Amanda: Hello. This is Amanda Alexander. You are very welcome to another episode of the Inspiring Women Interviews. Today I am interviewing Jenny Holloway. Jenny is the CEO of Fashion Enter. Fashion Enter is a manufacturing source of excellence and training academy to support particularly unemployed women who’ve had a curve ball thrown at them in their lives and who want a future. I’ll be asking Jenny particularly about this work that she does as a social enterprise within Fashion Enter.
I met Jenny at the Forward Ladies Women in Business Award Finals. Jenny had won the regional award for social enterprise of the year. She then went on to win the overall award at Forward Ladies for social enterprise category. Jenny and I got on like a house on fire and I was absolutely fascinated by her story. She started off as a senior buyer at Arcadia Group. She was a selector at M&S. She was assistant buyer at Littlewoods. For 25 years she worked in industry and had got to very senior positions within fashion. She then gave it all up and she’s going to be telling us the story of how she gave it all up, what happened, and business and the social enterprise that she has grown since. Welcome, Jenny, and thank you very much for being here today.
Jenny: It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Amanda: Let’s go back to what I just mentioned, that moment when you realised that you weren’t going to work for Marks and Spencer’s anymore.
Jenny: The last job was actually Arcadia and I was a senior buyer and I loved that job. It was a very exciting job. At that time in my life, I was about 28 to about 31 and I was travelling the world, I was going to Milan and New York, and it’s a great life when you’re single and you’re just expanding your horizons with your career.
It is also very stressful job. You used to have that pit in your stomach on a Sunday because you knew the Monday morning figures were going to be coming through and you’re thinking, “I hope I’ve had a good week.” There’s this saying in buying, “You’re only as good as your last week’s sales.” In part it’s true. It’s all about figures and performing.
I think as you get older you sort of start questioning the validity of targets and money and it’s just a lot of pressure. I think I came to a pinch point when I was working with a certain director and I was sort of advised to be buying a jodhpur. I was saying, “Well actually, the jodhpurs don’t work as effective as the trial I’ve had and we’ve just done the ski pants and I’ve made a ski pants really up to the minute. You can take this detachable stirrups off. They’re saying, “No. No. No. Listen to me. I want us to buy this.”
Anyway, I bought it. Then three months later, it was very much, “Well why did you buy that, Jennifer? Why did you not fight for your stirrup more?” I thought, you know what? Life is a little bit too short and a little bit too precious to worry about the difference between a jodhpur and a ski pant. I decided that at that point that I would go and work for myself. I wanted to have more autonomy. I wanted that freedom of choice, really.
Amanda:So what did you do?
Jenny: I spoke to my husband, who actually I met when I was 15. We are very much childhood sweethearts from the same town, which you can probably tell from my accent, is in the west midlands, actually in the black country, in a small town called [Voorhees 00:03:58]. I said, I just had to be my own boss. I just wanted to make my own decisions.
We developed a company called Retro. Retro was a collection, which we wanted to sell to the high street. We were selling it to lots of different companies, including John Lewis, but also Materlan, because actually, a good style is a good style. It depends on what the fabric you use and the components. Obviously, for John Lewis, we would’ve put in pearl buttons, and for Macro and [inaudible 00:04:32], we were putting a polyester plastic button, but the styles were beautiful. We were always very proud about the quality that we would do.
As time went on, the business grew. Before we knew it, we had 10 years of trading behind us. Within that time, I had two children, and I actually was quite heavily pregnant with the third child. It was too much. We were turning over 36,000 a week. This was sort of back in the year 1999 actually.
I said to my husband, I’ve got to do something here. I’m sort of taking my children around with me to the factories to do quality control audits. It just wasn’t a life. I think lots of women get that very guilty feeling, between work life balance. It’s such a hard thing to achieve. Especially when it’s your own business as well.
I decided to contact a competitor, which I’d love to say the gentleman’s name, but I won’t. Actually he’s no gentleman. I contacted this competitor. I said, “Look I’ve got 150 sales force, like [P2D 00:05:41] type operation, where people are selling from home, lovely, lovely women, women who were so talented all around the country. This other company also had the same kind of set up. By now, as I said, I was pregnant with a third child on the way. Over a course of three months, we sort of decided that we’re going to merge our two companies together. I thought it was a match made in heaven. Actually I’m a very honest and genuine person. If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. I trusted this man to be the same. You can almost guess what’s going to happen, can’t you?
