In the Spring 2019 issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Jonathan Davies explored the issue of education vs entrepreneurship by talking to London Grace founder, Kirsten White, whose path took her to both destinations.
Some people have a simple and straightforward pathway to becoming an entrepreneur. Others less so. Kirsten White is one of those people who has always had a desire to run her own business. She is the founder of London Grace, a nail bar offering coffee, cocktails and nails in the capital city.
Kirsten’s story is somewhat of a full circle, starting a business at a young age, going to university, entering employment and returning to entrepreneurship. While she may not have stuck firmly to the path you might expect a young founder to take, Kirsten has known from a young age that she wanted to start a business. And she was very much inspired by her parents.
“My dad decided to explore the entrepreneur world himself. He decided to quit his job at a fairly young age, I think he was 24. The next day, my parents found out the next day that I was coming!,” Kirsten explains.
“He had a moment where he thought ‘I’ve quit my job, I don’t have any income now, I’ve got a little one on the way!!’. So he had to make it work, and thankfully he did.
“My parents have inspired me in that respect, that starting your own business is achievable with hard work and self-belief.”
Growing up in Oxfordshire with her younger brother and sister, Kirsten spent her childhood with a love of art, which unknowingly sparked the idea for at least part of her business.
“I’ve always been very arty – the main things for me were always arts and crafts. I love painting and drawing. Of course, painting my nails was a big one. I would paint my nails every other week. My grandparents lived in the UK when I grew up, and I used to love visiting them and going to American Nail Bar and getting my nails done there.”
While starting her own business was a goal, Kirsten was smitten with the world of work. So much so that, as a fresh-faced 13 year old, she got her first job at a local pub: “I absolutely loved it. I loved working with customers, I loved working with a team.”
It’s a mindset that would serve her well in later years.
A few years into her small local job, like many teenagers undertake, things really started to move for Kirsten. A testament to her ability and demeanour as a waiter, friends and friends of friends started asking her to work at birthday parties and dinner parties.
“There might actually be something in that.” Kirsten thought. She realised that if people needed her for their events, they might need other people as well. She launched Party Staff, and on her 16th birthday registered the business with Companies House.
“It was really exciting for me at that age. We started out small and got in touch with a few catering companies. That’s where it really started to kick off because they had events regularly and often needed 10-12 staff for weddings and corporate events. That sort of thing.”
With a competitive price point, around 60 staff on the books doing 10-12 events a week, Kirsten had grown Party Staff into a successful business as a teenager. And yet, that journey came to end as Kirsten approached the end of school. Perhaps surprisingly to many reading this, Kirsten decided to quit entrepreneurship and head to university.
And it wasn’t a tough decision to leave her growing business behind, Kirsten explains: “I could’ve grown Party Staff, but the other side was going to university and having a normal life for a few years was really appealing. I’d done Party Staff for a number of years and my social life probably wasn’t as big as I would’ve liked it to be, because I was working on the business in the evenings and weekends.
“That’s why I decided to do the ‘normal’ thing and go to university. I wanted to explore other places, other people, sports, other things.”
Going to university wasn’t the end of her entrepreneurial journey, however. Kirsten chose to study Economics and Management at Southamption University. “I thought the two combined would be quite useful if I was to ever revisit the entrepreneurial world. But I also knew I could transfer it into whatever I chose to do after university.”
The completion of her degree prompted another. Kirsten graduated just as the recession was really gathering pace. Finding a graduate scheme in London was proving extremely difficult. Unsure what to do next, she thought of travelling. “I wanted to do something I could be really proud of, but also learn and take something away from.”
Because of her love of art and design, Kirsten studied graphic design at Parson School of Design in New York on a fast-track degree. Although she didn’t know it, her time in New York would formulate the other key component of London Grace, the social element.
“Because I did a two-year degree, I had a busy timetable and didn’t have much time for other things. My friends and I did make sure we got our nails done every other week. It was a chance to catch up together, have a bit of a pamper and just take a break from studying.”
