Sunday, 18 February 2018

The women who are doing the business

The women who are doing the business

THREE mothers from Henley who founded a networking group for creative professionals and small traders are in the running for a Sue Ryder Women of Achievement award.

SARAH GILBERT, JOANNA MCGINN AND NICOLA NOTT, who launched The Creative Duck in March last year, are collectively one of eight nominees from the area nominated in the business category. View our picture gallery of all the nominees online here.

The company organises workshops for business owners and those looking to start their own ventures.

It offers advice on a range of issues, including marketing and photography, and provides business owners with a forum in which to socialise, share their ideas and support one another.

The women set up Creative Duck with help from artist Jo Harris, who is now focusing her efforts on running the Henley School of Art.

They all had successful careers before moving to the town and are involved in various other projects.

Mrs Gilbert, of St Andrew’s Road, is a former teacher and marketing professional who runs Box of Smiles, a gift box supplier, while Mrs McGinn, of Wilson Avenue, runs a tea hire company called Mrs Min’s Vintage.

Ms Nott, of Berkshire Road, who previously worked for Burberry, is looking to start a new business.

Mrs Gilbert, who grew up in Shiplake and attended Gillotts School and The Henley College, said: “It was a lovely surprise to be nominated. Everyone who has been put forward is very deserving so it’s a real honour to be counted among them, especially as we’ve only been going for a year.

“We’ve been quite overwhelmed by the positive response that we’ve had to all our events, which confirms our beliefs about Henley and the wealth of amazing talent it has.

“We’ve got some amazing plans in the pipeline and want to carry on supporting our lively and inspirational community. It’s picking up more and more momentum and attendance has increased while people are coming from further afield like Caversham and Marlow.”

EMMA-JANE TAYLOR, who has been teaching dance and fitness in Henley for more than 20 years, was nominated by Val Stoner, from Henley, and Richard Reed, from Emmer Green.

She moved to Henley in 1993 and started her classes at the Kenton Theatre studio in New Street two years later.

She initially taught tap and modern dance then in 2000 she launched Stageworks, a performing arts school for children and adults, which teaches a range of dance styles as well as drama and poetry.

The school now also has branches in Benson, Caversham and Cookham, and teaches about 400 pupils of all ages. It regularly hosts performances at the Kenton for casts of up to 150 youngsters and also offers backstage experience.

Miss Taylor, 45, has raised thousands of pounds for various causes, including Barnado’s, Cancer Research UK, Great Ormond Street Hospital and Helen and Douglas House.

She raised more than £3,500 for the Whizz-Kidz youth disability charity by running the London Marathon and taking part in a non-stop 12-hour dance session.

She also works as a mentor and will soon start writing a blog called Don’t Hold Back, which will look at how she overcame abuse and abandonment as a child.

Miss Taylor, who has a daughter Betty-Mae, nine, said: “I was overwhelmed to be nominated and think it’s really nice to be recognised in this way.

“I’m really proud and excited, having spent so much of my life in the dance and fitness industry. I know quite a few of the other people who’ve been nominated and think they’re all very deserving because they’ve achieved fantastic things in their lines of work.

“I’m really passionate about helping people to improve their lives, whether it’s a child who wants to experience the secure, creative environment that the performing arts provide or whether it’s an adult who wants to get fit or reconnect with their childhood dream of dancing.

“My life didn’t look very promising in my late teens but I put my energy into recovery and consider myself a survivor, not a victim.”

Another nominee is CATHERINE ABBOTT who is officially the world’s second best visual merchandiser.

She was awarded a silver medal at the WorldSkills championships in Abu Dhabi in November. The biennial competition showcases vocational training and education from 78 different countries.

Ms Abbott, 21, from Sonning Common, was given 22 hours to create a window display for Juicy Couture themed around “holidays” and showcasing a series of pre-allocated items.

Her entry featured a handbag and backpack on raised plinths with gold paper, two bunches of grapes and two bouquets of flowers plus a 30-piece dinner set arranged in the shape of a pyramid.

