Inspirational Woman: AJ Sharp | Founder, Sharp Relations

Meet AJ Sharp

Founder, Sharp Relations

AJ founded Sharp Relations in November 2010 when she was just 27. Before founding Sharp Relations, AJ was the youngest Director to be appointed at one of the leading London food and drinks PR agencies.

AJ managed budgets for multi-million-pound brands like Discovery Foods, Tilda Rice, Champagne Tattinger, Marstons Beer, Villa Maria, Yeo Valley Yogurt, Filippo Berio and launched most of Gaucho Restaurants back in the early noughties.

After spotting a gap in the market, AJ jumped on the exciting opportunity to work with smaller food and drinks brands needing PR and Marketing support. Twelve years in, Sharp Relations is now a multi- award-winning Food & Drink communications agency with an ever-growing team of passionate individuals. 

AJ sits on a local forum initiated by Produced in Kent called “No Food Wasted” which connects Growers, Distributors, Producers, and Charities and seeks to eliminate the gaps and reduce unnecessary waste. AJ also judges for several different food awards including the Great Taste Awards and works as a food writer with a regular column in several publications.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m passionate about great tasting, sustainable food and drink and this takes me in a lot of exciting directions. As a Taste Aficionado, I’m co-presenter of The FoodTalk Show with Susie-Warran-Smith CBE. The show champions food businesses and brands and has recently reached a listenership of 184,000 listeners! I’m also a judge for a number of food awards, most notably the Great Taste Awards run by The Guild of Fine Food.

I’ve also founded several businesses including the award-winning food and drink PR agency Sharp Relations, and Taste Kent Magazine. My mission is to help good businesses to grow and in a number of capacities I’ve mentored, supported, and nurtured the growth plans for hundreds of small food & drinks businesses over the past 12 years.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not necessarily! I’m passionate about great-tasting good food and I love working with people. So, really I knew I wanted to do something which combined those elements. I fell into PR after leaving university after a serendipitous encounter with an employee of R&R Teamwork, the award-winning drinks PR agency in Fulham, and got a job there as an Account Executive and totally fell in the love with this way of working with flavour and matching drinks with food.

I always knew I wanted to start a company. My father is an entrepreneur who built and sold a number of businesses. In the mornings on the way to catch the train to school, when I was the stroppiest of stroppy teenagers (imagine Kevin, from Harry Enfield sketches), my Dad would “lecture” me about business and how it worked. Something I strongly disliked then but I’m extremely grateful for now. Resultingly, I’ve always found business acumen has come naturally. At least, I can see immediately what someone else needs to do in their business, even if I don’t always spot it in my own business!

I love the risk-reward. I enjoy the highs and the lows. I like knowing that everything is a manifestation of what’s in mine and my team’s head. I love seeing how much we help the businesses we work with.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Certainly, there have been challenges. I was one of the youngest directors at one of the top London food and drink PR agencies, and this came with its own set of challenges. I knew I was capable and competent at the job, but I didn’t have the experience I needed back then. I had to learn how to negotiate and how to have difficult conversations with people. And like most people, I had my share of challenging bosses along the way.

I’ve had to work hard on imposter syndrome, which of course is often linked to feelings of self-worth. Recognising it is one thing, learning to overcome it, is quite another. I think I’m about 3 years into the work and like anything you practice, I’m getting much better at it but it creeps in occasionally if I’m at a low ebb.

I have in the past under-estimated the value our work will bring to a business. In the early days of Sharp Relations, I generated nearly 200 pieces of coverage across trade and consumer media sectors in a year and charged her just £400 per month! The impact was half million-pound revenue growth, the ROI on that account was in 3 figures!! Yet, I still I didn’t see the value I was bringing!

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I feel proud that I grew the company during the pandemic. Sometimes people ask me if the company grew because of the pandemic, but no, far from it. We grew in spite of the pandemic. We grew because the company came so close to going under that I realised at the eleventh hour that I needed a whole new level of thinking if we were to survive.

I invested the last £5k in the bank account into a global agency training and growth programme.  It lasted 3 months and it opened my eyes to a whole new way of working and thinking. Changing the way we solve problems forever, I’m very grateful to the team running that programme for all the learning.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I’m good at spotting the magic in other people. Sometimes, they can’t always see it themselves but to me it’s so evident and whether they’re a client, a writer or a colleague I like to help them to see their own magic. Especially in women, who I find often have a harder time seeing their own gifts and talents. I’m so proud of the teams I’ve worked in and with, after a project is said and done, it’s always the people I remember.

