Inspirational Woman: Sarah Willingham | Entrepreneur, investor, consumer expert & ex-Dragon’s Den star

Sarah Willingham - White top

Sarah Willingham is an entrepreneur, investor and consumer expert – best known for her previous role as one of the ‘dragons’ of the popular BBC series Dragons’ Den.

Her main successes as an entrepreneur have included turning The Bombay Bicycle Club into the largest and most successful Indian restaurant chain in the UK and taking the likes of Pizza Express and Planet Hollywood on to greater success.

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

I am an entrepreneur turned investor and a mum of four amazing kids (aged 11, ten, eight and seven). I spend a lot of time working with my investments and love each and every one of them.  Some are going strong and some are struggling.

I work with a wonderful charity called IN Kind Direct – we take surplus stock from businesses and distribute it to charities across the UK and abroad.  It’s a win for business, the environment and the charities.

I also spend time supporting women in leadership as much as I can.  I want my kids to enter the world they believe they are growing up in… a world where we are all equal.

Finally, I love to work with small businesses and to promote the importance of shopping small and shopping local. With that in mind, I’ve also become a campaign ambassador for Yell, as they rollout the final editions of the Yellow Pages across the country.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, I really don’t believe in career plans. I think life is so transient that our career must accommodate the period of our life that we are living in. I LOVED my corporate life in my 20s, had a great job and was learning every single day, but I knew that if I wanted a family that I needed to control my time better, so I decided to become an entrepreneur.  After having two children I realised I would never survive with 1,500 staff and kids that needed me. So, I sold my business and now I invest. I couldn’t be happier – my kids are 11, ten, eight and seven and it works perfectly, but who knows how I will feel in ten years’ time. My career has always had to fit my life, not the other way around.

You appeared on BBC Two’s Dragon’s Den from 2015 to 2017, how did you get involved in this?

I must admit – it came out of nowhere. The original person had fallen through at the last minute so they started screen testing again…my name came into the mix and they asked me to go to a screen test.  I never thought I’d be chosen with so many amazing women in business but thought it’d be cool to go along and meet Deborah Meaden.  I loved it and was really really lucky that they chose me.

What did the Dragon’s Den experience teach you?

That’s a great question – I had to think about that a lot. It reinforced my belief that you must always be true to yourself. I hadn’t appreciated the competitive environment of the Den and the fact that during the first series, no one had a clue who I was so It was tough to get the investments that I wanted, and knew I could help. I really enjoyed meeting so many cool entrepreneurs and seeing them fight for what they believe in. The entrepreneurs who were true to themselves, stood their ground and were honest, were the ones that won me over.

You left the show to travel the world with your family – what was the thought behind this decision?

We had always planned to take a year out and in fact we were supposed to go a year earlier but when Dragon’s Den came along I knew I had to commit to two series and not just one – so we postponed it for a year to allow me to do the second series.  The second series was brilliant! I had found my feet and enjoyed every minute of it. Although travelling around the world with my family for a year is the single best thing I’ve ever done in my life.

You’ve been dubbed a so-called ‘mumtrepreneur’ – how do you balance everything?

Ha! With GREAT difficulty! Michael (my husband) is also an entrepreneur-turned-investor and thankfully is as committed to a balanced life as I am. With that in mind, we juggle everything between ourselves. Without him I wouldn’t do half of the things I have done or still do. We are ruthless diary managers – it’s the only way we are able to stay on top of things.

We red-line the diary for long periods when we are all at home together and not travelling for meetings etc. We also always take the school holidays off with the kids – which was my dream 11 years ago when we had Minnie and I still can’t believe we are able to do it.

What was the most challenging period of your career?

Without a doubt, it was when I had children. I had 1,500 staff and had just had child number two. When I had one I would just take her everywhere with me and it was no problem, but when Monti came along I realised I had to leave Minnie at home. I had four in four and a half years – it was a wonderful time but a real struggle to be able to balance work. In the end I sold my business and started to invest – I have finally found the balance and I’m not letting go of it.  People ask me what’s next and I always say ‘I hope… more of the same’.

You have to find the right balance for you – we are all different and have different needs so what works for one probably won’t work for another.  But it’s important to listen to yourself and make the right changes for you and only you.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

The obvious answer is equality – what more could I ask for than that?  It will come – we are fighting and I think the introduction of quotas will be a good thing. I don’t even want it to be a discussion point anymore.

But we cannot fight nature and we have to allow mums or dads time to be mums or dads. If businesses continue to try and fight this by forcing people to conform to something they are not comfortable with, then nature will win in the end.  We will get there.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own business?

“Firstly, you have to ask yourself why. Why do you want to start your own business? You need to be self-propelled, you need to be resilient and optimistic and it needs to be the right time in your life.

Do you have a product or service that people need or want?  And why are you better placed to be able to make it succeed than the next person?

One of the great things about starting a business today is that the internet and social media means you can reach your customers and interact with your customers in a way that we couldn’t a few years ago.

During my collaboration with Yell, it was so encouraging to see its new findings, Word of mouth has moved online with the likes of Instagram, and especially for food and drinks businesses, keeping Instagram and other forms of social media front of mind has never been more important. If someone sees an amazing looking plate of food on Instagram now, they’ll likely go in search of the establishment. This is such a great opportunity for business owners now – nearly 2/3 of people who read a bad review but see that the business has responded will still go or still buy.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

My family.

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

Ha ha, I actually answered this question above.  I feel so lucky and right now, so if I could have more of the same I would feel like the luckiest person in the world.  My kids are still young and we are so privileged to be there whilst they grow up.  Before we went travelling, we were a lot more stretched and I found it very difficult to balance, but travelling gave us perspective and has helped me to focus on what really matters to me. I still find it hard to say no and I do miss a lot of great things; I could still see more of my friends, spend more time on myself and so on – but I am happy.

I have no idea what the future holds but I’m excited – who knows what’s around the corner!

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