I was so naïve. I’ve got a business degree. I specialised in law, not that that helps me. I just decided that, okay, I was going to trust this guy. We transferred our collections over, our sales force of 150 people were transferred over. My husband kept on saying, “Oh I feel a bit uncomfortable here. We haven’t got much in writing.” I say, “You know, we’ve got all these emails. We’ve got all these confirmation going through. We sent letters confirming what we’d agreed.”
Anyway, I had a phone call on a Tuesday night. It was half past nine at night. The guy said, “I feel very uncomfortable about this merger.” I said, “How can you feel uncomfortable? We’ve done everything that we said we would. You got all the work force. We’ve transferred all the collections over.” He said, “No, I feel really uncomfortable.” He said, “I’m pulling out.”
In that two minutes of conversation, I felt as though my world just fallen apart. By now, I was eight months pregnant with my youngest son. He’s called Zach. My husband, you can imagine, can’t you, the words of, “I told you so. You trusted this man. I told you he wasn’t honourable.” Our house was tied in to the business. It was just awful.
My parents aren’t alive now. God love them. They were wonderful people but they didn’t have a penny, so there’s no way … We just had no money. I actually can remember going to the DHS and saying to them, “I have no money whatsoever.” I came out with a plastic bag of food. We had a tin of Spam. I haven’t had Spam for years. I used to have Spam when I was a child, with my mom and dad. I’m 54 now, so that sort of tells you what life was like then. They gave me a £20 note. You know, I felt the richest person ever, just the little, little things that make such a difference. We had a [drawer 00:08:25] of coffee. We had some tea bags, and beans and soup.
That’s how bad it was. We went from having a good lifestyle to having nothing at all. I remember looking at council houses with Tim, because we thought we were going to lose our house. Worst still, we went to Bromley, which is where we were. We went to the council there. We explained what had happened. I thought we were going to put into housing, because we had two children with a third on the way, as I said. Actually said, “Oh no. There’s no shared accommodation. You’ll have to go to a women’s hostel with your children.”
Do you know what? It actually makes me catch my breath now. They said that my husband was going to a men’s hostel. I thought that was horrendous. I was actually … I popped my clogs I the council. I said, “How barbaric that you would treat anybody like that, because of a third party.” This is his curve ball. I say often life throws you a curve ball. You don’t know how to handle it, but you have got to flaming well find a way, because actually, life is very, very precious.
Anyway, after having a hissy fit, I was absolutely hysterical, because I thought we were going to be split up. Honestly, Amanda, I cannot get over how much that [inaudible 00:09:57] me talking about it.
We came out and we realised, you couldn’t lose the house, because there’s no way we’re going to be split up. I came up with this idea, I knew somebody that worked at the New of the World at the time. Obviously, that papers disbanded now. I rang him up. I said, “Look. I need you to speak to the bank manager of the certain bank that we were at to say, “I hear you’re going to evict this woman. Isn’t it awful, these poor children.” I said, “You’ve got to make a story out of it, because I can’t lose my home.”” God bless him. He did. He rang up the bank manager and said, “Surely, you can’t do this to this family. They’ve done nothing wrong except trust the wrong person.” They actually gave us this massive repayment plan. We managed to get through that period. We saved the house, but I got to the point. I was going to lock myself in that house. I was not coming out, because I just could not have our family split up. I just thought that was the worst thing in the world.
You know, my heart goes out to people that that happens to. Amanda, it makes you … Sometimes when you have that kind of horrendous adversity in your life, you really have an empathy for other people and what they go through. It’s not a weakness. It’s just that flaming curve ball that gets you sometimes when you just don’t expect it.
That sort of explains what happened with that company. Actually, I then changed quite substantially from becoming this go getter and wanting the big job and the big house and the trappings that go with it. I suddenly realised, actually, money is nothing at the end of the day. Your relationships, your friends, your mental health and well being. I don’t want to be remembered for what I had. I want to be remembered for what I did. It just fundamentally changed me. I was so upset that this man could do that to us as a family.
First of all, I wanted to shoot his knee caps off. I would’ve found anybody to have shot his knee caps off at that time, which is obviously totally irrational. I remember thinking the only way I’m going to get over this in my life is I’m going to stop making people make that mistake that I just did. I’m going to help people to realise that actually there are horrible people out there and we can work in a nicer way, in a better way that’s more ethical and sustainable. I just wanted to do some good. I know that that sounds like a very crass thing to say, but actually, it’s 100% the truth. I just thought it’s about helping people.
