Business Mogul and former Dragon, Sarah Willingham – As one of the UK’s most successful female entrepreneurs and investors, Sarah Willingham has extensive expertise in the hospitality industry. Leading the international expansion of well-known restaurant chains, Sarah has cemented her position as a notable figure within the restaurant industry.
As a prominent business mentor, former Dragon on BBC’s Dragon’s Den, and proud mum of four, Sarah knows exactly what it takes to grow, nurture, and expand a business whilst balancing family life.
Women Talking looks at Sarah’s business and family success over the years.
How does it make you feel to be one of the most influential people in Britain?
“When I look back on the things that I’ve done over the past 30 years now, I’m in massive bonus territory. I did not ever think that I would do as much as I have done. So, when I was named in the top 500 most influential people in the UK by The Times, it was really mind-blowing”.
In your early career, what drew you to the hospitality sector?
“I’ve always worked in hospitality, even when I was 11, I had a jobworking in the market making tea. I’ve always been in this industry, and I just love the people. Hospitality has been the most fun out of all the industries I’ve been a part of. The people are so passionate, so energetic. We’re here to make sure that people have a really good time. It’s a very positive industry to be in”.
What have been your greatest challenges in balancing business and family life?
“Balancing business and family life in itself is the biggest challenge of my life. To be able to balance the two is a challenge. I haven’t always got it right and I think it’s very difficult to do and I also think it’s an extremely individualised thing – It’s not the same for everybody. For me what I learned very early on is that you don’t mix the two so when you work, you work and when you’re a mum, you’re a mum. Where I was going wrong was that I was trying to be a mum whilst being on my phone answering my emails and that just didn’t work because I was bad at both. I found that when I did separate them and said ‘no I’m only going to be good at one or the other at a time’, it worked well and that was a game changer for me”.
Would you change anything in your career path of where you are today?
“No, definitely not. Firstly, I’m just not somebody who looks backwards. Of course, I reflect, and I think of key learnings and if there are things I could have done better, but I don’t dwell on the past and I don’t like to regret it. I think at the end of the day it’s what got me here in the first place so no, no regrets”.
Who has been your inspiration regarding business?
“My husband. I am constantly inspired by his brain. He is an exceptional human, and he regularly inspires me to think differently, to challenge the norm. I also think that now being around my four teenage kids, I find myself being inspired by a lot of Gen Z. We employ a lot of Gen Z in our business and as a generation, they are extremely inspiring. They just think differently, they see diversity differently, and they don’t see the same barriers that I grew up with in the 90s for women in business. I’m constantly inspired by the younger people around me. I think it’s great that a campaign I’m involved with – Pour Moi’s Uplifting Women Awards has created an award to recognise the younger generation and Gen Z called the Rising Star Award. The award is for any woman aged 18-30 years old and celebrates women who are making a significant impact in their career, a valuable contribution and showing a willingness to learn, going the extra mile, demonstrating exceptional ambition, and paving the way for their success”.
From your many TV appearances, was there any that stood out the most?
“My appearance as a Dragon on Dragon’s Den stood out the most. It was a huge moment for me because it was prime-time TV, and it was in a space that I love. I was already doing a lot of investments which I enjoyed but actually came out of that, as I made some really great friends both in businesses, I invested in but also amongst the other Dragons, so that’s probably the most significant TV experience of my life”.
Would any of your children like to follow in your business footsteps?
“I’m absolutely certain that at least half my children will. They are born with that natural inquisitive, challenging mind where they are constantly looking to find solutions for things around them and I think that’s a big part of being an entrepreneur. I can be in a couple of them, there’s a real hustle and that’s an entrepreneurial trait.
They’ve seen what Michael (my husband) and I have managed to achieve in terms of being around for them yet still being able to work and having the freedom of having your own business. Owning your own business obviously brings a lot of pressure at times, but also gives you a lot of freedom if you get it right and set it up right. My children have seen that, especially when we took them out of school and went travelling around the world for three years whilst still operating, earning, and growing our wealth. We’ve been very open with them and shared a lot about how we do things, how we think, and why we make the decisions that we make, and when you put all of that into the mix, I think most of them will want to end up having some kind of balance like that”.
Sarah is part of the all-female judging panel for the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards. Nominations are open until Wednesday 5th April.