proud moments have been coming second in a Communicating Sustainability Design award. Printing our first labels was a wonderful moment (which meant code was working) and signing and launching our first client (Encore in Cirencester, a preloved Designer shop that also sell on line) but hugely important team and company moment.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Again, loads! I hate that feeling of messing up and thinking ‘what do I do!’ – it takes you right back to being a kid and not having done the homework (not that I ever didn’t do my homework, of course!). I think an example is that one time I said something directly to someone, and it hurt their feelings rather than my intent which was for reflection for change opportunity. I know I am a direct person and that I’m resilient, but not everyone is and absolutely the last thing I’d ever want to do is to hurt someone else’s feelings. I’ve learnt to scale my directness, to make sure I’m using it in a positive way.
How have you funded your ideas?
Two ways; I’ve invested my own money, and we’ve also won three Innovate UK grants, which have a cumulative value of £300,000 across the two start-ups. I won the grant for EYFSHome first, because the coronavirus pandemic made the goals of the enterprise so obviously relevant. In fact, the first time I applied for the grants, EYFSHome won a grant and Brand Conscience did not, which really confirmed to me the immediate need for the project, given the circumstances. Right now, though, there are two Innovate UK grants for EYFSHome, and one for Brand Conscience. I think there’s such a benefit to doing things like this, where part of the money is your own and part of the money comes from grants. It means that you still own the whole business, so you can really do things the way you want to, without having to worry about making returns quickly which can detract from purpose, if profit is the key focus. Grants give breathing and investment space, as well as being personally able to invest. It’s one of the benefits of being a founder at fifty, I suppose!
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
As I just mentioned, both of my ventures have been lucky enough to receive grants from Innovate UK (beware: any grant path is not a panacea, it is heavy on paperwork and deadlines, hoops and small print as is venture capital. The key difference between a grant and VC is no equity is given away too early with a grant, though VC may bring expertise in. Choose wisely).
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The most obvious thing is the Business School. I think that Oxfordshire is a really unique place because of the connections between the creativity and academic knowledge that Oxford does really well, because of the university, and then the infrastructure that surrounds Oxford and Oxfordshire with the hospitals, and industry clusters. So many people come through the university and through the business school to do other things in industry. Mark Preston, who did an EMBA at the Saïd Business School in 2006, and who is a massively influential figure in auto-racing (current World Champion Team Formula E Principal) , springs to mind here, because Oxford has an industry cluster for racing. This means that in Oxford there is a really unusual relationship between academia and creativity on the one hand, and infrastructure and industry on the other, which creates a richness around innovation and entrepreneurship.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There’s a super, basic needs startup book, by Emma Jones at OxLEP, called ‘The Start-Up Kit’. It basically gives you everything you need to start a small business. I would send them the Evolution of New Markets by Paul Geroski which is the other end of the scale an academic case based view of how new markets form. If they are in sustainability, link them to Sustaineers a super supportive forum (in fact the best I have been fortunate enough to be part of): collaborative, cooperative the epitome of solving problems together more easily. I have also sent a bar of (organic) chocolate and Tea Pig calm teabag with a card/note and offer to walk and talk in a peer mentoring session which is hugely valuable – pay it back, forward and sideways – we are stronger together.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I have been extremely fortunate, I have had some incredible managers, leaders, peers, clients and teams in my corporate life (and of course so not so great but all learning experiences). In all chapters I have had mentors and supporters, advocates and sponsors across the world that have pushed me personally to go further and supported and driven my trajectory. I have also faced challenges from being asked to put someone else’s name on my work to being told I remind them of their daughter and why wasn’t I therefore at home. In my new chapter I get to decide who I work with and how. In being an entrepreneur, I strongly consider myself a ‘female founder’. I dislike this idea of pretending like it doesn’t matter, it does, we are under-represented & under-funded with only 3% of venture capital going to female founders. I’m proud to be a woman and founding @50 and I want to make sure others know they can too.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
There is so much being delivered by the Business School. I’d say have a look at the Oxford Foundry, and also try the resources offered by the Business School and the university to the greatest extent you can. There are loads of podcasts, for example, that you can listen to on the Saïd Business school website. Those are great because it gives you an alternative perspective. Webinars, online meet ups, panels, papers even consider hiring an intern, (contact the Careers centre for this). Professor Sue Dopson has been running a series focused on Women in Leadership that is worth watching/listening to.& do a short course such as Women in Leadership.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I would strongly suggest that universities, and the University of Oxford in particular, might want to think about creating more grants, focused on female founders, as well as, not instead of, helping entrepreneurs get venture capital.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
The most useful thing is getting honest and constructive advice from as a wide a range of people as possible. Speaking personally, I found that I was able to get much more support than I expected by sharing my idea; from Facebook to asking professional peer groups to review. Outsource and bring in experts, whether its admin, or an areas you are not trained in. So assess your own skills and strengths (Strength Finder is a good tool) and seek out diversity and expertise.
Any last words of advice?
Apart from kindness is a super power, I’d say that sometimes you should just start. Don’t wait forever before doing something, if you have an idea that you think will be successful, try, do some planning, ideate, test and get funding, you can run this as a side hustle if you carve out time (and if your contract /life allows). And don’t bet your house on it, because no idea is worth risking your family for. If it’s a good enough idea, you’ll be able to get funding for it without having to mortgage your house. Speed is of the essence, if the idea is great, you can bet others are working on something similar – so what are you waiting for?