How women are shaking up fine food this International Women’s Day

08 March 2022, 07:37 AM
  • In a food industry that is constantly evolving yet still features a significant gender gap, three female entrepreneurs share their stories about starting up a women-led business
How women are shaking up fine food this International Women’s Day

New global data from gender equity researcher Equileap, released for International Women’s Day, shows that in the UK, women make up only a fifth (20%) of executive team members, 13 companies (6%) have a female CEO, and 27 companies (13%) have a female CFO. Moreover, according to the Fawcett Society’s Sex & Power Report 2022, only eight women, and no women of colour, are currently employed as CEOs in the FSTE 100, while women hold only 14% of executive directorships and 38% of all directorships. 

To tackle the gender gap, Labour MP Anneliese Dodds has pledged that the party would create 100,000 government-backed start-ups with an “equal recovery pledge” ensuring female representation, strengthening the pay gap reporting system and giving a “new deal” for working women.

“Unless we actually back women in business, then we’re going to be losing out on a huge amount of potential extra economic activity and prosperity, that all of our communities really need,” she said.

In spite of the inequity in business, there are many female entrepreneurs changing the landscape of the food industry. So, this International Women’s Day 2022, we asked three businesswomen to tell their stories…

Bun-dles: “I’m surprised that a female-founder-led business is still surprising”
After joining forces to launch their start up Bun-dles, a brand of freshly handmade bao buns and dumplings, during the pandemic, Julie Lynch and Jenny Howson quit their corporate careers to take on their dream business full-time. The idea was sparked by Julie, originally from Malaysia, who was feeling homesick during lockdown but couldn’t find fresh bao and dumplings that weren’t full of preservatives and additives. 

She decided to create a brand that she could see flying off the shelf in the UK. “All those experiences of the food, the flavours and the fun of sitting around a table and catching up with friends and family was something I thought would be great for people to enjoy and experience in the UK,” Julie said. 

Facing challenges
“I’m really proud that we are a female-founder-led business,” Jenny said. “I don’t think there are very many around.” However, working as a woman in the food and drink industry has brought challenges. “I’m surprised that a female-founder-led business is still surprising. And a number of people have commented on that. We’ve been to a couple of food festivals…” Jenny began, and Julie chimed in, “And been asked who’s looking after our kids.”

It’s a source of frustration, and something, Jenny says, that she doubts start-ups led by men have to deal with. However, it reveals another pain point for women working in the food industry today: child care. But, “It’s not just child care because you can solve child care,” with longer nursery hours or nannies, Jenny said. “It’s that we both want to spend time with our children. We want to do homework, we want to be there for tea, we want to say goodbye in the morning and drop them off at school. We still want to be actively involved as parents.” 

Juggling a passion project with the full-time job of being a parent, Jenny said she has learned over the years to set boundaries and be “unapologetic about what I value”. For example, setting hours when she won’t take calls or schedule meetings. “You’re miserable otherwise, if you sacrifice your values.” One of the biggest barriers for female start-up founders, Jenny said, is breaking down those personal barriers. “When you’re running your own business, we feel exceptionally passionate about it, and we are incredibly driven. We are very ambitious for the business.” The challenge, she said, is “giving ourselves permission to prioritise our own values”.

Celebrating opportunities
While the food and drink sector has its faults, having come from very male-dominated industries, Julie and Jenny appreciated the passion and support they encountered. “The food industry is very much passion-driven, which is great,” Julie says. “It gives it a bit more of a level playing field, and everyone has been so supportive. You find your little support network, and everyone’s there to help you out and do whatever they can for you.”

For other women who are considering starting their own business in the food and drink sector, Julie says be brave. “It’s very generalising, but definitely for me, women can like self-confidence, and we can doubt ourselves. If you find something that you’re passionate about, then you should go for it, give it your best shot and see where it takes you.”

Drops of Heal: “I still remember no one taking me seriously”
Georgie Abbott, founder of CBD olive oil company Drops of Heal shares her experience starting up in the food sector

I founded Drops of Heal from my mental health struggles after losing my dad to suicide in 2015. I couldn’t find a natural way to cope with everyday stressors and anxiety; shortly after I found CBD. I realised there wasn’t a product for someone like me – I wanted something enjoyable and accessible to my everyday life. 

