Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
My name is Sam White and I am the founder and CEO of Stella Insurance in Australia (soon to launch in the UK) and the Founder and Chair of Freedom Services Group in the UK. In the late 90’s, I set up my first business in the insurance industry at the age of 24 from my sister’s conservatory. 20 years on, the business has since grown to 170 employees worldwide and we are on track to turnover £20 million this year.
Away from work, I am a proud mum to my 8-year-old daughter Frankie and my 6-year-old son Harry. We have a beautiful blended family with my second wife Jennie Guay who is a successful children’s book author and a vocal advocate for normalising blended and diverse families like ours.
I love to workout and stay active, something I got into to help with panic attacks that I had in my 20s ( I no longer get them and I’m pretty confident it’s the exercise I can thank for that). I am also a passionate believer that building the right kind of businesses has the power to change the world for the better.
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
My first job out of university was in the insurance sector which gave me a taste of what it was like as a woman in a male-dominated industry. I realised pretty quickly that I wanted to do things differently and carve out a path for myself, so I took the risk to set up my first business which was a claims management business called Action 356.
Over time I diversified and set up several insurance businesses under the umbrella of Freedom Services and eventually it led me to launching my most recent business Stella Insurance – a brand dedicated to developing insurance products that are designed with women in mind. Having worked in insurance for many years I realised it was so male dominated that the product design, experience and marketing were all unconsciously built for men and I was excited to change that. Stella is very unlike other insurers in the space, we are women-led and we are proud that the business stands for more than just growth and profit.
What is your main inspiration and driver for your business and how do you create positive change in the world?
The main inspiration for Stella is to change the game for women and help build a world that champions gender equality both socially and economically, changing the status quo for women today and for future generations to come. Our mission is to disrupt the system and enforce change through empowering and supporting other women, and to build a business that genuinely makes the world better through real actions.
We are committed to being the best possible experience for our staff, customers and the communities we operate in from beginning to end. For example, examining the impacts of boosting minimum salaries, introducing flexible working for staff, and shortening question sets for women (so they aren’t subjected to needless data collection merely for commercial benefits) are all initiatives that have been critical to us as a business. We also make tangible financial commitment to the causes that are close to our heart and give $5 from every policy sold to Women and Girls Emergency Centre (a charity which supports victims of domestic violence).
What was the moment everything changed for you?
For Stella, it was the day I decided to book the flights and travel across the world to Australia, committed to see if the launch would be possible in that market. I’m a big believer that people hold the answers to most challenges, so the first step I take with any idea is to connect with individuals and organisations that I would need support from to get the business up and running. For Stella to work in Australia, I knew I needed a media partner, an insurance partner and a venture capitalist. Once I had those three secured, I knew I could make it happen.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
The main issue with any startup is the interdependencies between different work streams. For example, a venture capitalist may not invest until you have secured an insurance partner, and you may need funding to get the support you need to move this forward. I relied on my UK support network to cover this and invested a lot of sweat equity in the beginning to get over this challenge. I also find it helpful to get interim commitment while you work for final approval. A letter of intent can go a long way to show that things are moving in the right direction, and sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and bridge the gaps of the unknown with educated guesses.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
In my first business, Action365, my first win came when an insurance broker trusted me to send over a client for me to help with their claims. Now you can imagine that back in the 90’s this came across in a fax (those of you who still remember what that is!), and I remember feeling ecstatic as the paper started to appear out of the machine.
More recently for Stella, I knew I was on a winning path when the CEO of a large media agency believed in the vision and agreed to come onboard as an equity partner by investing 10 to 15 million in media spend to help launch the brand.
For every business I believe the faith others are prepared to show you in giving you a chance to prove yourself is always the critical factor in success.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
I was completely self funded with the first business in the UK and that was as much by necessity as it was choice. Being a young woman with no track record in business I got very little interest or support from financial institutions. It may have been a blessing in disguise as the challenges I faced with getting funding taught me how to be innovative and resourceful. Hence, years later when launching Stella, I was very purposeful in looking for investment and reached out to my network for introductions to appropriate funds, eventually I found Envest (a specific insurance focused fund) and the rest as they say is history.
What has been your best investment?
It sounds cheesy but the best investment I have made is into myself, taking care of myself physically mentally and emotionally has paid dividends during particularly challenging times.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
I’ve made far too many to mention, but do like to think of them as opportunities for growth. One that springs to mind was when I turned up at a convention where I thought I was going to be on a panel discussing the topic of people and engagement, only to find out that they needed a 15 minute speech on Big Data and its usage in insurance. I was completely unprepared and to this day cringe at the thought of what I subjected the audience to. However, I was proud that I stuck through it and didn’t just leg it out the back door!
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
I find other business owners to be wildly supportive with both time and connections regardless of whether they are male or female. However, I have found that access to funding even after starting numerous profitable businesses remains incredibly hard for female founders in the UK. Which I believe is largely fuelled by a gender bias, whether unconscious or not – this needs to change.
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
The greatest lesson I’ve learnt is that no matter how difficult things can get or how challenging an obstacle may seem, there is always a solution. A lot rests on your attitude – you need to keep fighting and have faith. Equally when things are going well, do not rest on your laurels as there can always be an unexpected challenge, most recently exemplified by the pandemic which no one could’ve predicted.
Have you made any role models or mentors along the way?
Yes, I’ve had several fellow entrepreneurs, both male and female, who have offered their support and guidance selflessly – Jason Stockwood former CEO of Simple Business, Emma Sayle CEO of Sisters and Killing Kittens, Penny Searles, and Pete Goodman to name but a few. Outside the scope of business, I get a great deal of inspiration from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Maya Angelou, the former’s quiet resilience grit and sheer intellect probably changed our world for women more than anyone else I can think of and the latter’s warmth, humour and resilience are awe-inspiring to me.
What has been your biggest learning of 2022 so far?
That being able to travel freely is incredibly important for me on both a personal and professional basis.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
A big priority would be to accelerate the expansion of Stella starting with the UK and extend our support for women on a global scale. Longer term, I would like to be able to establish myself as an investor and mentor to help other purpose driven female entrepreneurs launch their business.
On a personal level, I would like to add to our blended family, and see my wife’s book Howie Blend and her diversity and inclusion school program reach more people.
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
- The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters
- Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Concentrate on taking care of yourself first, if you aren’t physically, emotionally and mentally in a good space you won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Keep a curious and open mind and say yes to as many conversations with other like minded individuals as you can. Finally, don’t get disheartened as you will face a lot of obstacles but from my experience none of them are insurmountable.
Finally, where can we find you/how can we support you?
About your author
Hayley Beatts is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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