Inspirational Woman: Davina Steel | Founder, Davina Steel Gluten Free

Davina SteelI’m a scientist and nutritionist who has combined all my loves to become a multi award winning gluten free baker. This was not planned!

I’ve spent a lifetime dedicated to science and discovery. Indeed, I was often in trouble as a child for some of the experiments I performed (https://www.davinasteel.com/what-drives-us).

Following cancer treatment, I became intolerant to gluten. Missing beautiful bread, I embarked on a quest to create a replacement for gluten that would allow me to make breads just like the ones I’d always eaten: the retail bread I could find was dry, crumbly and tasted of chemicals. Finally, I created a lovely focaccia, with no added chemicals or preservatives and won medals in The World Bread Awards. This led to me setting up a company which sold mixes for making the same bread at home. However, what I really wanted was to own a commercial bakery so that I could bake products of our standard.

Fast forward to today, I secured a total of £427,000 investment to get the business off the ground and, last year, to create my own gluten and nut free bakery (the only one in East Anglia).

I now have a small but amazing team and we sell kits and baked products to independent and multiple retailers and hotel chains across the world.

I’ve won The World Bread Awards three times, plus four top business awards in the past two years … the latest being Most Inspiring Women in Business (UK).

The judges said, “Innovation has been key to the success of this business. Davina has built her business from the ground up, creating the products and building a business that now retails into major supermarkets and overseas as well as a thriving online business. Inspiring business women are driven visionaries who other women aspire to be and Davina has all those elements. She’s taken her idea and quickly scaled the business and now has a firm place in her market. This is an inspirational business woman who has overcome many challenges on her path to success.”

The latter been a particular boost to our team, especially after the past year: I can only inspire if others are willing to be inspired!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

Yes and no: I floated into science, but once I’d gained my degree and won Top Student for all four years, I had the bit between my teeth and was determined to become a top Biochemist and research scientist.

However, a brain tumour put paid to that and, after a year recovering, I slid into sales and marketing for a diagnostics firm. The industries of clinical diagnostics and pharmaceuticals proved too cut-throat and divisive. So, after a brief period designing and selling greeting cards to retailers and exporters … a definite blip in the plan, but one that was necessary for me to regroup and decide on my next adventure … I added to my nutritional training and began advising clients on how to “Eat to Beat” different ailments.

That’s when cancer struck for a second time, and I had to heed my own advice once again.

Following cancer treatment, I became intolerant to many things. The one abiding intolerance that remains to this day is gluten. Now I own a commercial gluten free bakery.

I feel that all the elements of my life, qualifications and training have created the “perfect storm” which results in a company that embodies everything I love. The freewheeling times have allowed me to develop in an organic way that could not have happened if I’d planned every step of the way … From Biotechnology to Baker? Who’d have seen that coming?

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Many! Aside from cancer and setting up a bakery when I’d never done anything like that before. To say there were many mistakes and a huge learning curve is quite the understatement.

My biggest recent challenge has been COVID, of course. Having set up the bakery, employed and trained appropriate staff, gained SALSA accreditation in record time, we launched our first bakery range of snack packs at the beginning of March 2020. Two weeks before the first lockdown. We had stock, we had orders from hotels and coffee shops and pending orders from excited retailers. And then silence!

We took a series of deep breaths and decided we needed to sell stock however we could and (luckily for us) home baking became a bit of a cult thing. Over the next two months our kit and mix sales increased by over 5000% from the previous year and month.

We set up a monthly subscription box to sell kits, mixes and a variety of baked products (we had to use our bakery and bakers) and subscriptions have shot through the roof.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I think the whole journey constitutes my biggest achievement: I call myself a cancer thriver, rather than “cancer survivor”. Whilst I lost confidence during treatment and recovery the first thing that helped me to regain that was winning medals in The World Bread Awards. I’d entered cheekily, whilst I only had a small number of Farm Shops & Delis, plus a handful of nutrition clients as customers. The medals spurred me on to enter a competition for funding a start-up in the food and drink industry and I was one of five winners out of over 160 entrants. I’d gained mentoring and investment of £50,000.

This meant I had a real company and had to make it succeed. That part I hadn’t planned! I created a range of home bake kits and mixes and the business grew. However, real success was yet to come. I secured further funding of £377,000 over a period of 18 months. This allowed me to create a commercial bakery (the only dedicated gluten and nut free bakery in East Anglia), followed by SALSA accreditation in record time. This meant that I and my small team could finally sell to the multiple retailers and hotel chains. We now have a healthy mix of home bake kits and baked products that are stocked by multiples, hotel chains and overseas sales are increasing globally.

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

Building a strong, coherent team and never giving up. I guess that’s two, but I feel they go hand in hand.

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

I have mentored many people and been mentee. It’s supremely valuable to both student and mentor. The guidance and wisdom I’ve received over the years (not just in this business) has been invaluable in allowing me to take risks without scuppering everything in my naivety.

I get excited about mentoring others, not just to give back, but to see the way people can blossom when they had a little help from someone who’s trodden their path before.

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

Looking at more than just gender! Males and females generally have quite different underlying skills and attributes, so to encompass those to build a balanced team would, I think begin to address this issue more equitably.

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

Follow your heart and don’t stay too long in an industry that doesn’t fit your ethos and personality. Find what you love and you’ll succeed.

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

Since the pandemic our overseas market has grown surprisingly fast. Also, the retail multiples, all of whom had expressed interest in our products before March 2020, have woken up again: understandably, they were reluctant to make major changes during the various lockdowns and are now looking to the future.

We’re working hard on securing deals with the retailers who don’t yet stock us and to increasing our overseas sales. We’ve just exported our first major order to the States and we’re increasing our reach around the world. And finally, we’re focussed on hospitality (hotel chains and coffee shops) with our snack ranges and long life products.

This growth will also allow us to grow our apprentice programme: something I’m passionate about.


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