Interrupt me. I don’t want to talk too much here.
Amanda: Oh gosh no. One thing I’m really curious about, you have this amazing idea to call the New of the World and make a story, and that pressurised the bank into giving you a repayment plan. At this point, so you managed to stay in the house. That changed what you wanted to do in life and change the direction of your business.
Amanda: The practica thing was you were almost due to give birth at this point. How did you manage to pay your mortgage?
Jenny: My husband is an electrician by trade. He’s an electrical engineer. He’d worked with retro with me for those 10 years, which wasn’t easy, a husband and wife relationships not easy when you’re talking 24/7 about the business. He went straight back into employment. That’s how we managed it. I was eight months pregnant then, and eventually giving birth. I couldn’t do anything.
Actually this is probably the first time in my life when I really couldn’t do anything. I was looking after the two boys who were … There’s 17 months between Thomas and Cullum. It was a handful. I think I was at the point of a nervous breakdown as well. I don’t know how we got through that period, but we did. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s for sure.
Amanda: God. God, yeah. Tell me. From having that realisation, from having got over the wanting to knee cap this awful man.
Amanda: How did you actually … What was the transition between having your third boy … Sorry, is that Callum? Your youngest?
Jenny: Zach is my youngest.
Amanda: Sorry, Zach is your youngest, you said. Zach is the youngest. So having Zach, what was the next point that you created another business?
Jenny: I had Zach. I looked after the boys for a few months. I think I just had time out, a good sort of six months out of working, which to me, was a long time, because I’d worked all my life. I’m quite independent. My husband knows that. As I said before, what you see is what you get. He knew that I wasn’t really going to be a stay at home mom. I loved my children with all my heart, and my husband, but actually, I just can’t stay at home. It isn’t me.
I had that six months of real reflection. My mom was a schizophrenic. It was those days of the 60’s where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was very much an accurate portrayal of how mental health illness was actually reviewed at that time. You were very much labelled as mad. I was always very mindful of mental health issues. I just sort of kept going back to I want to help people.
One day, I started to ring up business support organisations. At that time, it was Business Link for London. I rang up governmental office for London. I just thought I must have a lot to offer the creative industries, generally, you know, new designers. I just didn’t want people to make those mistakes, those horrendous mistakes that I’d made. That’s what I did. I kept ringing up and ringing up and didn’t take no for an answer.
Then eventually, I came across a lady called Olga Astaniosis, who said, “Oh actually, I’ve got a project on at the moment. I could do with a little bit of advice.” She said, “Come and see me. We’ll have a chat.” She set me on that path of helping people and being a consultant. I worked really hard, because I loved this. I loved the thought that I could take 10 new business startups, who were passionate about their design of garments, but actually, they didn’t have any business acumen. I could stop them making those mistakes about filling in order to cheap, and where to get the fabric from, and making sure … There’s something called a ceiling process, when you do a garment with a factory, you know exactly what you’re going to expect. All that was second nature for me, because that’s what I had done professionally. It was just so incredibly rewarding.
I think that my name got banded about a bit with, at the time, the London Development Agency. They started a new project called the London Fashion Forum, which I was a project manager. It was fantastic. I don’t realise how fantastic it was to be paid to do a job that I really loved. That’s three years funding. I worked with a wonderful man called David Jones, who I’m still very friendly with. He was the director. I was the project manager. We had funding for three years. It was so successful, we had funding for another three years, which took us up to 2006. It just made me realise I could never go back into that commercial work again, because as I keep saying, life is so very precious.
The funding finished and it was a bit, well what do I do now? There’s certainly one thing for sure. I feel as though I will be too old to go back into buying anyway. That’s not where I wanted my life to go. I thought, I know. I’m going to carry on. I’m going to social work, this sort of social enterprise work for young designers.
My husband was not happy about this, because he said, “Jennifer, I know what you like. You’ll give it 100%. You’ve got no money to invest into a business,” which is true. Actually I had £8,000 worth of shares. That’s all I had. He said, “I would firstly fair that if you go back to being a consultant as you were with the London Fashion Forum, and find new projects.” I said, “Well, I don’t know that there’s any more money around. I’m not prepared to wait and spend another year trying to write a bid to get more money.” I said, “I wanted to do something.” I said, “I [inaudible 00:19:09] a shop.” There’s a lovely man called David [inaudible 00:19:12], who was at Central [inaudible 00:19:15]. I found this little shop that was tucked away called a [secondary 00:19:21] location, very grey, very dingy. I persuaded this man to let me have the shop for free, basically.