Ms Abbott attended Chiltern Edge School and then learned window dressing and graphic design at East Berkshire College and now works as the visual merchandiser at Topshop in Reading,

She dresses mannequins and creates window and shopfloor displays also works at the company’s Guildford outlet and its flagship branch in Oxford Street.

The company has supported her development and gave her time off to prepare for the competition at the London College of Fashion.

Ms Abbott, who also won silver at the EuroSkills championships in 2014, said: “I’m really honoured and felt privileged to be nominated.

“I am pleased that my hard work has been recognised.

“Just to be nominated alongside some of the best young women in the south is amazing, especially in Year of the Woman.” 

TARA COLE, the daughter of the late actor George Cole and his widow Penny, was nominated anonymously for successfully launching and selling a vintage ice cream van service.

She bought Daisy, a 1972 Bedford van, on eBay for £1,000 in May 2011 and spent six months restoring it.

The vehicle was unroadworthy and had a number of dangerous electrical faults but was brought back to mint condition with help from a mechanic.

Ms Cole, who lives in Wargrave, studied business at The Henley College and then worked as a chocolatier in London.

She came up with the idea for Daisy after losing a large amount of stock during an Easter heatwave.

She spent six years selling handmade luxury ice cream, sorbets, retro sweets and ice lollies at weddings, parties, festivals and fairs in and around Henley while dressed in Fifties attire.

She started with about a dozen bookings annually but this soon increased to more than 100.

In 2014 she won a Small Business Sunday award from former Dragons’ Den panellist Theo Paphitis.

She sold the business in May last year and is now devoting her time to Tango and Twist, a venture she launched to tide herself over during the winter when Daisy was not in demand.

The business sells customised hand-painted wooden signs which are illuminated with LED lights. They are sold as decorations for people’s homes or as signage for events such as weddings.

Ms Cole has also taught herself to screen print clothing and now sells T-shirts and tops featuring her own designs.

She said: “It’s going really well and it’s great not to be driving a big, heavy van around the country. I now sell at events like festivals and also sell a lot online, especially to America.

“It’s amazing that I’ve been nominated. It feels a bit odd because I have no idea who might have done it but I’m thrilled and flattered nonetheless. There are some incredible women on the list and I doubt I’ll win but I’m grateful that I’m being considered.”

SALLY HUGHES, who has been managing director of The Mill at Sonning since 2002, was nominated for refurbishing the 215-seat dinner theatre and winning two national awards.

Her parents Tim and Eileen Richards bought the venue, a long-defunct former flour mill for Huntley & Palmers biscuits, in 1978.

The theatre opened in 1982 with actor Peter Egan as artistic director. He stepped down three years later and Mrs Hughes took over.

She was promoted to her current role following her father’s death and is now responsible for a team of more than 100 people in various roles from stage technicians to kitchen, bar, front of house and administrative staff.

Mrs Hughes, an actress whose credits include a supporting role in Keeping Up Appearances, had considered selling the venue after it was damaged in the floods of 2014.

Instead she oversaw a £300,000 refurbishment of the bar area and foyer and last year announced plans for a £1 million overhaul which will include a new interior for the restaurant, a new entrance canopy and a modern sound and lighting system.

In 2016 and 2017, The Mill was crowned the most welcoming venue in the country in the UK Theatre Awards, run by trade body UK Theatre.

It saw off competition from about 200 venues after winning a public vote in which more than 40,000 people took part.

Mrs Hughes, who lives in Chiswick with her husband Alvin Rakoff, a stage and screen director, said: “I’m proud that we’ve ridden through some tough times, including the recent recession.

“It’s tough to make something like this work financially and I used to struggle to sleep as I felt very responsible for keeping my staff in their jobs. However, we’re having a bit of a refurbishment and it seems to be working – I certainly sleep a lot better now.

“From the outset, Peter set a high benchmark and we’ve always aspired to meet or even exceed that. Our last production My Fair Lady was a challenge but a big success critically and financially.

“We never rest on our laurels and are always pushing the boundaries because good art is never easy. I still find the job incredibly rewarding because every day brings its own challenges so it always feels fresh.

