We gathered in an intimate room in Wadham, to hear from two young and extraordinarily inspirational entrepreneurs.
Named the “Mark Zuckerberg of publishing” by Bloomberg and the BBC, multi-national Serena Guen founded the award-winning SUITCASE Magazine remotely while in her third year at NYU. She is often called upon for her expertise in travel and recently launched the media agency branch of SUITCASE. Her accolades include being named as Forbes 30 under 30 in 2017, 25 under 25 most influential Londoners by the Evening Standard, winning a Woman of the Future Award for media and being shortlisted for the UK’s Young Travel Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2016.
Anna Gross is a co-founder and CEO of Project Access, a charity startup that helps bright underprivileged students apply and gain access to top universities in the UK. Since starting out, the organisation has helped 1,900 applicants, recruited 2,400 mentors and engaged over 240 volunteers. Gross’ vision is to build a charity where the impact and the revenue incentives are aligned, to create an agile and impact-driven organisation that brings systemic change to the access sphere.
SUITCASE: the culture of travel
Guen, who last came to Wadham to meet with friends before a party, sat there on an Oxford Women in Business panel, now a multi-award winning entrepreneur.
Immediately it became clear those both Gross and Guen’s drive comes from passion in something they believe in. SUITCASE magazine exists not only to help people with booking and planning, but to ignite inspiration. Guen’s interest in travel inspired her to create a travel guide which helps people to grasp the true culture of a place when they travel, instead of gaining a superficial experience through having to rely on the tourist attractions. She gave the example of people missing out on the “real Paris” by limiting themselves to an Eiffel tower visit.
Simply through Facebook and email, Guen managed to build up much anticipation before releasing her first issue, which, as she later pointed out, was one of her greatest feelings of achievement. Recently, she emphasised, her company’s focus has shifted to the digital. This is crucial, as the first thing people do upon hearing about a company or an entrepreneur, is Google them. Last year, she launched a media agency, which went on to do the brochure for the Orient Express among other projects.
Project Access: a world where passion and potential define your future
“Bright, low-income students are less likely to apply, less likely to receive an offer and less likely to graduate than their higher-income peers - even when they receive the same exam results.” Gross, now a successful social entrepreneur, was moved to find a solution.
What is today a flourishing non-profit organisation began as a simple Google Doc. sheet matching people who should have the opportunity to attend their dream university, with people who go there. When Gross began, she had to fundraise for her own salary. Her determination came from wanting to help as opposed to simply entrepreneurship. There is huge scope for being the one to make changes happen, taking control and “being the grown-up” yourself. One piece of advice, Gross said, is to find those experts who may feel out of reach. Often, they do want to talk and there is a culture of openness amongst experts and those who want to help find solutions to the social problems.
A summary of their responses:
Guen: the media industry is rapidly changing, so companies are forced to keep afloat and constantly innovate. It can be hard to maintain energy and passion after the initial flush of starting a company, but a founder must stay committed.
Gross: defining the company’s values, and choosing what it stands by no matter what challenges. Values may have to be adapted: Project Access operates in 14 countries now. Also, the company must figure out how it fits into other efforts, such as university schemes and other charities. Defining who the company wants to be can be difficult. Project Access aims to be a self-sustainable charity. They decided to directly charge those who will tell them if they are doing a good job: the universities, branding this as the most honest way to stay true to the mission.
Being your own boss:
Guen: You learn a lot by having a team. Guen now works with 15-20 people, therefore knows that seeming stressed out would create an unpleasant environment for the others. It is important to take breaks to ensure that you make good decisions. Guen tries to eat well, sleep 8 hours a night and do sport twice a week. She emphasised the importance of getting some distance, especially on the weekends, in order to stay inspired and excited. Guen struggles to remember her goals and to celebrate achievements, but it is important to try and remember, for instance, launching her media agency felt like a huge achievement.
Gross: tell yourself what you would tell a colleague! For example, if a mistake is made: sorry, and move on. Likewise, Gross reminds herself to relax. Gross says that when achieving goals, she never feels ‘finished’, because then her drive would be lost. Instead, she finds true success in creating something sustainable, which can run alone.