I said, “I’m going to drive foot fall to here. I’m going to open a shop for young designers.” One of the biggest problems for very talented young designers is that they’ve got no way of selling their products. I said, “I would take on 20 of these designers, and we’d sell the garments for them. We’d take a commission. We would start the business that way.”
Jim said, “No, you’re doing it, Jennifer, because I know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a disaster.” He said, “Right.” He went skiing for a week. When he got back, I had opened the shop, to which, he was hysterical. He was absolutely hysterical.
Amanda: Not with laughter?!
Jenny: No. Good god. No. He was apoplectic with rage. Apoplectic. He said, “Why would you do that? Why would you have all that risk. You’re now going really into business.” Even though it was a social enterprise, he said, “It’s still a business. You have no money and you’re going to have to fund this shop yourself.”
You know, it was one of those times when, again, I had the £8,000 shares went into the shop fit, so we had no money, and I bought a bicycle, which actually was ridiculous, because I decided. I live about four miles away from Croydon. I decided I was going to cycle there and back, because actually, we really were down to pennies again. The boys were growing up. We really didn’t have that much money. I felt quite bad, actually, that I’ve gone against my husband’s wishes. It was such a big jump into the unknown.
Anyways, I only cycled there three times, because it was just too far. I’m just too old. I thought I was going to get run over by the trams as well, so that was a bit of a disaster.
It shows you if you really want to do something, if it’s in your heart, and it sort of gets into your soul, and it gets under your skin, I can’t ignore that. What is it? Is it a calling? Is it a desire? I don’t know. All I know is I just think that life’s so precious. Why be miserable or unhappy in what you’re doing, because a whole world’s out there. We shouldn’t be frightened to fail.
Many, many years ago, I read a book. It said, feel the fear and do it anyway. Actually, I live my life like that. Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s right, but at least it’s my life, and I’m making those decisions.
The shop was really, really hard work. My husband was right. However, we were there a good four years in total. We traded. We kept doing little projects and little initiatives. Our database grew. Actually, that’s when we also got fashioncapital.co.uk, which is a government website. They put 2.1 million into that website. There was no real exit plan, which I thought was a [waffle 00:22:34], because I sort of spent six years of my life building up that website. Actually, very kindly, we were allowed to continue with that website, which we have maintained to this day. We have 80,000 database in total on that website. We’re very proud to be able to provide really good quality information to help designers free of charge on how their business should be run and trends, et cetera.
That’s really how the company started and how we developed. Do you want me to continue with the rest of where we are today?
Jenny: One of the re-occurring problems we had with the designers was making of samples. We would recommend a CMT, which means cut, make, and trim unit. We would say go and use so and so. They’ve got a good reputation. I hate letting people down. My dad used to say to me, “If you haven’t got your word in life, Jennifer, you’ve got nothing.” Can I really believe that? I believe your word should be your bond. I tried very, very hard never to lie. People sometimes may find me blunt, but I’m not a liar.
I thought that these poor girls were going out and using these sample units that we had recommended, and they would ring me up in floods of tears saying, “Well you told me they were good. They’ve made such a mess. I spent all my money.” I just felt shockingly awful.
I decided to open a little sampling unit myself, because I can guarantee then that everything would be done as beautifully as it could be. God love a lady called Kasia, who is with us today. I found this lady called Kasia, a Polish lady, who is so tactically supreme. I asked her if she could find just a little unit. She had just three machinists. There was just the five of us. Jenny Sutton, actually, Jenny had been with me as an intern, when we were at Croyden. Jenny was still with us and just like my right hand person and lovely day.
We opened up this sampling unit. It was like this massive release that we would never let anybody down. We didn’t. We just kept growing and growing. We got a good reputation very quickly for being honourable. People came to us and said, “I want 10 of those.” I would actually say, “Don’t do 10, because you don’t know if it’s going to sell, but if you just made 1 and then photographed it, you get the money in. If it sells, we’ll make it towards, rather than you wasting all your money.” Which I know is unheard of in the commercial field, but that’s how we built up the company. I don’t want to take people’s money unless I know that they’re going to make some money too.
