Want a mentor? Join a gym, says Kelly Hoppen MBE

Former dragon and business leader, Kelly Hoppen MBE, shares her views on how female founders can break through barriers in perception, funding, and growth when scaling up.

Former Dragons’ Den investor and business tycoon Kelly Hoppen MBE believes there are many ways for entrepreneurs to find the guidance and support they need while growing. The traditional ways aren’t necessarily the best, she says.

“I’m very, very pro having a mentor, but if you focus too hard on having to find a business mentor, it becomes a challenge,” she explains. “As women, we’re really good at communicating. Talking is what we do! So I say if you want to find a mentor, go meet other women. Join a gym! You never know where you’ll meet like-minded people.”

Hoppen believes that talking through business ideas, opportunities, and even problems can be beneficial. “If you talk about a problem to a group of like-minded people, the chances are you’ll meet dozens of others who are facing the same problems. This is great because you can knock ideas about. It’s about networking, talking to people, being tenacious, and being courageous. Basically, it’s what we do best.”

Starting young

Hoppen famously started her interior design business at the age of 16. “And a half,” she adds. At that young age, she explains it was a rough experience at school that fuelled her resolve. “I was very badly bullied in school and I was dyslexic, so I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I had the opportunity to decorate a friend’s place, and wanted so badly to do well so I didn’t have to go back to school. It was a lesson learned early on, but it’s one that I hold very dear. When things don’t work out as an entrepreneur, you have to pick up and move on,” she says.

The confidence question

Research suggests that younger women hold themselves back from success because of a lack of self believe. Hoppen doesn’t believe that’s the case, having battled her own insecurities. “There were moments when I was 16–and I was overweight back then–that I wasn’t confident about the way I looked. But I was confident of what I could achieve. I separated the two and went ahead doing what I knew I could do well,” says Hoppen.
“Social media is amazing. I didn’t have that back then. With social media, young entrepreneurs can really look at what the rest of the world is achieving and dig deep to do the best they can. I also believe it’s important to surround yourself with people who support you. That’s what builds confidence.”

Never been funded

Hoppen started her business like so many entrepreneurs do, right from a table in their own home. “It was a very simple equation for me. I asked for a deposit for the work I’d do for my clients, so I never was cash-strapped. At the top, we need to create an environment that will help them believe they can start a business,” she adds.
“Honestly, I’m surprised by these statistics (of the funding gap between male and female founded businesses). I meet women all the time, and all of them are passionate about what they do, and that’s what drives their business. It makes me sad that the funding gap exists, and I don’t know why it does.”

Everyone talks about women being in a man’s world, says Hoppen. “I don’t look at it like that. We have to be confident as women that we are equal. If we constantly going around saying we’re not, that’s what people will remember. We are tenacious and we are good at what we do.”

Handling setbacks

In her experience, Hoppen sees many entrepreneurs spending a lot of time trying to dissect something that hasn’t worked for them. “For me, it’s about saying, ok that didn’t work, and moving on. My brain is like a filing system. There’s a waiting queue for something else. I think it’s important to remember that you always have options,” she explains. “Of course I’ve had moments where I was down. But if someone hasn’t died, any problem is manageable. Of course, in my 40 years I’ve had setbacks, but I think about staying positive and aim to achieve something even better.”

Being a public face

Hoppen believes that PR can be fantastic, if it’s done in the right way. “I’m very pro PR. God knows I’ve been hit the other way. But I do believe if you’re good at what you do, you should let people know about it. Your voice shouldn’t be an echo. You know better than anybody else about your business. Be careful how you get your message across, but absolutely do it,” she advises.

Her time on Dragons’ Den

Speaking about her time as a dragon, Hoppen remembers how time consuming mentoring and guiding young businesses can be. “The egos in that room is beyond extraordinary,” she says, laughing. “It’s a game, but it’s still important because you’re investing your money. You can’t just throw money at something. When choosing to invest, you have to think what you can give those businesses. The time it took to mentor and guide the businesses I invested in was time away from growing my business.”

Often people would come into the den and they’d pitch their idea and you’d instantly know it wasn’t going to make money, she says. “And you’d ask them how much of their own money they’ve invested, they’d say something like £100,000, and your heart would sink! I think entrepreneurs have to be realistic. Don’t waste time on something won’t work.”

What’s next

As Hoppen’s brand continues to grow, she admits she’s starting to think about sharing brand ownership. “I’ve diversified quite a bit now. We’re opening 150 stores across the world, so many changes are on the way. There’s something we’re going to launch next week in Miami. It’s based on new technology and it’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” she says.

Kelly Hoppen MBE was a guest speaker at AllBright’s Celebrating Female Founders event.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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Female founders