I’m a 23-year-old woman in the cannabis industry who has shared her mental health stories across all platforms. I still remember going to my first cannabis expo and no one taking me seriously. Equally, a lot of the time people wouldn’t address me – they would address my business partner who is a man. But, in saying that, I definitely have my privileges being a middle-class white woman, so it’s important for me to also note that.

We all have different things to offer, and what makes the F&D industry successful is the diversity and range of products. Seeing other women succeeding before me definitely shows me the growth potential within the industry. I feel women within the sector would hugely benefit [from more women-focused start-up initiatives]. The F&D sector is complicated, populated and often confusing, so having the support and guidance would be incredible. I know for me it would have made me feel less alone when entering such a daunting industry. 

My advice to other women considering starting up a business is: do it. You don’t have to have it all figured out to start. I feel one of the best commodities is your eagerness to learn, so reach out to women you admire, start building a network and definitely don’t be afraid to fail. 

Raw Bake Station: “I’m asked questions men would never be asked”
Evie Waxman, founder of Raw Bake Station, believes more can be done to help women – and other minority groups – in the food and drink industry

I stumbled upon the idea of Raw Bake Station whilst travelling – I sat with a friend across our dining room table and said I wanted to create a plant-based and free-from snacking brand that tasted delicious and was totally clean label. Once back in the UK, I got to work on creating the products and getting them in people’s hands. We started on the market stalls in Manchester and I’ve grown the brand organically since. 

I have a ‘get up and go’ attitude and my passion for my business was (and is) extremely high – therefore, I found building Raw Bake Station up a really fun challenge. I made sure to ask those around me for help and I also connected to people through Linkedin and networking events to ask for advice. I found as a woman; people are willing to help but sometimes not always willing to believe.

Generally, I found and still find that as a young female, it’s hard to be taken seriously. There have been many occasions when I’ve been pitching for investment to a room full of men – they ask extremely personal and unnecessary questions that men would never be asked. It’s disheartening but things are starting to change and that’s a positive. 

There are plenty of organisations out there today that are looking for and want to back female founders. 

I believe we could be doing a lot more to help female founders, but also founders a whole. There’s a lot to be done to be support many different causes; young people, diversity in the workplace, mental wellbeing in the workspace. As a female, we are lucky that there’s a strong sense of community – female empowerment. It’d be good to see more of this!

If a woman was considering starting up a business in the food and drink sector today, I’d say ‘Bloody go for it.’ 

Get as much outside help as possible, but remember that the passion, belief and confidence has to come from within. You’ll get a lot of pushback, but it’s your tenacity and confidence in yourself and your brand that will push you through.

Reach out to founders that are a bit ahead of you that will be able to help guide you and support you when you need.

JP’s Originals: “When I say that I launched this business myself, this tends to be received with an element of surprise”
Urvashi Agarwal, founder of JP’s Originals, is keen to break a common mindset found throughout the fine food industry

My business, JP’s Originals, was launched in 2020 and named after my grandfather, as he owned tea gardens and introduced me to the concept of whole leaf teas. Since the launch I, more often than not, people tend to assume that either I am working in a family business for my father or for my grandfather. When I say that I launched this myself, this tends to be received with an element of surprise.

Living in London we are often shielded from reality. Factors like being an ethnic minority and female only feel more noticeable once you leave the ‘melting pot’. Whilst doing a tasting at a well known farm shop in Chipping Norton, I was chatting to a prospective customer who was tasting our teas. Seeming to enjoy them, she asked me ‘is this business British?’, to which I responded ‘yes, it is my business’. She then nodded, put her taster cup down and walked away. Moments like this can be confusing for any person let alone a business owner, making you wonder whether your products or business is less desired based on your gender or ethnicity.

We can only hope for more female led and minority owned businesses, to break this mindset so it is no longer a surprise and people can unapologetically follow their passion.

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