We grew. We started growing. Then sort of the machines,we had about 20 machines in total. Then I had this idea. I kept watching ASOS, which at that time was called AsSeenOnScreen. I kept watching them growing. I was thinking, “Oh what a clever idea that is, really.” I contacted the owner of the company, a guy called Nick Robertson. I said, “I’ve got all these wonderful designers. Why don’t you have a page of these designers, because they’re just so exciting.” He said, “What a great idea. I’m happy to support you with that.” Suddenly, they were getting orders of 50 and 100 and 300 if it was being sold out. We were now struggling to keep up with that momentum of making not samples, but production.
I went back to Nick R and I said, “Do you know what? You need a UK factory, because actually, your business model is all about fast track production.” I remember when I was at Marks and Spencer’s. We used to go and see [inaudible 00:26:38] in Barnsley, and Burnham, in Nottingham. These factories were fantastic. They’re not sweat shops. These were middle aged women, who were proud to be a seamstress. Their daughters would come in. It was all succession planning. it was a craftsmanship. I said, “Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we bring back a bit of garment manufacturing back to the UK?” He said, “Actually, I like that idea. What a good idea.”
Listen to this. Isn’t this absolutely amazing. I’m to do presentation to Nick and a guy called Nick Beighton. He’s actually now the CEO of ASOS. I did this presentation about why they needed a factory. Then I had a loan of £230,000 to open up a factory. Isn’t that amazing? I mean how often would that ever happen in your life?
The truth is whilst it was amazing to get the money, actually going from a little sampling unit, where one woman was making one garment. She’s making it beautifully and you can control it, going from that to a factory, where you need a minimum of 30 people. You need cutters. You need finishers, pattern people, graders. It was actually a completely different business model. I was very naïve and very, very foolish to think it was going to be an easy transition.
Probably the first six months, I probably cried most days, because I was so out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know really what I was doing whatsoever. I just thought, this is probably one of the worst situations professionally in my life, because I just hate that letting of people down. They’ve entrusted me with all that money. Oh god. I just felt awful.
Anyway, the one thing I never compromised was quality. I never lied. I told them about the weaknesses of the company, my weaknesses as the CEO, but I didn’t give up. There were many times when I used to walk my dog, which was a collie. I just tried to work things out and go for long walks. Also, my children was still young. It was really a stressful period. You just have to find a way in life. I kept falling over. I would brush myself down, and I’d go back in there with a smile, slightly a grimace, not necessarily a smile. I would go back in there.
Bit by bit, I learned lots about my own weaknesses, and strengths, and surrounded myself by wonderful people, like Kasia. There’s a guy called Chris, who is with me today as well. He’s just my right hand person in the factory. We never submitted a bad quality garment. We could’ve done. We could’ve done so many sharp things. We could’ve subcontracted that to another factory. We could’ve paid machinists illegally – like cash. I kept on saying, “I cannot look at myself in the mirror if I worked like that.” That, to me, that’s worse, because, as I keep saying, it’s only money at the end of the day. I have a saying about, you have to keep your spirit level, level. If you do things that aren’t right, that bubble starts tilting the wrong way, and it goes out of your box. I just cannot lead my life like that.
Bit by bit by bit, we just got better. It was a long time. I reckon it was a good two years to really set that factory up with really good systems, processes, procedures. We just made gains, I suppose. Today, we are making 7,000 garments a week. We are making it for Marks and Spencer and ASOS and Finery. It was that work where we were just realising, actually, that there was a massive skill shortage, just a massive skill shortage in the industry, which is why we opened up a stitching academy. We wanted succession planning. Actually, even today, 80% of our ladies are East European, who are mortified by Brexit, I have to say. That took a lot of getting them to realise that the world doesn’t actually think that they’re illegal immigrants, taking money away from the NHS, et cetera. It just took a lot of time for them to be stable again.
The stitching academy was therefore born. How sad is it that in the country that there wasn’t a stitching qualification. We actually had to write the qualification for level one and level two, because it didn’t even exist.
It’s been a long, long, long haul, and lots of ups and downs along the way, but actually, the worst time was this time last year. It just so happened that the production wasn’t coming through. We hadn’t done anything wrong. We had no RTMs, return to manufacturers. We had no quality issues. We just weren’t really getting the orders. It started in July. So it’s July, August, September. By October, we just had no work. I was so loyal to the women downstairs. I didn’t want to lay them off. They’d been loyal to me for six years as stitching. I kept trying to find new accounts. I just got myself into more and more debt. Actually, this time now, December, was the worst ever trading period of the company. I actually thought we were going to go.
