Maggie is a serial entrepreneur and a full-time student, currently completing a Master’s degree in French Literature at Oxford University. From undergraduate studies up to now, she has founded two companies – one in dancewear/fashion (Shut Up & Dance) and one in education (OxICE). She has discussed the issues facing female entrepreneurs at parliament and is a strong advocate for getting more women into entrepreneurship. She co-founded the Girls in Charge Initiative which aims to encourage young women to ‘try out’ entrepreneurship through games. Her work with the initiative has been highly commended at the Vice-Chancellor’s Social Impact Awards 2019 and she received the Aularian Prize 2019 at St. Edmund Hall College.
Q.What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A. A combination of opportunity, circumstance and curiosity propelled me into the world of entrepreneurship.
Four years ago, I just started my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester in languages. My journey into entrepreneurship was quite accidental. Like all freshers, I joined 30 different societies, and one of them was Ballroom & Latin Dancing. I wanted to buy a pair of dance shoes for the class. Turns out, dance shoes were expensive in the UK – around £80 per pair. Where could I find some more affordable dance shoes? Well, in China. So I searched through Chinese manufacturers online and found a pair of shoes for £40 (including international shipping). Problem solved. But that wasn’t enough for me. What if I wanted a second pair? £40 is still quite expensive. So I made friends with the seller, in case I wanted to buy more and get a discount. Two months later, she became my business partner and we set up Shut Up & Dance.
This series of events simply provided the opportunity. I had been diagnosed with CFS/ME when I was 15 – the symptoms were similar to that of your worst ever hangover (headaches, nausea, exhaustion, pain everywhere), but constantly and without the fun night before. Owing to this illness, I spent most of my time bed-bound and unable to do anything. By the time I got to university, I realised that whilst I had been in bed, my peers were out getting work experience. My CV remained blank. And so I needed something to connect me to the world of work. What better than running my own business? I could try out all of the jobs within a company, work from bed, and only work when I felt well enough to do so. Entrepreneurship was perfect for my situation.
The most important deciding factor, however, was the simple phrase: ‘hmm I wonder…’. I wondered how far I could take a business, what my capabilities were, and just to push the project to the limit and see where I got to.
Q. What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A. Chasing curiosities, and maybe making some money along the way. Entrepreneurship has to be first and foremost about curiosity, wanting to find out ‘what happens if…’
Q. How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
A. I didn’t. I just thought they would be fun things to try out, so I did. The early stage is mostly just talking to people, if they start pushing you for more details, beyond polite conversation, then it’s probably worth giving it a go.
Q. What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
A. Flexibility – because things will go wrong, so you need to be able to adapt and think on your feet.
Effective communication – because how else will you sell your vision to clients and manage your team well?
Spotting opportunities – ideas and products are constantly evolving, you need to be able to spot new opportunities and to do something about them. Otherwise you and your ideas will get left behind.
Q. What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A. The flexibility and freedom – I can switch roles everyday, I can choose not to work, I can pursue the craziest of ideas just to see what happens. It’s great fun! Also, owning a shoe company, I have a great collection of shoes now.
Q. What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A. Debbie Moore. She was the first woman to take her company, Pineapple, public. It’s a dance/fashion company as well!
Q. If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
A. Her book was published in 1989, but so much has happened since then, so I would love to find out about her journey since then.
Q. What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
A. Trusting people too much and not being firm enough. One of my mentors used to tell me that I was too nice. This resulted in many delays in operations which cost time and money. That said, being nice to others did pay off and they helped me greatly. So the lesson learned here is to be firm when you have to be, but stay nice most of the time.
Q. How have you funded your ideas?
A. I’m happy to say that Shut Up & Dance has stayed zero-investment since day one. We employ a made-to-order system where customers pay us first and then we make the item. This system allows us to cut the cost to the customer by over 50%, most of our shoes are £30 and under. Moreover, we are then able to offer a lot more choice than other brands, 2000 styles more to be exact.
OxICE is a more serious project and needed money up front to launch our first summer programme. This was self-funded.
Girls in Charge has been an interesting journey. We tried to partner up with an existing female business club to launch our initiative, but after passing me around to different people for 2 months, they refused. Out of frustration, my co-founder and I decided to self-fund. We launched in December 2018, and so far we have spent £100 that went a long way – we have launched in 7 universities, our online cohort group consists of members from 12 universities, we were invited and paid to run our first corporate workshop and have won 2 awards, so it all worked out in the end! We are now working towards raising more funding through corporate workshops and partnerships.
Q. Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
A. The awards for Girls in Charge are quite recent, but I’m sure they will help with future collaborations and raising brand awareness. We also entered the Humanities Innovation Challenge with the Oxford University Innovation Centre. Sadly we didn’t win, but we still receive a lot of support from OUI.
Q. What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
A. A lot of competitions, grants, and support are offered in Oxfordshire, but heavily tech and science focussed. I guess that’s good for the scientists out there, but not so good for French Literature students. Of course, there is still support available, you just have to look harder and talk to more people.
Q. If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
A. Girls in Charge, of course! Our free student workshops will be running again in Michaelmas 2019 taking you through the concepts of Body Language, Personal Branding, Business Branding, Pitching/Public Speaking, and Business Brainstorming. But in game format! So come along, have some fun, and pick up some entrepreneurial skills! We also have lots of online support in our Facebook cohort group (@girlsinchargeinitiative). But aside from that, there are so many resources in Oxford from student societies such as Oxford Entrepreneurs to university centres like Enterprising Oxford, Oxford University Innovation Centre, and the Foundry.
Q. Any last words of advice?
A. Just keep an open mind and give things a go.