Entrepreneurs by design: How three women used their qualifications to turn their business dreams into reality

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A generous redundancy pack-age in 2003 gave senior energy executive Claire Priest the perfect chance to realise a long-held ambition: to start her own fashion range. Instead, the former IS director used her pay-off to study full-time for an MBA at Cranfield School of Management.

"I had a lot of senior business experience but I knew there were gaps in my CV and that I might struggle if I was put in front of venture capitalists and financiers," says Priest. "I felt Cranfield was a finishing school for managers and would fill in those gaps and give my business idea the best possible chance."

That idea was Blessd, a fashion range for slim but shapely women. The Blessd range, sold online, includes business wear, evening attire and casual clothes, gives women with hour-glass and pear-shaped bodies more choice than the standard UK sizing structure. The line debuted at Clothes Show Live in December and www.blessd.com went live in January.

Although it delayed her start-up ambitions by another year and devoured her savings, Priest feels the MBA was well worth the investment, both in time and money. "I want to set up a national fashion chain," she says. "To do something of that size and still be in charge of it requires a certain set of skills. The MBA gives you that toolkit."

She also feels that Cranfield helped her develop a nose for entrepreneurship – something the qualification's critics say can't be taught in the MBA classroom. "I may have been a natural business leader but first I needed to be a successful entrepreneur and the MBA has helped with that," Priest says.

For accountant Jacqui Mitchell, the MBA provided the breathing space to rethink her career direction. "I wasn't really happy being an accountant," she says of her decision to sign up for a full-time MBA in 2000. "One memorable moment was when a colleague working on another project got really excited about a 'reconciliation' he was undertaking and I realised that I would never be that passionate about numbers. I needed to do something that would excite me."

She used her year out at Strathclyde Business School to reassess her career and, on graduation, set up her own business, JJM Property Services.

"Doing something on my own had always been a dream of mine and I went for it. I loved the challenge of growing an enterprise from scratch," she says.

Jacqui successfully sold the business when the thrill of the start-up phase had been eroded by the day-to-day running of an established business and is now starting again with Jigsaw Career Coaching, a coaching and mentoring business.

Many female entrepre-neurs operate in sectors that are traditionally successful for business women, such as fashion and HR, playing to their strengths and/or enthusiasms. There are exceptions, though. Stephanie France, started Huddersfield-based Space2Work, an office design and refurbishment service, after completing her MBA at Bradford University School of Management. Within one year, she made her first acquisition, buying FP Construction – with 22 employees and a turnover of £2.1m.

The idea for Space2Work came while Stephanie was studying for the MBA. She noticed a gap in the market to provide affordable, tailored office design and refurbishment services for companies with fewer than 250 employees. With the new acquisition, the start-up will be able to take on bigger contracts and progress.

The MBA has already proved invaluable, she says, enabling her to control the acquisition without relying on expensive advice from accountants and consultants. The qualification is also helping in the day-to-day running of the business.

"Reading accounts was always a struggle pre-MBA," says Stephanie. "Now I can read the figures, understand ratios and, more importantly, make sound business decisions."

'It is not easy for women with families'

Lisa Astbury and Lesley Nash founded their online HR recruitment company Changeworknow in 2000. Today they employ 15 people and work for high street retailers including Sainsbury's, Woolworths and HMV. Lisa did her MBA at Henley Management College in 2001, and Lesley in 2002.

"Within six months of setting up the business I decided to do an MBA," says former deputy head Lisa. "As a result of my experiences, Lesley decided to do one too."

The partners say their common business education means they talk the same language. It has also changed the way they run the business.

"Something we do infinitely better than we might have done is strategic business planning," says Lesley. "We would have done something but it would not have been anywhere as near as rigorous and we would have been more reactive than proactive."

"On both our MBA programmes, we were the only female entrepreneurs," says Lisa, who had a baby a year ago. "I'm still working full time but I have more flexibility and more choices about how I structure my life."

Lesley, however, sounds a note of caution: "Running your own business is not easy for women with families. Lisa is not working any less hard than before. The important difference is the flexibility."

Neither woman was daunted by the risks of launching out on their own. "I'm motivated by challenge and learning and so setting up my own business was perfect," says Lisa. For Lesley, it was about achieving success for herself rather than constantly battling the politics and can't-do attitudes of the corporate world.

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