There must be people that listen to your podcast who will know that your lying in bed at night. The rivers of Babylon are upon you, because you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to pay all the bills this week. I was thinking it’s Christmas. I’ve got children.
All our reserves, because it started in the summer, the drying up of the orders. All the reserves have gone. By January, I was told by the accountant, actually, his words was so poignant. “What don’t you understand about critical, Jennifer?” That’s what he said. It was like such a good slap in the face with a wet fish. He said, “You are absolutely on your knees. What are you going to do?” He said, “You’re going to have to look at closing the business.” This was the meeting just before Christmas. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of crybaby, but you just can’t help your emotions. I remember holding my chin, because it was wobbling so much in that meeting, that I actually had to leave, because I was going to burst into floods of tears. I actually didn’t know what to do.
It’s not often I have a row with my husband, like a big barney of a row. We got back into the car after the meeting. He said something, probably along the lines of I told you so, which doesn’t help at the time. I just exploded. I just went wild and just said, “How dare you not support me after knowing me for 35 years. You know that I can’t just walk away. I have to find a way out of this complete mess that we’re in.” I was just hysterical.
I just got back home. I walked the woods. I love walking. Green space to me just gives me a clear head. I think I went walking for about two hours. I thought, you know, I really should close the business. I think we should … It was just everything was black. After two hours, I thought well, hey, what have I got to lose? If I throw in the towel now, I’ll regret that for the rest of my life. I owed everybody money. I just thought I’m going to tackle it. I’m going to ring up all my suppliers. I’m going to tell them, “I’m in a dreadful space,” but they knew me and they trusted me. God love them. They all did support me. They said, “As long as you give us a little bit each week, and if you can’t, you tell us.” I gave them my word. Actually, I kept thinking, what have I got that I can sell if I let these people down. To me, that’s worse than anything. That’s my dad’s words again about the word is your bond.
We crawled out of horrendous financial situation to be really honest. We just bit by bit. I had to make some people … Actually only a few. I think I made three people redundant. Some of the management people took salary cuts, which I really appreciated their support at the time. I told everybody that we had to have a new way of business, particularly in the factory. The FTA, the Fashion Technology Academy, that we were building up, I spoke to [inaudible 00:36:46], who were fantastic. They provided us two years earlier with £470,000 to open up the Fashion Technology Academy, which is a whole building of new machines to learn stitching, pressing, quality control, cutting. Again, how could I have walked away and let all those people down that had confidence in us as a company? I just couldn’t do it.
We just clawed our way back from the absolute brink. It was awful. I know that there are people that I know personally that are having that sort of time now, where they just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. You know what my advice is, just don’t give up. Just keep finding a way. If you really believe in what you’re doing, if you really believe that it’s right what you’re doing, then don’t give up. If it’s making you ill, obviously that’s a completely different scenario. You’ve got to weigh your pros and cons.
At the moment, are we in a happy place? Yes, we are. As I said, we’re doing this 7,000, sometimes 8,000 garments a week. We’ve got the Fashion Technology Academy, which has got all these learners that we’re working with through job centre plus, so if you’re in North London or East London, then these courses are free. Actually, we’ve just won a programme with JP Morgan. They’re allowing us for six months to allow anybody to do the course for free, which I just think is wonderful.
Amanda: Anyone throughout the country?
Jenny: No, in London. London based unfortunately. If they’re in London, they can do our courses for free. These are proper qualifications. We don’t do any rubbish, Amanda. We are very funny about the standards and always have been.
Amanda: It doesn’t surprise me at all.
Jenny: We’ve got to do the best we can. Yes. We’ve got to be the best we can always. You keep stretching and challenging yourself.
There’s a lady called F. I thought I’m going to say her name. I was talking to her recently. She’s so articulate and so bright. I said, “How come you’re here? How come you’re on this course and you’re unemployed? You’ve got so much about you and so much to give.” In the space of three months in her life, she lost her job. Her house is connected to her job. She lost a boyfriend. She lost a father. Then her grandfather was seriously ill.
That’s that curve ball, isn’t it? That’s that curve ball that comes in your life and it takes you completely off your feel. All the best laid plans in the world will not prepare you for that catastrophic series of events. It’s just … That is the sandwich man, beeping his horn there, Amanda. I think you can hear that. All the machinists are going to go get their sandwiches.
