Alison Cork MBE, serial entrepreneur and founder of makeityourbusiness.co.uk and National Women’s Enterprise Week (June 19-23, 2023) talks to Johanna Hamilton about her career and supporting female founders in business.

Were you born an entrepreneur or did you have entrepreneurship thrust upon you?

I think that entrepreneurs are born and I think it’s partly a turn of mind. It’s an optimism you have to have – a glass half full mentality – because you’re going to meet so many obstacles and challenges. You need that inner resilience and that faith that you’re going to succeed.

Tell me about your career journey?

I went to university, where I supplemented my income by creating a restaurant guide euphemistically called Good Food in Cambridge – because there was none at the time!

At university, I actually had no clue what I wanted to be, which was very disconcerting at the time because all of my contemporaries were becoming teachers or lawyers or accountants. And I remember my director of studies saying to me, “Allison, the bad news is that none of us have any idea what you’re going to be. The good news is we’re absolutely not worried about you”. And I think that was really interesting, because entrepreneurs, they’re not labelled as such from day one. You have to find yourself.

So, after university I scaled the Good Food guide up and that became my first business, replicating it in Oxford and York as well as in Bath and in Bristol. When the recession hit in the 80s, however, things got a lot harder.  From here I was fortunate enough to be in contact with a businessman who had seen what I was doing from a business point of view and offered me the chance to work alongside him. He was an entrepreneur, and we started a publishing company. Cutting a long story short, after many failures, we hit on a winning title for a book called the Government Auction Handbook that sold something like 312,000 copies in three months. And we floated the company on the London Stock Exchange off the back of it.

When I floated the company, I then stayed as a director for a couple of years and then I thought, “OK, what do I want to do now?” And then I thought about what my real passions were. And they have always been around home-making. So, I looked across the pond and saw Martha Stewart was doing really rather well.

So, you pivoted on Martha Stewart?

Martha Stewart has made home-making into a billion dollar empire. How has she done it? She wrote a book, appeared on TV, went into product…

So I tried to go about creating some similar success. I wrote a book on the only thing I knew about, which was how to run a mail order business, and it was called Profit Through the Post. I then got a gig on television. I launched Alison at Home online retail, which still exists to this day and has grown into licensing and also TV shopping. I now sell my brand on television in the UK, the US and, soon enough, Australia.

It’s quite exciting to feel that fear in your belly. But, looking at it more positively, it’s very exciting when you’re sitting at a desk with nothing in front of you, but a blank piece of paper. You have an idea and you have to physically make it happen. Then, weeks, months, years later, you look at the product or the service and you think, “I did that”. I’m a bit scared sometimes by entrepreneurship, but I also feel empowered by it!

You’re very self-sufficient. How do you build a team around you?

I think most entrepreneurs are self-sufficient because of a lack of funds. I’ve always been used to relying on myself to do everything, so it has taken me a number of years to understand that there’s no “i” in a team     . Now, I have got absolutely fantastic people who I’ve worked with for many, many years and I tend to build long-standing relationships. I think it’s very important that when you find your tribe, you absolutely look after them.

You brushed on funding there. How do entrepreneurs get access to money?

I have been running Make It Your Business for seven years, which is a nationwide network I run to support and help women start their own business. And I’ve realised that there are many factors influencing how and when a woman takes the leap into entrepreneurship. Women can naturally be a little cautious. So, there is that sort of hesitation. It’s not just about money, but it’s also the fact that they’re probably trying to manage several pillars of activity in their life. They’ve got a home to run, they might have children to manage. So, it’s not necessarily just about “I’m frightened of being an entrepreneur” or “I don’t have the money”.

I read a survey which said 28% of female entrepreneurs turned a profit after the first month of trading versus 21% of their male counterparts. That does not surprise me at all because women are instinctively a little bit more cautious for all the reasons we’ve discussed. But its my view that they are more likely to succeed long term than a man. Women succeed by building slowly, cautiously and profitably.

What about role models?

When I started out in the 80s, there were probably only three major female role models. There was Anita Roddick at Body Shop, Sophie Merman at Sock Shop, Debbie Moore of Pineapple Studios… and Margaret Thatcher – though she wasn’t strictly a business woman, she was telling people to go and run their own business and be independent.

Tell me about your work with budding entrepreneurs?

I was curious as to why more women weren’t starting their own businesses. And when I delved into it, it turned out that it was down to a lack of peers, lack of networking ability and therefore a lack of confidence. This isn’t insurmountable, if we just start a network where women who are running a business can come together and talk honestly about the ups and the downs.

It’s just been fantastic to see women gaining confidence just listening to other women. You can see what’s going through their heads as the meeting progresses, they’re thinking, “So, there’s this woman in front of me telling me and she’s running a successful business – and she’s got three kids.” Talking about the challenges of juggling work and home life makes people conclude: “Well, if her life isn’t perfect and she’s making it work, maybe I can make it work?”. It’s honesty that really empowers women.

Tell me about why you created the first National Women’s Enterprise Week?

I suddenly realised, there wasn’t a day to celebrate women starting a business. I could search online and find days to celebrate beer, or pizza or whatever. So, I thought, “hang on a minute, I’m going to create a day that celebrates women’s enterprise.” Then my husband said: “you’ll need a whole week!”, and so National Women’s Enterprise Week was born!

How does the Women’s Launch Lab fit in?

We’ve created the Women’s Launch Lab which is a nationwide competition. We worked through lots of fantastic entries and 12 winners are now going on a three day really intensive boot camp that we’ve constructed in London. At the end of it, there will be a pitching competition and we’ve got some very exciting high-profile judges so that will be really fun, hard work, but fun and hopefully a rewarding three days.

What are you hoping to achieve in NWEW?

So, on a national level, we’ve said to the public that they should go out and support their local female led businesses. To local entrepreneurs and business enterprise groups, I ask that they jump on the brand and start their own groups, to grow female founders in their regions. Then in London, the National Women’s Enterprise Week is a physical event. We’ve already got our Launch Lab winners and there’s a reception at the House of Lords on June 19th. We have lots of things happening in person and online, so I would urge your readers to find out more at www.makeityourbusiness.co.uk to get involved.