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Female Founders: Francesca Armstong On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

In my journey as a female founder working with my partner, I am no stranger to being stereotyped as just the ‘wife or girlfriend’ — I learnt early on not to get annoyed by this — it’s more of a reflection of that person than it is yourself. More often than not it means you’re not seen as a threat which definitely gives you an Ace up your sleeve.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Armstrong.

Francesca is a former international model turned philanthropist and entrepreneur. Alongside her partner Tim, she started her first business from their bedroom at the age of 21 and now has interests spanning property, retail, events, hospitality and eCommerce. She has started training programs for women and young people in developing countries that are designed to empower and lift them from poverty.

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?

Growing up being creative was my passion and I ended up studying Design at University. At the same time, my partner and I started our first business. I never really intended this to be my future or how I saw my ‘career path’ going. I always thought I would continue into design, fashion and the arts. However the business grew from strength to strength and so it was a natural progression to persevere with it full time. A decade later and we’re still going strong and have expanded into many different sectors. I still think — or hope — I will one day return to my roots in design and being creative. My philosophy is that it’s never too late to change anything.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’ve been running businesses since my early 20s — with the emphasis on running. On average I’d travel 200 days of the year. So I have shoes squirreled away on every continent! Like many others, during the pandemic I was forced to slow down and reassess priorities. That time to find balance and appreciate the value that self-happiness can bring was amazing. I found that I didn’t always need to be on the go to succeed and it was ok to take time to do things just for myself. As a result, I feel I have a better understanding of how to measure value within our businesses, which in turn makes me a better leader.

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?

Starting a business when you’re young means you’re often learning as you go, which makes for many funny mistakes along the way. In most cases these mistakes can be the making of you — helping you learn and grow as you pick yourself up.

I remember having to hire staff for the first time and googling interview questions beforehand. I was probably as concerned about making the right impression as the candidates were!

When I traveled to Bangladesh for the first time on my own I was completely out of my comfort zone. I was having to navigate the extreme contrasts and challenges that set developing countries apart from our experiences in the West.

I have often felt out of my depth and was having to wing it. But less “fake it til you make it” than “Fail Fast, Learn Faster” and over time, I’ve come to trust my gut instincts.

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?

I believe that one of the biggest factors in achieving success in anything, whether in your work or personal life is mindset. Although we are in control of our own mindsets — other people can be a big influence on them.

I feel I have managed to build strong base foundations that my mindset is centered around and it is my parents that I have to thank for these fundamentals. They have provided unconditional emotional support in everything I do — no matter how “out of the box” and been a practical sounding board when I needed it. Without this strong foundation I don’t think my work ethic, appetite for risk and feeling of stability would be the same.

Although over the years I’m sure there have been many times when parents must have thought I was crazy, they have never made me feel that way. A great moment for me with them was when they came with me on one of my work trips to Bangladesh and I was able to share with them that side of my work life and show them the impact we could have on so many people.

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 this depends a lot on where a woman is from and the kind of support that is available to her. In the Western world, often it’s lack of confidence or emotional support at home that is a limiting factor. Or just good old-fashioned sexism in the corporate world. In the developing world, the challenges can be more basic such as a lack of formal education and training, lack of access to childcare or basic medical needs or the infrastructure to support innovation. How do you get a bank loan if you have no funds? How do you produce items to sell if you don’t have the logistics to get supplies or distribute them for sale?

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?

I strongly believe in empowering others to improve their own lives. That’s why I’ve set up training and education programmes for women and young people in developing countries such as Bangladesh. Access to education and opportunities are critical for all but sady, still, women and girls tend to be the last to benefit. It’s only through access to resources like education that women will be able to realise their full potential and hopefully lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

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?

I simply ask: why not? We have evolved and broken down barriers to entry on most things by now, so there should be no limit to our ambitions to lead.

However, I strongly believe we all still have a part to play in paving the way for the generation that comes after . We need to ensure that the gap between opportunities for women and their male counterparts eventually ceases to exist. Part of that responsibility includes propelling ourselves as much as possible and trying to be the example which we want our daughters’ daughters to look up to and aspire to be like.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

⦁ That you have to know how to do everything from the outset — as I said before, I’ve spent a lot of time winging it and looking things up on Google to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Knowing what you don’t know is often a good place to start!

⦁ That you can’t learn along the way — with an open mind and optimistic spirit you will pick up things quickly that will help you succeed.

⦁ That you have to stick to one path / business / idea — being agile and spotting opportunities that might seem tangential can often reap great rewards.

What is true though, is that an ability to change and evolve as you go is key.

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?

Although anyone can be a founder. Not everyone can be a successful founder. Just like not everyone is cut out for other paths in life. It really comes down to what you want, are prepared to commit and how much you are willing to sacrifice along the way.

As a woman; you should embrace all the parts of your characterer and personality that make you the woman you are. Although society often portrays many female traits, such as being more ‘sensitive’ or in ‘touch with emotions’ as weaknesses; use these to your strength. These all form part of your judgment, intuition and leadership.

As a key trait, you should be able to evolve. You also need to be able to separate your emotions and differentiate between what you want to do vs what should be done for the greater good of the company. You also need to be able to listen to other ideas, suggestions and feedback and make an informed decision based on the facts on the table at the time.

OK super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

⦁ A Thick Skin: In my journey as a female founder working with my partner, I am no stranger to being stereotyped as just the ‘wife or girlfriend’ — I learnt early on not to get annoyed by this — it’s more of a reflection of that person than it is yourself. More often than not it means you’re not seen as a threat which definitely gives you an Ace up your sleeve.

⦁ A strong sense of self: I try not to let how other people view me influence how I see myself. I always bear in mind the objectives I am committed to and don’t let “noise” deter me from that path. Your intuition is a powerful weapon in business and you need to wield it.

⦁ Know what you don’t know: No one can be good at everything. It’s important to hire people that have the skills you don’t. It’s also important that those people reflect your own morals and stance on key issues.

⦁ Master emotions: You need to be empathetic without letting your emotions compromise your decisions and choices.

⦁ Embrace challenges: If you’re not being asked “why”, ask yourself “why not?” If you are never really challenged then you need to wonder if you’re not doing enough!

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I would like to think we are capable of making the world a better place but I don’t feel I have achieved enough success or made enough of an impact yet to make the world a better place. But it’s a work in progress!

What I do try to always do is make a better world for the people that work with us by:

⦁ Creating jobs and fostering a happy and healthy work environment

⦁ Supporting the people that work with us and the families that they in turn support

⦁ Being an example for girls/women that you can do and be anything.

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.

Thank you for saying that, I hope that eventually I can be a positive influence on the world in some way!

I think if I could inspire any kind of movement it would be built around the concept of ‘passing it on’. There is such a disconnect between those of us with opportunity at our fingertips and those without.

Often in the West we take for granted the simple things and get stuck in the rat race, chasing what we see as happiness. If I have observed one thing from working in countries where disadvantage is stark, it is the ability of the people to make the best of whatever their situation. That mentality is invaluable and many of the people I have met on that journey live richer and happier lives than those that I know with all the material goods in the world.

If we were to stop measuring “good” based on wealth and possessions and look at the value of sharing life lessons etc could we look at a way to combine the two. What could be shared on either side of this opportunity equation that could lift everyone up?

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.

Sheryl Sandberg — One of my favorite books is ‘Lean In’ . She highlights so many key fundamentals to inspire and guide women in leadership roles and I think she would be fascinating to spend time with.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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