Female Founders: Alison Cooper of Alicia J Diamonds On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Top line is vanity, bottom line is sanity. You could be successful with your sales but if you’re not making any money there is no point being in business! You need to turn a profit and when you start in business it’s easy to get taken in with sales and ignore the bottom line. If someone made me aware of this in the earlier days, it would have been very beneficial to hear!
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Cooper, Founder and CEO of Alicia J Diamonds.
As an entrepreneur and natural innovator, Alison Cooper finds creative solutions to gaps in the market. She has founded and scaled several multi-million-pound global businesses.
She sold En Route International, her £40m leading airline catering brand, to The Emirates Group in 2017, and went on to create Alicia J Diamonds. Alison noticed that clients who wanted to buy a high-quality diamond engagement ring didn’t know where to start or who to trust, and that many jewellers weren’t offering good advice or value for money. Alicia J stepped in to solve that problem.
Alison’s approach is hands-on. She has always been a frequent business traveller to the Middle East, and in her downtime, enjoyed buying beautiful jewellery there, learning about gemstones and diamonds in the process. With this new business idea in mind, Alison expanded her knowledge by training with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) as a diamond specialist. Then, together with her handpicked team of experts, she set up Alicia J Diamonds to help people make the right choice when buying diamonds and precious gems, whether they’re after an engagement ring or a sparkling present to themselves.
Alison’s integrity, expertise and honesty, and her go-getting entrepreneurial spirit and sociable personality make her an engaging person to be around and work with. She also spends time helping young businesswomen who need an extra leg-up, via the Women Supporting Women initiative at The Princes Trust.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial, ever since I grew tomato plants and sold them for a £20 profit for the Guides. I went to Germany to be with my boyfriend after studying and ended up starting a language school, and later a sandwich company.
In 2002, back in the UK and single, I set up En Route International, an airline onboard service company. In 2017, I sold it to the Emirates Group, having spent 15 years building the company from scratch into a multi-million-pound global business. Once I left, I wanted to do something different. I’ve always enjoyed buying gemstone jewellery when I travel abroad, particularly in Dubai, and saw that people didn’t know where to start when buying diamond jewellery in the UK. It particularly struck me when a friend of my son’s asked me for help in buying an engagement ring. I realised that there was a market to help people understand what to look for, and for someone to give them expert design and buying tips. Alicia J Diamonds was born. We offer a truly personal gemstone and diamond jewellery service. We help people design beautiful bespoke jewellery, as well as offering ready-to-wear jewellery online, too.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I named my previous company En Route International, I was determined that we would be truly global. The first country we went into was the USA. At the time, we had auditors, because I knew that selling down the line would be easier with fully audited accounts. They basically said to me that 82% of British companies which go to the USA, fail, and they didn’t think I should attempt it. But I knew that we needed to expand internationally to get the attention of international carriers. America was a vast market. If you get a deal on American Airlines or Delta, the volumes are huge. So, I said, I’m not taking that advice, I’m setting up in the USA. It was hard, but we made it a success, which came when we put in American staff rather than UK staff with visas (another learning curve). It’s an example of my determination when I know something is worth doing. I wanted to prove them wrong, and I did.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Before I started En Route International I ran a sandwich business in Germany. I was only in my early 20s and hadn’t realised that the sandwich business in the UK couldn’t just be replicated in a different country. Here, packaged sandwiches were booming. Factories were opening up and M&S were selling them like hotcakes. I just literally thought I’m going to have that for Germany. I learned very quickly that chicken tikka and prawn mayonnaise are really only popular in the UK! Germans prefer salami and cheese. At first it was only British nationals living in Germany who bought my sandwiches. They were very happy because I was giving them comfort food from home. It was just a silly mistake really. It taught me that you can’t take a concept that’s successful in one place and simply use it as a blueprint to roll out in another country.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I set up En Route International, I had a Non-Executive Director, James Drayton, who was an experienced CEO of airline catering companies. He was my sounding board. He was on the board but wasn’t involved in the everyday running of the business. I would tell him my crazier ideas, and he would always say, ‘Don’t go into work and tell the team about this yet. It’s a great idea, but let’s discuss it first.’ Because in the early stages I would upset my team by saying something one week and throw another idea at them the next week. He taught me how to really work out which ideas should become company strategies, by doing more research before I hit the Go button, without unsettling my staff with too many ideas at once.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think, honestly, it’s because women think they have to prove an idea in its full entirety and make money before they ask for help. Also, they just don’t brag and talk things up like men do. Many women will exhaust their personal savings and max their credit card before they go to the market to get an investor, or involve the bank. Whereas, it’s proven that men don’t spend their own savings, they go and shout about their idea straight away. And it’s better to get that investment in early.
Women are more judged by society and have the pressure of guilt if they have a family, too, which can put them off. Most men feel it’s their role to go off and work hard outside the family. As a man, if you’re asked about your sales forecast by a VC or PE, it’s proven that you get a more positive response to your responses. With women, more negative questions are asked.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Sadly, it’s been proven that women don’t support women. There are many women who have made money but are they backing women-led businesses afterwards? More of us need to put our money where our mouths are!