I’m absolutely privileged that we can take this lady and we are giving her stitching skills. She actually said to me, after that first conversation, she said, “I feel as though I was destined to come here, because I’ve always loved design. I’ve always loved fashion. Now I can make my own garments. I’m starting to sell to my friend.” All the money in the world cannot buy me that satisfaction.
Amanda: I understand.
Jenny: Oh I’m quite emotional talking about that now. I just think how wonderful it is that she was in absolute despair and we’ve given her that hope. She has something in which she can go out and change her life. I just think that is so rewarding. I love that. I’m just dabbing my eyes. I’m just dabbing my eyes. I’m okay now.
I’ve got loads of those stories. They are all true. That’s the call that just, in my darkest hour, when things do go wrong, of course they go wrong. It’s not perfection in any way, shape, or form, but that’s what I can hold on to. It gives me that real sense of achievement. All the people that … We now employ about 107 people in total. We have this ethos about we can do some good, and we can change. Every little bit you do that is making things better, we can make a difference. We can all make a difference. You just can’t be scared to do that.
Amanda: I like that.
Jenny: It’s all very profound, isn’t it, Amanda? Very profound.
Amanda: Oh yes.
Jenny: It is 100% what I believe in.
Amanda: Very profound. Wow. You need to write a book, Jenny.
Jenny: I don’t know about a book. I just think while I can, I do get up hideously early. I get up at 5:00 each morning. To make matters worse, I know I told you, Amanda, when I saw you, I’ve got a wonderful friend called Jane, who when I was 19, she let me go and live with her. I was sponsored by Rolls Royce to do my degree. I had to move to [inaudible 00:42:26]. I persuaded this poor woman to let me come and live with her for a while. She’s such a lovely lady.
Her partner and Jean, they breed race horses. This time [that I 00:42:41] took to see her, this beautiful mare was in the field. Now I told [inaudible 00:42:50] not to raise this horse’s [day 00:42:53]. It’s going to have to be shot. Perhaps because it is I’m an Aries by nature. I looked at this horse, and I said, “This poor horse is going to be shot and it wasn’t even her fault.” She’s a beautiful mare, but she’s 163. She’s massive. I said, “Don’t worry, Jean, I’ll [inaudible 00:43:12]. Don’t worry.” I mean how utterly, utterly ridiculous. I was 53 at the time. A 53 year old woman, bouncing around on a race horse, like some sack of potatoes. I find it incredible that I’m in this position. It was too late now. I have fallen off her. I have broken two ribs as well, which is so painful. I’m now on that mission. I’m not giving up with this horse. I’m going to carry on.
Actually, I’m very grateful for Jean, because it gives me another perspective of my life, that it’s so easy to … People say about this work life balance, and I look at my wonderful three children. Tom is now in the Royal Marines. He’s just doing his training, which I’m very proud of, but I’m also very scared. I’m very scared about what the future holds for him and all the awful things that are happening in the world, like Syrian. Then I’ve got Cullum and Zach, who are both very good hockey players. They’re at [inaudible 00:44:19]. They’re doing their courses there.
This work life balance, I’ve always believed I have to be really honest with my children. Actually, I’m honest with everybody. I think a mother’s role in this world is sometimes to say the things they don’t want to hear. I’m in a family of all guys, who all love football, who all love sports. Then there’s me trying to hold all these things together, making sure they have good food and I’m a lousy cook. I’m lousy. We’ve lived off slow cooked meals for about 10 years. At least it was healthy food. They used to say, “Oh not another stew, mother. Not another stew.”
I’m so proud of where they are in their lives. They’re healthy, mentally well adjusted boys. I thank my lucky stars for that. I keep telling my husband he still loves me, because he [inaudible 00:45:19]. The more I say it, the more he’ll believe it, so I keep him going. It’s really good from that perspective.
I just think that life is indeed very precious. It’s very important to feel as though you can look at yourself in the mirror each morning. If money comes my way, then great. If it doesn’t, well hey. I’ve had that many times in my life. It certainly isn’t the be all and end all about what makes you happy inside.
Amanda: I guess you’re not afraid anymore of the money not coming, or the money stopping, because you faced it head on, haven’t you?
Jenny: Yes. You’re absolutely right. If I can assure anybody who’s listening to your podcast now, that is having financial difficulties, my god, my heart goes out to you, because it’s almost … It immobilises you. It’s so black and it is so dark. You don’t know which way to turn. It really is crippling as is depression.
