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Female MBA Founders See Beauty In Luxury Health Businesses

Female start-up founders remain a minority but a growing number are seeing start-up success in the business of luxury health and wellbeing.

Wed Nov 26 2014

On the first floor of a private health club on a residential street in London’s upmarket Kensal Rise, Emma Sinclair is holding court with health and wellbeing fanatics. The youngest person in the UK to float a company on the stock market, at 29, she is surrounded by stacks of luxury body scrubs, vegan cocoa bars and forest dew skin conditioners.

In this setting she is a luxury health entrepreneur, helping to drive a market which many female founders are trying to crack, but which is a personal passion for Emma, co-founder of Wakeman Road, an exclusive artisan space for health brands. Founded in 2013, the start-up houses a curated collection, catering to members’ health and wellbeing needs with restorative therapies, beauty treatments and healing consumables.

“I like to think of this room as being a bit of an incubator for health and wellbeing brands,” says Emma, playing host to guests who are sipping raw fruit and vegetable juices and nibbling on sushi.

She used to be an investment banker at Rothschild but six exhaustive years in the City took its toll on her health. A former dealmaker at an M&A desk, Emma got started in finance by staking her student loan on the stock market. After a year at university, working part-time in a bar, she sent her trading sheets out to finance houses and received five job offers.

“I was paid I think £350 a week, which was unfathomable to me at the time,” she says of working at a stock broker acquired by Merrill Lynch. She left to found Mission Capital, a boutique financial advisory firm which eventually floated on AIM, London’s junior stock market, with a market capitalization of more than £500 million.

Now she is a start-up founder, running Wakeman Road in her spare time but growing Enterprise Jungle, a software business that helps companies derive value from their workforce by connecting employees to work together. “This is my night job,” Emma says of her health venture, as staff hand out product samples in Wakeman Road’s lounge space.

Female start-up founders remain a minority but Emma is one of a growing number specialising in health and beauty products.  

“Women are increasingly realising that they can be masters of their own destiny,” says Caroline Followell, business development manager at Henley Business School. “The rise of the internet and social media has greatly levelled the world of business whereby women are often attracted to setting up their own businesses, having become disillusioned with corporate life.”

According to PitchBook, a venture capital and private equity research firm, 14% of VC investments in 2014 in the US went to companies founded or co-founded by a woman; triple the number of women who won backing 15 years ago.

Among graduates of business schools, the number becoming entrepreneurs is rising and more quickly, particularly in Europe. At Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, 40% of all graduates have started a business in the past decade and 25% are active entrepreneurs, according to Jeroen de Jong, academic director.

Many female entrepreneurs believe that they are more likely to get funded or be successful because their products are female-oriented. Cosmetics and fashion businesses are often founded, run and owned by women of a similar age to the customers they target.

“It helps a lot because people who buy online in Latin America have different purchasing habits than in Europe,” says Faviola Palomino, MIP MBA graduate and female founder of online fashion and lifestyle market VIP SOUL in Peru. “The attitude towards fashion and the level of loyalty to fashion and lifestyle brands is completely [different].”

Health and wellbeing in particular are attractive to some entrepreneurs because they have a strong personal interest that helps them to create a unique brand.

“I was interested in skincare because I had terrible skin in high school. I was in desperation,” says Samuel Edouard, an MBA student at Grenoble École de Management in France.

“Finally, after trying all the creams on the market, I [created my own] focused on health and more natural ingredients. That became a hobby and I thought: why not just open up a business?”

She founded Bote Natirel in 2009. The start-up produced a small product range of body butters and facial lotions, scrubs and washes. Sam sold mostly to women in Haiti, where she spent summer vacations as a child on her family’s farm learning about local vegetables and fruits which she later used in products.

She was able to appeal to her demographic by focusing on natural ingredients which people in Haiti feel strongly about, she says. “Because of the culture and the way that people envisage skincare is different you have to tailor it to that region.”

The fashion and beauty sectors are crowded but female founders say they can stand out by building a strong brand that can resonate with like-minded consumers.

“Understand what your brand is standing for so you can stand behind that,” says Annee de Mamiel. She’s the founder of de Mamiel, a skincare company that creates products by combining the ancient principles of Chinese medicine and scientific research.

Annee believes that the way we look and feel are interconnected, and has created a brand that is centred on wellness. She founded the company after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments had affected her skin and no skincare products worked for her – so she created her own.

“It’s very dear to my heart because I believe it got me through a very difficult time in my life,” Annee says.

She sources unique ingredients, such as a particular crop of lavender grown at high altitude in New Zealand in rich soil, which is the most potent form of the plant and useful for anti-inflammatory products.

“[It is] the sourcing and the blending of the product which makes it different to other brands on the market,” Annee says.

De Mamiel is also different because its products are tailored to seasonality, with separate ranges for autumn, winter, spring and summer. “Because somebody is not doing it or it hasn’t been done, there is difficulty,” Annee says.

But she believes this uniqueness has been the key to her success. De Mamiel is sold through fashion retailer Net-A-Porter and Fortnum & Mason, the luxury department store chain, and is used by Virgin founder Richard Branson’s private island, Necker Island. “For me it is all about believing in what you do,” she says.

Although investment in companies set up by women has increased, raising funds from mostly male investors, particularly for brands that target female consumers, can be tricky.

According to research by US business school Babson College, VC firms with women partners are more than twice as likely to invest in companies with a woman on the executive team – but the total number of women partners at VC firms has fallen 6% to 10% over the past two decades.

“While a significant number of organizations have emerged to help support, train, and celebrate women entrepreneurs, more must be done to ensure women entrepreneurs have the funding they require,” says Kerrie MacPherson, a principal at EY, the professional services firm.

Part of the reason for the increase in female founders, suggests Caroline at Henley, is that they identify with the opportunity to be their own boss. “Often the MBA provides women with the confidence and self-esteem to take the plunge and to realise their dream,” she says.

But many women – and men – are still hesitant when it comes to leaving the security of a full-time job to pursue a business venture.

At Wakeman Road, Emma says becoming an entrepreneur was always about her passion.

Since leaving investment banking at the age of 27 she has achieved plenty of start-up success, but it required much graft and determination. “It’s quite exhausting. All the things you typically get when you start up your very first business – it doesn’t change,” she says. “You really have to have an appetite for it.”