Rachel Hammond is the founder and Director of eEdge. eEdge is a team of 4, self–employed, individuals who run training courses on how to produce your own food and offer professional urban design consultancy for individuals as well as organisations. They have undertaken many projects with the local community including Oxford City Council and Oxford Brookes University.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I realised that my interests, what I wanted to be doing, didn’t exactly fit a pigeonhole. It was a niche area and I found myself working on things that other people typically don’t. My passions didn’t fit a job out there so I made my own.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me entrepreneurship is running a successful organisation, an organisation which is different to or improving on any existing companies. More importantly it is being brave enough to be different, having the consistent drive to keep going and being prepared to be flexible. To be a good entrepreneur you have to remain motivated and maintain that energy.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
In all honesty it just sort of happened. It started as a community group, and it was through the joy of doing that that the business grew on its own. We never specifically planned for it nor had any start-up debt, it simply naturally evolved into the business it is now. I have had unsuccessful businesses before and I truly think that it was because of pressure, whether that is financial or pressure to create a business that works.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that are needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Number one would be flexibility, and I think secondly would be strength and courage. Finally you have to be true to yourself, have that energy, and the ability to see the big picture, to stand back and see a complete vision. It’s something that is quite hard to learn and especially at first it is easy to get lost in details. It comes with age and experience the same way that learning to say no does– that’s another difficulty that I think entrepreneurs have when they start out.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The flexibility- if I wanted to start at 10 am, I can, if I want to do my emails at midnight then I’m able to. If I don’t do my tasks then its only me that suffers, I’m not going to be called into the boss’ office. I have myself to answer to. There’s of course a lot of freedom that comes with that but it is a double–edged sword in that you have to stay motivated.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There isn’t a particular company that stands out but as for individual my Grandmother was a botanist and knew just an incredible amount about flowers and all things plants. She continues to be my inspiration today.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would ask what her most important plants were to her; for aesthetics, for producing food and for producing medicines.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
One recent product that I’m really proud of developing are educational tool kit cards which we sell and which come with the training courses we offer. A particular programme that I found very moving was a community garden social housing project for those very much in poverty. I mean real poverty, these people would often have to skip meals. We did the project during half term so that the children could come and participate and have fun and I met a lovely little girl that I struck up a friendship with. I remember one time I asked her during a break if she was going to go home for lunch and she replied ‘lunch? We don’t have lunch.’ It’s quite heart–breaking and that’s what this is all about, helping people get access to food. We strive to make our services as accessible as possible so that finances aren’t a barrier. Of course there’s the environmental aspect but the social side, the very human side, is what makes the difference.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I’d say that taking on too much, trying to do this and that, making yourself extremely busy is just not sustainable. The greatest difficulty is learning how to say no. It’s really hard to, at the beginning and with financial pressure especially. Picking and choosing is definitely a skill as is working within one’s own capacity.
How have you funded your ideas?
We set things up with a grant from Lush worth approximately £1,000 which we used to buy the essential like tools and gloves. We then got to work in one of the parks in Oxford as well as another grant from Waitrose’s ‘Money Pot’. People were also asking about us doing workshops and so we began to charge a small amount. We didn’t have bills as at the time we were volunteering in any case and we could afford to be generous with our time. Gradually, paid work increased and now everyone is paid a fair wage, which we can live from.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Oxford Brookes’ Fuel programme in which I had to pitch to was excellent. I would also include developing the toolkit product for my MA, as well as the support I received from the Enterprise Centre.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford Brookes has been a really useful resource. In Oxford there’s also a very active food network, Good Food Oxford, CAG organisation. Oxford has a lot of energy for community action which makes it a great place for sharing ideas, similar passions, farmers markets, diversity, and a vibrant place for food. The energy on Cowley Road for example is amazing, and it is a really rich area of Oxford and a cultural melting pot.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Well depending on whether or not you are a student I would say Oxford Brookes, certainly. Otherwise EMNBS, Ethnic Minority Business School, is an enterprise school for the general public. For me word of mouth is what really advanced my business. People need to know you and for us being in the park meant that often passers-by would stop and chat. This was especially crucial as we didn’t have access to a shop front and needed to be public-facing. My best advice would be start talking people; you may be surprised to find there are many who can help.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur?
If so, how have you overcome them? Speaking frankly I’ve been in many situations where I was the only female in the room and it can be intimidating. It is very frustrating when you aren’t heard or your suggestions are ignored and I’m not sure that’s changed much over the 25 years I’ve been in business. It is sad that such an archaic attitude still persists but the advice I’d give is to be true to yourself and strong. You must stand your ground and be a good communicator. Otherwise- leave. There will be others who will listen to you and who deserve your time. Of course we must be cautious of segregating ourselves, but it is important that we continue to break down stereotypes and actively work towards gender equality. This works both ways, being an all-women team it was easier for us to work with schools. For me, working with female-led companies provides a reassurance and feeling of support.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
LinkedIn, the Oxford Brookes enterprise programme and also anywhere where you are able to communicate with women. Starting conversations with an organisation through a female employee has led to more fruitful and open discussions in my experience. Trying to engage with women-led organisations has worked well for us especially with our marketing and PR companies.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
Mentoring offers a lot, just having a conversation and feeling heard can be so important, as is having the opportunity to speak with other women. I think there should be the option to have discussions with a female as many of the women’s programmes I’ve worked with have been heavily male-led. Overall, we need to be more aware of different cultural and women’s needs. Unfortunately it is still predominately women who tend to be responsible for childcare and so being able to provide flexibility and recognise school hours is essential. Supporting local female-led businesses would be very enriching for the student community too.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Be true to yourself, if people don’t accept you for who you are then they aren’t worth it. In the same way, don’t try and be someone you are not. People will see through that and won’t respect you for it.
Any last words of advice?
Talk to people. Tell everyone you talk to about your business and always carry business cards or the equivalent with you ‘Here’s my website take a look’. In my experience the best projects come from just meeting people and talking about the business your passionate about.