Dealing with competitors:
Guen: it is important to draw inspiration from, instead of feel intimated by competitors. However, it can be frustrating when people copy your ideas, but it is crucial to not be distracted. Focus instead on being first and being best – then, you will come to be recognised and respected.
Gross: with non-profit organisations, similar organisations popping up can lead to existential crises and becoming overly self-critical. Gross responds by doing “the maths”; she asks herself whether Project Access compliments the other companies, what their impact is and what she can learn.
Guen: Guen had to make all of her publicity contacts herself, and stresses the impact of being able to write a good email, which can be especially useful for those who are not naturally extroverted. She also asks for help from unofficial mentors, such as entrepreneurs around her age.
Gross: asking whoever the expert is in the situation is an important skill, and Gross is proud of herself for learning to do this.
Gender in the workplace:
Guen: the tourism industry tends to be female-dominated. However, Guen has found that there can be issues with older men trying to abuse their position. She suggests ensuring that there aren’t dinner meetings. Keeping it to breakfast and lunch as well as bringing a colleague with you makes it less likely that anything can be misconstrued.
Gross: due to societal pressures, often men find it easier to be confident, for instance with their own ideas and plans for success when pitching. Gross shared with us that when fundraising, it has been proven that women tend to ask people for less money. Gross has had to develop certain characteristics to make herself more assertive, such as holding people accountable if they make mistakes.
Advice on starting your business:
Guen: before starting, you must be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Trust your intuition. If you are not technically adept, begin using sites such as Wordpress and Instagram.
Gross: passion is crucial. Know that your idea is good and make sure you do your research. There is a “long to-do list in the world!” Gross built what looks like an entire tech platform with not a single line of code, so you do not have to know it all at the beginning.
Guen: the dream scenario is to have someone with you at all times who compliments you. For instance, if you have the idea but little knowledge in specific areas, it may be wroth hiring a student of finance for instance, who can teach you along the way but would not expect an unfeasible salary. Guen “cobbled together a team” by talking to many people about her ideas and then figuring out who else was passionate. It is useful to keep your team small unless you have found specific experts, as having experienced people can be a great addition. It can be a good idea to give people a small amount of equity as an incentive. But, take care when bringing on a co-founder: know them well in a working context (preferably not as friends) and it is best to bring someone on simply as a senior member of your team first, as you can always upgrade their status. One of Guen’s mistakes was to hire people based purely on an impressive CV. It is equally important to know if they will fit well into the company, and if they can handle working in a start-up, which can be a very different experience.
Gross: you could start convincing people to join your team by getting endorsements from experts. It is important to find someone with similar ideas and who believes in your values. Gross looks for people who have different skills from her, but the same values, namely frankness and positive response to feedback.
Youth: a disadvantage?
Guen: people do not look down on age, but on a lack of knowledge. You can even use it to your advantage – world spreads about young success stories. In some industries it is more important than others to have experience. Before starting your business, ensure the idea is fully formed instead of suddenly discovering it is not viable. Guen also reminded us to check your current contract at your job before making a start on the new business.
Gross: it is best to address it, and be honest. It is knowing your business well which builds credibility.
What is it about some business ideas that means they fail to come to fruition?
Guen: Guen shared an example of a business which failed even though the founder was talented in marketing. To the outside world, it can seem a business is going well, but the founder invested too much in the product and had not figured out a detailed business plan. Also, the industry was in flux, thus was unreliable. The lesson is not to always believe the press. More important than good press is staying focused on sustainability.
Gross: know your customer. It is important to understand the people who would be buying your product. A good method is to interview potential customers to see if the product is viable early on, not once the product is already out or if the business is failing.
Guen: its usefulness depends on the product. Social media is especially useful as it is free, but never rely on one single platform. Remember that social media impact does not transfer directly into sales, but it is good to use for testing and getting instant feedback.
Gross: Gross uses lots of social media, but not for those who are actually paying for the product: the universities. Instead, Project Access often uses social media for funneling people to universities.
Thank you so much to both entrepreneurs!
OxWiB: Oxford Women in Business, Hilary term 2018