“We get a lot of good feedback but we’re grateful even for negative feedback and will always look for ways to improve what we offer.

“It’s great to be nominated and it came as a complete surprise.”

TAMSIN BORLASE sells fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables and cut flowers grown at Bosley Patch, her market garden at Swiss Farm, Henley, where she also has a micro bakery.

She does not use chemicals but keeps the soil fertile using local green waste compost, manure from a nearby organic dairy farm and fertility-building crops such as clover.

She has a weekly market outside Lovibonds brewery in the town centre and a small vegetable box scheme as well as supplying a couple of local chefs.

Mrs Borlase said: “I am delighted that someone thought I was worth nominating for my business.

“I have worked very hard over the last 15 years to build a small community which supports and feeds the local community. It is local food to feed local people.

“It is a very rewarding job and it’s lovely to get to know a lot of Henley people who come to my stall or have shown an interest in the bakery.

“I don’t feel like a business. For me, it is about creating a community around food in Henley.

“I am not supplying all and sundry and I really believe that it is about the people, my customers, as they come and talk about the products and the methods of growing or making.”

Another nominee is florist JO WISE, who set up Floral Garden in 2014 and won a silver gilt at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Hampton Court Palace flower show in July.

The 47-year-old lives in Swyncombe and works from offices at Oakley Wood, near Benson.

She designed a stand for a collective of British flower growers called Flowers from the Farm. It included flowers grown by Ms Borlase and Juliet Bennett, of Babylon Flowers in Cuxham.

Her proudest moment was exhibiting her designs at the Southbank Centre in London as part of the 2016 Women of the World Festival, which celebrated International Women’s Day.

She built up layers of fresh flowers on a wall as the week-long event progressed, symbolising the wisdom and experience that women accrue throughout their lives.

Mrs Wise grew up in Tokers Green and attended Chiltern Edge School in Sonning Common and King James College, now The Henley College, before attending art school in London and working in theatre and art design for about 15 years.

The mother-of-two moved back to the area in 2003 in order to start a family with her partner. She set up a flower farm with a business partner at Little Stoke in 2008 but left six years later to pursue a more creative direction.

She said: “I didn’t expect a nomination because I’d never thought of myself as a ‘businesswoman’ but I’m really chuffed.

“I’ve really enjoyed running Floral Circus because it brings my theatrical and floristry backgrounds together and lets me push the boundaries a bit more.

“I still do more traditional arrangements for things like weddings but I also do photoshoots and other projects that are a bit different. Being a florist is lovely because you’re there for the big emotional moments in people’s lives, whether they’re happy or sad, and you get a lot of heartfelt thanks.

“Because I come from an artistic background I’m always looking to move forward creatively but I imagine I’ll always be working with flowers as it’s a very comfortable, happy place for me.”

The eighth nominee is LISA ASHFORD, chief executive of Ethex, a non-profit investment company that funds socially responsible projects, such as those in developing countries or which help alleviate poverty.

She is also director of Goring and Streatley Community Energy, which wants to build a hydroelectric power plant on the River Thames at Goring and sell electricity back to the National Grid to fund good causes in the community.

The project has planning permission but is currently on hold as it is being challenged by Goring Parish Council.

Ms Ashford grew up in Sutton Coldfield and studied at Royal Holloway University of London then Imperial College London, where she wrote her dissertation on rural electrification projects in Zambia.

After some years working in the City, she took a job with Ecosecurities, which funded projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the developing world.

She left to study a financial strategy diploma at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and was hired as a consultant by Ethex in 2013 shortly after its launch. She was appointed chief executive soon afterwards. The company recently launched a sister business called Energy Africa, which improves access to electricity across the sub-Sahara.

Ms Ashford said: “I enjoy my job because I’m making money do good in the world and helping social businesses both in the UK and abroad. The more investment we can raise for them, the more they can do so it’s really a win-win situation.

“I’ve got a great team around me and we’ve raised more than £60 million over the last few years, which is incredible for a non-profit company.

“I’m thrilled to be nominated. I have no idea how it came about but it’s a good recognition of what we’ve achieved and will hopefully raise our profile.”

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