I think, as well, there’s a lot of financial jargon used in the city and by VCs and private equity (the majority of whom are men). They all speak this language. If you’ve not come from a finance background as woman, you can feel intimidated by the language and what is often a room full of men. We should work to make sure that start-ups can access help in understanding how everything works — by offering women founders more of a helping hand.
In America, positive discrimination is used to help female-led businesses. When applying for tenders as a supplier in the airline industry, my applications would be more weighted because I’m a woman founder. I found it empowering knowing that my business was 100% female founded. But here we don’t have that. It’s only around 2% of VC or private equity money that goes to women founders. I would support legislation and incentivisation to improve that percentage.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Being a woman founder is an excellent opportunity to have freedom, and not be confined by set holidays and working hours. If you run a successful company, it will give you a better work-life balance, particularly with children growing up. I made the choice to pay for my son to go to boarding school, but then spend quality time with him in the holidays. We went on many amazing trips, which he hugely benefitted from. But I wasn’t at the school gates at 3pm every day. You have to make an arrangement that works for you and not beat yourself up or feel guilty, or be guilt-tripped by others.
It’s also a great role-model for your children to become a successful female business owner. Then it’s not just about dad earning the most money and supporting the family.
I think women are generally more empathetic and I think they make great leaders because of that, often creating businesses with a very positive work culture.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
It is going to be tough, and there will be hard days, there’s no getting around that. Some people think you start a company and everything’s then hunky-dory — that’s rarely true. There will be times when you’re desperate and your back is up against the wall because you haven’t got enough cashflow or something. But I think you have to turn every negative into a positive. Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s part of the learning process.
You don’t need to know the business inside out before you start. If you’re determined and resilient and open to learn, you don’t need to be an expert in the industry to succeed. In fact, sometimes it’s better not to be, as you can then come in and disrupt it, seeing things from a fresh angle. I wasn’t an expert in aviation catering but I came in with a slightly different perspective and made a success out of new products.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t think everyone can be a successful founder. Some people have very good ideas but they’re then not able to monetise them. They may not know how to put a great team together, or to lead people and you need both of those to be successful. You have to be very determined, resilient, and to be able to work hard.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Top line is vanity, bottom line is sanity. You could be successful with your sales but if you’re not making any money there is no point being in business! You need to turn a profit and when you start in business it’s easy to get taken in with sales and ignore the bottom line. If someone made me aware of this in the earlier days, it would have been very beneficial to hear!
- Don’t think you can do everything yourself. You ideally need a management team of at least 2 right hands so you have people who you can delegate to. Choose someone to support you and someone to help in the decision making. Build a team around you who can support you and complement your skills. Don’t feel that you need to micromanage and make all the decisions yourself.
- Don’t underestimate the need to recruit the right people for the organisation to grow. On my journey, I found out by experience that if you have made an incorrect recruitment, it is better to keep the team happy and part company with that person rather than thinking that person is going to change to fit your company and the team around them.
- When you start out, if you need to use suppliers, it’s important to find a supplier who can build a powerful alliance with. You have to find a supplier who has similar company values to you. It’s easy to be consumed with just finding a supplier, but you should think about finding a supplier who has similar values to your business as they will support you when you’re scaling.
- If you’re looking for investment, don’t look for money, look for smart money. Smart money is looking for people who have specialist market knowledge about your industry already. They’re not just providing money; they provide knowledge that will help you on your scaling journey. In addition to this, always listen to your intuition when meeting investors. If you’re intuition says you’re not going to get along with your investor during the negotiation phase, listen to it and walk away from the deal. Don’t concentrate on the money, if they’re saying certain things that don’t identify with your values then you should make the decision to pull out. There’s no such thing as too much research when it comes to investment, don’t be afraid to ask other people who they’ve invested in and speak to the CEOs to see if the investment has gone according to plan.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m part of the Women Supporting Women initiative run by The Prince’s Trust. It’s a fantastic charity, which helps young women in the UK by offering practical support to stabilise their lives, develop their self-esteem and gain skills for work. We recently hosted a Big Breakfast event to raise money for them, which was a great success and also a forum for female business leaders to discuss how to help other women. Also, a percentage of the profits for Alicia J Bold Rings goes to the charity.
I’m passionate about helping the next generation to come through. I’ve gained a lot of business knowledge and have a lot of ideas that can help others on their way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are two things really. I’d definitely like some government legislation to help women found their own businesses. There could be a way of making sure the VCs and private equity give an equitable share to female-run companies. At the moment, as I said before, it’s only around 2% of investment that goes to women founders. Finding a way to increase that figure would help women feel like they were going to be taken seriously when they ask for finance.
I’d also love to be able to help achieve finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. Maybe there could be combination of helping women start-ups and research to combat this awful sad illness that affects so many people and families.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Warren Buffett. I’ve always been fascinated by him, and would love to chat to him about how he has got to where he is, and how he decides on investments and business decisions.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.