Otherwise, it’s been a continual investment in learning and development. An idea that the learning never ends, the minute you become adept at a certain set of skills, it’s probably time to look onwards at the next module life is going to throw at you!

Oh, and a good coach and mentor.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I love mentoring! I had a number of mentors, all of which have brought different levels of learning at different points. I have just started working with someone who I admire enormously and has achieved something I could only dream getting close to. But I’ll listen, I’ll learn, and I’ll do everything I can to understand. I already know that I need to make some fundamental shifts in my own thinking and working practices if I’m going to change from where I currently am to where I want to be.

In turn, I also mentor several different food and drink business owners to help them to maximise their resources to achieve the fastest sustainable growth.

The way I see it, a good mentor is for listening to, they should act like a guide, and give clear instruction to follow….”do this and then that and come back to me”. A coach is more like a business counsellor, they help you to arrive at your own solutions to your blocks and challenges.  I think there should be space for both, as they support and champion in fundamentally very different ways.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I would remove the blindness to inequality. Starting with females who have completely accepted that it’s just how things are and it’s not a big deal. It’s doesn’t have to be, and it is.

Years ago, I bought a (tiny) buy-to-let flat. I was very proud of it, it was the first place I ever bought, the deposit was funded entirely with my own savings. When the contract and deeds arrived, they were all in my husband’s name as the primary signatory on all official documentation – why? They even knew the background. But I let it go, it seemed petty.

Two years ago, I invited a male colleague to become a director in my agency. I retained significant shareholder status and hold the title of Managing Director. I’ve run the company for 12 years. Yet, both the accountant and the solicitor (both females) put the male director’s name as the primary signatory on all the legal documentation for my business. At first, I let it go – it seems petty right? But then it started to really annoy me. So, I highlighted the issue, and both seemed flabbergasted when I questioned it. Seriously, why?

Come on people. Do better!

These are tiny niggles really in the grand scheme of things. We have a very long way to go to shake off the toxic patriarchy, which is endemic in the UK.  Why are women doing better on average in the education system but falling so far behind in the professional environments. Pleeeease don’t say babies, this is not about babies.

  • As an entrepreneur, it starts with inequalities in funding. According to an article in City AM last December, female founded business receive 96% less funding than male-led ones, and worse APR terms by several per cent. Not only this but female founded business out-perform male founded business across so many areas.
  • Female founders create incredible work cultures, with higher levels of social responsibility. Cultures which retain and nurture their staff, that grow their staff and develop them and their earning potentials.
  • Technology is being coded for women, overwhelmingly by men, trying to guess what women need.
  • Cars are designed on the ergonomics of a male physique, so women are more likely to be harmed in accidents.
  • The government has not made the link between good available childcare and our GDP. Come on people.
  • Keynote speakers at events – still overwhelmingly male dominated.
  • And let’s not get started on the stats for pay inequality and c-suite roles.

What’s the solution? Without a shadow of doubt, we need to encourage our own circle of females to go for prominent decision-making roles. As females, we need to champion each other. We must encourage our daughters, nieces, sisters and friends to take roles in technology, engineering, banking, law, enforcement and entrepreneurship. To follow the dream, whatever that dream looks like.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Listen more. And listen to the intentions, if not the words. The intention is where you find the meaning.  You can say something nice in a very nasty way, equally you can say something mean, in a nice way, where the intention was never to hurt. I’ve learned to listen to the intention!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

There are so many exciting things happening in the next few months.

In Summer 2022, we’re moving into our new purpose-built office and media hub, which is going to allow us to offer our clients so much more content creation and event space.

I’ve joined up with the supremely talented food and drink writer, tutor, broadcaster, consultant and current Chair of The Guild of Food Writers, Charlotte Pike, and we’re launching The Taste Testers this month. The Taste Testers will provide businesses with actionable advice on how to improve the taste/aroma/texture/presentation/finish of their products. This pre-market feedback is delivered by a team of professional judges, chefs, branding experts, buyers and taste testers giving businesses the chance to iron out small flaws before the most important meetings.

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