This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
I’ve always loved languages and how they allow you to connect with people around the world. Studying German, Spanish and Portuguese at uni, I got to live and work in Berlin, Valencia, and Rio de Janeiro, which definitely gave me the travel bug… Since then I’ve written content for travel app LuckyTrip, taught English in Medellin, recruited international students at a London university and, most recently, managed a summer programme for refugees for a charity wing of a language school. People have said in the past that they can’t keep up with me and my’ job-hopping’, but in the back of my mind, I’ve known that I always wanted to work for myself…
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
My last job was amazing, but unfortunately, I was made redundant at Christmas time, and then Covid hit. After getting rejections from countless job applications, I felt really disheartened. At this point, I was forced to confront the fact that I needed to reflect on what I actually wanted to do. It had always been a dream of mine to open up a language school in Spain but knew I didn’t have the money to set it up, and due to the current climate, it wasn’t feasible. Friends were telling me that they wanted to learn a language in lockdown, but they were put off by their experiences at school, and online courses they’d looked into before were too formal, too expensive etc. I realised there was a gap in the market for social language courses for young adults which focus on things they really care about like travelling, discovering music, learning new recipes and watching films and documentaries. That’s when Roots Up Languages was born!
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
Two friends asked me for Portuguese classes during the early stages of lockdown. I gave them a taster class in ‘Portuguese for Travelling’ – we virtually touched down in Rio and learnt how to navigate an airport, get a taxi and book a hostel room using Brazilian slang. It was so much fun, and both of them wanted to continue with the course. It was cool to be able to introduce people and socialise even when we couldn’t leave our houses. After this class, I went away and planned a 12-week course and also created ‘Spanish for Travelling’, which was launched in late May.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
I was overwhelmed with how many people actually wanted to take the Roots Up courses! In just over a month I’d gone from 2 to 36 students, and I realised I had to be really savvy with my time to be able to teach and create high-quality classes. I treated my day like I would’ve done in the office and remembered to give myself breaks during the day as my classes often were in the evening.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
An early moment that stands out for me was when I got a message from a friend straight after our first ‘Spanish for Travelling’ course saying how much they enjoyed the class and that they had already recommended that another friend signed up. I was so happy that the business was growing organically, and the students actually looked forward to learning.
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?
The business is all online, so my overheads are pretty low – all I need is a Zoom account! An opportunity did arise where I was approached for investment, but because it is such early stages with the business, it didn’t seem like the best route to take. I want the freedom to be able to create and make my own decisions at the moment, but later on down the line if the time was right, I would consider going for funding.
What has been your best investment?
A good set of headphones! Teaching languages online can be very noisy, especially when there are other people working from home.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
About a month ago, I had agreed that a couple of my students could reschedule their class times due to personal commitments etc. I ended up with one evening of 5 hours back to back teaching without a break or food. My voice was in bits by the end!
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
I’ve been really lucky in the support I’ve received from friends and family, but I do think at times in the wider community it is hard to prove that you are ‘serious’ about your idea. Another big obstacle for me has been that I didn’t know many women who had started a business before – more networking events to find a mentor in a similar sector would be great!
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
Always celebrate success, no matter how small! Like a lot of people, I can be quite hard on myself, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge when you’ve done something well and be kind to yourself.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
My childhood best friend, my partner and my business coach (the wonderful Nicki Coe!) all have their own businesses, and it’s been so helpful to have people to guide me and to bounce ideas off.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I would love to be running the Roots Up online courses alongside a language school with an events space in Southern Spain! And to be able to fund NGO projects like ‘The Bright Kites Foundation’, a charity my friends and I set up which offers a language exchange to London for Colombian students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford this kind of opportunity.
Can you tell us one of your goals for 2020?
To find Spanish and Portuguese speaking chefs/food bloggers to partner with in order to be able to launch our ‘Language on A Plate’ courses at the end of the year. If anyone reading this knows anyone who would be keen to collaborate, please drop me an email!
What can our readers do to support your business?
Check out our socials and spread the word! The next courses start in January, and we’ll be releasing the (limited) spots in early December – just in time for Christmas! We’d love to have students from the F&F community on board.
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
– When I first started the business, I was reading ‘The Book of Joy‘ (meeting between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’ which was recommended by a few friends.
– I love ‘How to Fail’ with Elizabeth Day
– One of the best ways to immerse yourself in a language is through music! Follow Roots Up Languages on Spotify for a weekly dose of Spanish, French and Portuguese music.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Even if you’re unsure about the idea or having doubts, just give it a go! It’s worth the risk if you’ll be doing something you love.
Where can we find you:
About your author
Leah Williams 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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