The nail bars Kirsten visited in New York with her friends allowed them to sit together, something that was really missing when she returned to London. “I was really surprised that there was nowhere open late at night where you could go with friends. Often you would go in, you’d be put on one table and your friend would be put on another table across the room, which defeated the purpose altogether. We wouldn’t catch up or spend time together.”
There sparked the idea for London Grace. “It was the social side that I wanted to develop. I thought of combining nails with coffee and wine – two of my favourite things!” Kirsten says. “I thought that there must be people out there that would also enjoy that – somewhere in the middle between the cheap and cheerful nail salons and the quiet spa environment at the other end of the spectrum. I wanted something in between the two, and that’s what London Grace offers.”
Even Kirsten’s return to London didn’t spark an immediate return to entrepreneurship, however. She first opted for a graduate scheme. “I knew I would start another business, but it didn’t feel right at the time. I didn’t have the right idea when I came back. I didn’t really know that many people in London, so I thought a graduate scheme would be a great way to enjoy the corporate world for a bit, meet new people, and base myself in London to see if there were any gaps in the market.”
There doesn’t appear to be a hint of regret over not returning to running a business straight away or even continuing to grow Party Staff. Instead, Kirsten seems confident and content that her choices have helped her on the way to where she is now, developing the skills and understanding that makes her the entrepreneur she is today.
And today, that is an entrepreneur with a team of over 90 staff – interestingly 90 women and one man – doing things differently in an industry she says that doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation.
“Typically, this industry doesn’t have a natural career progression. That’s something I really wanted to offer and I’m really proud that we have it now. We offer regular appraisals and opportunities for promotions to supervisory and management positions.
As someone who started a business while at school, then dedicated her time to university before returning to entrepreneurship, Kirsten is perfectly placed to weigh into the debate surrounding the paths entrepreneurs can take and whether or not the education system does enough to promote it.
Quite simply, there is not enough promotion and awareness of entrepreneurship in education, Kirsten says.
“Even when I was at school with Party Staff, I felt like it was very ‘hush, hush’. I didn’t get praise or encouragement from teachers. I was providing employment for pupils but it wasn’t mentioned. I was made to feel like I was doing something wrong. It definitely wasn’t a time where I felt supported.
“At the time when I was coming to the end of school and we were having conversations with careers advisers about employment and university, but no one ever said you could start a business. They try to pigeon hole you into certain brackets.”
So what can we do to change that?
Kirsten is someone already trying to make the changes. As often as her schedule permits, she organises talks from entrepreneurs in local schools. Regardless of how big or small the business is, even a local baker going to their closest school could be enough to inspire even a handful of children to start their own business, Kirsten explained.
“Of course, you’d have some big entrepreneurs, but it can appeal to all sorts of levels. It’s so important that the youth of today hear the stories of how the businesses they know were started.”
An idea Kirsten wants implemented is for change careers quizzes. You know the ones where you answer a load of questions and you’re told which career you are suited to based on your personality traits? Kirsten wants entrepreneurship to be a possible result on those quizzes because certain types of people are simply suited to launching and running their own businesses.
Even with limited promotion in education, Kirsten believes the future of entrepreneurship is bright. “I think it’s going to push the boundaries a bit more. There’s so much going on right now, especially with technology. There’s so much disruption. I think there’ll be a lot more opportunity for entrepreneurship to thrive. There’s so much knowledge out there and anyone can access it.”
For Kirsten, though, the immediate future is all about learning how to juggle the stresses of running a business and caring for her newborn baby. “I had no idea what to expect, so I decided to work up until she was born and then figure it out. I’m coming up with a few different options now, but my team have been so supportive. London Grace has been running pretty smoothly without me, so I’m wondering if I do need to do anything!”
On a professional level, Kirsten and the London Grace team are working towards an expansion of the company on the High Street, particularly outside of London. And then there’s the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards, of course. In 2017, Kirsten won the national High Street Entrepreneur of the Year award. “I’ve always been someone who has underplayed what they’ve achieved, so it was actually overwhelming to be recognised, especially being a female entrepreneur, for my personal story.”
You can view the full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.