My advice is, hour by hour, day by day, you got to get through it. You just got to face it. I think that was the success for me, was ringing up those suppliers and saying, “Look. I haven’t got it. It’s just a really bad time. I’m not going to let you down, which was a gamble in itself, because I was never 100% sure.” Whatever happens in your life, don’t fight the fear. Work with it and go through it. I mean I’ve got wonderful friends. I love my friends, Lois, Carol, who I’ve been to uni with, Jane [inaudible 00:47:11], who I went to primary school with. I am blessed with great friends. Tears, tears will come. Tears will flow, but we’re just human at the end of the day. We all have weaknesses. We all have strengths. We just got to get through those periods.
Amanda: Jenny, I love how you have described all of the bumps in the road and how you’ve got through them. I’m kind of stumped for a question. I guess what I want to know is you’ve talked about not giving up. You’ve talked about facing your fears. What I’ve heard as I’ve been listening to you is, what shone through, is integrity. You’ve always put integrity at the heart of everything you do. That never, ever letting people down, always following through on your word. It’s almost as if even if there might’ve been times when you felt like giving up personally, you wouldn’t, because you don’t want to let other people down, whether it’s the women, your machinists, the women you’re training, your suppliers, anyone. That has kept you going.
Also that creativity. You talked about calling the suppliers and saying, this is the situation you’re in, about getting the free shop. So much creativity. I’m wondering is creativity one of the keys to getting through tough times?
Jenny: I think actually the key is honesty. It was when John, our accountant, said, “What don’t you understand about critical?” It was like a real wet fish in the face. Like [inaudible 00:49:02] your ideas. Get on with it. Tackle the situation. I think it’s so easy to go to denial sometimes. “It’s not that bad. It’s not that bad. We’ll sort that through.” We’ll have a better week next week and it doesn’t get better. It just gets worse and worse.
You’re so right about integrity. I listen to how people … You can imagine what fashion’s like, can’t you? It’s very kissy and darling and all the rest of it. That is so not me. I do look at people and think, why would you say that or pretend that? It’s just the honesty, isn’t it?
I actually think my mom’s illness, when I was four, she went into a mental institution. She never came out. She was so, so poorly, with electrical shock treatments. I think she really had post natal depression, but it just wasn’t diagnosed like that in the 60’s. It’s that honesty again, isn’t it? If mom was honest with how she felt or how she was, or if my father had been more honest. Who knows? It’s such a difficult area, mental illness. All I know is if we can … Be respectful and be mindful. You don’t have to be rude to people. We’ve got to be honest. We’ve got to do what I think is the right course in life, because we’re only on this earth, what? 70, 80, 90 years. It’s insignificant. I’d rather look back and think, you know what? That lady, [inaudible 00:50:40], I’ve just been talking about, and so many other people we’ve managed to help and made their businesses prosper.
We’ve been able to help lots of different people at lots of different levels. That, to me, is what life is about, is keeping that spirit level level, and looking at yourself and thought, yes, I’ve done something good today.
Amanda: Absolutely wonderful. I’ll remember the spirit level.
Jenny: Yes, it’s a nice thing to remember. I can’t believe, Amanda, that you like touched my own feelings. You’ve made me cry nearly twice. I don’t normally get choked up. I’ve decided to be very honest with you today. I hope my words will help other people out there. We have an open door policy. We’re only in North London, close to Manor House tube. People want to come and see us and say hello, they’re very welcome. Life should be about enjoying ourselves as much as possible all the time.
Amanda: Absolutely wonderful. Jenny, thank you so very much for being here today, for telling your story. I know that there will be people who will listen to this. It will come at just the right time for them.
Jenny: Oh good.
Amanda: When we go live with it in the new year. There are people who are going through adversities. We all know at any point in time.
Amanda: There will be those who will listen to this and they’ll think, “Okay, I’m not going to give up.
Jenny: Imagine how wonderful is it that you do this as a service. This is something that is free. You’re clearly very empathetic. You’re very switched on. When we were talking together, I was monopolised by you. I mean, I just didn’t want to talk to anybody else. You’re very astute. You picked up on something I’d said three times. I don’t know if you remember that conversation.
Jenny: That’s why I was delighted that you asked me to be part of this today. You can put me down as a big fan, Amanda.
Amanda: We’ll have our mutual fan club then, Jenny.
Jenny: There you go. Exactly.
Amanda: Thank you for such kind words. I shall float off now into the afternoon with that.
Jenny: Okay, well thank you again.
Amanda: Thank you so much.