Inspirational Woman: Laura Willoughby MBE | Founder, Club Soda

Laura Willoughby MBE

A campaigner at heart, with a background in movement building and politics, Laura Willoughby MBE is co-founder of mindful drinking movement, Club Soda.

Club Soda has over 70,000 individual members and nearly 100 brand members who they support through research and collaborative projects. They have built a drinks guide and they run the UK’s only Mindful Drinking Festival. Laura and her team opened the hugely successful pop-up Alcohol-Free Off-Licence in London’s West End in 2021 and she is also the co-author of How to Be a Mindful Drinker.

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

My twenties and thirties I most spent dedicated to politics. I was lucky to be elected to Islington council when I was 23 and did 12 great years – 4 of them as a cabinet member. I mostly did this alongside a full-time job. I did a number of roles as a chief executive in the voluntary sector, until giving it all up to start Club Soda. I don’t have time for politics now.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

No, I looked briefly at the traditional graduate careers, but they didn’t excite me. I have been a campaigner since I was 14 and my energy comes from helping change things. Part of my career relied on being elected by the public and within the party system, so it’s not a career that can be planned or relied upon. I balanced this uncertainty with jobs in the voluntary sector that utilised the same skills. In hindsight I think I would be in a much better situation financially if I had focused on career then politics – but I had some amazing experiences that no traditional workplace could ever offer at a very early age. I will be forever grateful for that.  

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Setting up Club Soda was a big leap – I was asking people to help shape an idea of my own, rather than an existing concept. Like a lot of people, I suffer with imposter syndrome a lot. It’s been hard living on such a small income but it’s worth it when I hear stories from people about how we have helped them drink more mindfully. Most of all funding is the hard part. Social impact will never be a ‘unicorn’ in investment terms – so we have self-funded and grown organically. But that means long hours and learning new skills. You really do have to do it all! 

Laura Willoughby MBE

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

 The pop-up alcohol-free off-licence we opened from December till end of March this year feels like a great culmination of everything we have done the last 7 years and is helping shape our future. Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do, and it was a team effort with the brands and our members. 

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

Our collaborative approach – and I don’t believe things are not possible however hard they may seem! 

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

I have mentored a few people, both politically and in small business. I am certainly a mentor and not a coach. I love seeing other people do well and connecting people with folks who can help them. I don’t have a mentor at the moment, but I have a few other founders I lean on for mutual advice and support. 

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

Get rid of the terrible fetish of pitching. In order to decide if a business is worthy. There are better ways. Evidence shows it favours white, young, neurotypical men and pushes out talent that does not fit ‘normal’. It is not fit for purpose. It’s also creates this myth that to be successful you have to be a charismatic founder with a ‘unicorn’ and snooty about exiting big.  Most businesses around the world are small and medium size and give good returns for investors – we should celebrate and invest in businesses and founders of all shapes and sizes. 

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

Don’t be afraid to run with your own idea as soon as you have it! All those ideas I had for web businesses in the early 2000’s…

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

I want Club Soda to be a vehicle for change and after exploring all the ideas we have had in this space; we’re beginning to home in on the best way to do that. It’s interesting to see where we have started and where we have ended up. Our values however have stayed constant – and this has driven the business and I am proud of that! 

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