There are many successful entrepreneurs and business people in the world but if we were to ask you take a guess at their education, how many of them do you think would be a Newnham College Cambridge graduate in Classics? For this entrepreneur it would appear entrepreneurialism was ingrained at an early age, seeing an opportunity to sell conkers at school at the age of five, despite the authorities in the shape of Mrs Jackson thwarting her entrepreneurial efforts. Thankfully this was only the start of her entrepreneurial journey.
“So my granny had a beautiful garden and a beautiful conker tree. I saw these conkers on the floor and thought ‘if I polish these up, I can sell them to my classmates.’ So I did just that and did a very good sales job – I persuaded them that these were the best conkers in the world and they would win the conker competition with these conkers. They bought them in their droves at a penny a piece, so I ended up with a matchbox full of silver sixpences and silver shillings. It was quite a lot of money for a five-year old and my teacher saw the matchbox and, firstly, she thought I was playing with matches so got very upset. Then she opened it and got even more upset because she saw all this money and thought I’d pinched it from somewhere. Bottom line, she confiscated the money and put it in the church plate and I was outraged.”
Alison Cork is founder and CEO of the At Home Group of companies, which specialises in interiors and encompasses newspaper columns, online retail brand Alison at Home, licensing of furniture designs and a TV Shopping brand. She has made a successful career in advertising, writing columns and presenting TV shows about interior design which led to the creation of her retail brand.
Cork was born into a middle-class family in Erith, her father having jobs as a drugs officer and a VAT inspector, so she grew up, despite her encounter with Mrs Jackson, understanding why it’s is so damaging when people don’t pay their taxes, and the perils of drugs. Her passion for classics was kindled by one of her teachers – Mrs Cronin.
“We were mostly taught by nuns but there were one or two exceptions and Miss Cronin was one of the exceptions. She was this sort of doughty old lady – she was old even then – who taught Latin and Greek. I always remember her lessons because of the hot summer afternoons, when she’d shuffle in. She had a Mrs Thatcher style handbag that always came with her and always wore stockings that were wrinkled and no one really liked her except me; I’d be a keen bee and would sit right at the front of the class. She’d insist that all the windows were closed and that the blinds were drawn. The reason for this was so that we couldn’t look outside and be distracted by passing boys!
So we’d be sitting in this stuffy, hot classroom and then she’d start talking about Rome and Greece – Rome in particular – and she just transported me there. I was back in the roman forum, I was in the Colosseum… in my head I was in ancient Rome. For me, she did what they say the best teachers do which was to absolutely inspire me in that subject. She just transported me and I couldn’t wait for every lesson. Unfortunately, she then passed away very suddenly in the summer holidays and I actually changed schools because, by then, I’d decided it had to be Latin and Greek. If there was nobody to teach it at my existing school, I was going to go elsewhere. I went to another school where a very well-meaning teacher said ‘we also have a problem in that we don’t have enough students to justify a classics department but if you’re willing to take ‘normal’ ‘A’ levels, and study in your break times and after school, I will also teach you classics on top of that.’ That’s what I did.”
If you’d asked Cork about her childhood at the time, she would have described growing up as being a bit boring – a real suburban upbringing with no big dramas – but then with the regularity of journeys to school and term times, I’m sure we’ve all felt the same at times growing up. Reflecting back now, however, she describes it differently: sunny and happy. One thing that hasn’t changed however is Cork’s clear recollection of her parent’s example towards work.
“What did my parents give me? Well, an incredible work ethic. I think that I’ve always maintained that you don’t have to be the smartest person because only one person can be the smartest person but if you’re the hardest working, if you’re prepared to go the extra mile, you will probably achieve more than the smartest person because sometimes smart people get a little bit complacent. So I’d rather be hard working than super clever. I think they absolutely gave me that work ethic; if you start something, you finish it; it you say you’re going to do it; you deliver. You under promise and over deliver and not the other way round. These are tools for life.”
Cork went on to study Classic’s at Cambridge University, much to the astonishment of some of her family; nobody in her family had even gone to university, let alone Cambridge. Getting into the University was only the first battle she had to face. Coming from Erith and meeting people at university call Rupert and Casandra from private schools as opposed the Bob and Dave from the state school made her start to doubt herself. However with the ethics her parents ingrained (you start something, you finish it) Cork realised she deserved her place and worked on her self confidence, helped by getting into acting while at University. Cork also drew confidence from abilities she had that her peers did not and this was her ability to sell things.
“The entrepreneurial thing at Cambridge came out of a ‘needs must’ because I didn’t have enough money to pay some of my bills and I kept failing my driving test and couldn’t admit to my dad that I’d failed four times. Those lessons were really expensive so I just thought ‘you’ve got to make some money, what are you going to do?’ I suddenly thought that I could sell stuff – I’d sold conkers when I was five. Sell something! I looked around Cambridge and thought, ‘do you know what, there are 3 million people a year who come to Cambridge as a tourist and come for an average of 7 hours ( I’d done my research!). During their trip, they have to eat something and there is no free information on where to eat in Cambridge. So, I drew a map of Cambridge to avoid paying Ordnance Survey royalties and then I went round all the restaurants – like Berni Inn as it was then, although I don’t think they exist anymore – and then I got them to advertise and I put their adverts around the map. I then discovered that to get a map from the Tourist Office you had to pay 10p, so I made mine free and I got my mates to stand on Kings Parade and hand out free maps to all the tourists. Around the map were the restaurants and, of course, they would go to the restaurants because they didn’t know anywhere better to go. We’d mark on the map where they were. It was that simple and the restaurants loved it; they got a return on investment and they paid me for their advertising.”
Having graduated in classics Cork was unsure what her next move would be, the usual option taken would have been to become a teacher and she knew that was not for her. She considered becoming architect but did not fancy another seven years of study. Acting was briefly considered but quickly discounted. What was important to Cork was being in control of her own direction.
“I wanted to have control over my direction and my trajectory. So I thought, okay, in place of knowing precisely what I want, I will carry on doing what I was doing successfully because, if nothing else, it will make a bit of money whilst I think about it. I did, in the meantime, apply to the BBC production trainee course which was much coveted at the time (I think there were about 3,000 applicants for about half a dozen places). But blow me down, they offered me a place! To my parents utter horror, I turned it down! Can you imagine…I turned it down because I looked at the BBC and I just thought, it looks like the civil service to me – I don’t want to be bossed around! You know what, although the BBC would have had lots of opportunity for creativity, I don’t regret that decision because I became an entrepreneur straight away and have been ever since and it’s completely defined my life. And I’ve done loads of broadcasting so I’ve got my broadcasting fix.”
Wanting to be in control of her own destiny initially led Cork to turn down an opportunity to work with one of the most influential mentors in her career to date when John Gomez contacted her out of the blue in connection with the Cambridge restaurant guide business she had set up. The introduction came via the boyfriend of a friend of Cork’s.
I remember the phone ringing one day and I took the call and it was entrepreneur John Gomez. He said ‘you don’t know me but I’ve heard about you. Would you come and work with me?’ I thought, someone was going to make money out of this relationship and I don’t think it’s going to be me. So, I said no initially but a few months later I went back and said ‘actually, yes, I will!’. I was really lucky because he was an absolute legend in his lifetime in mail order publishing. He founded the Penny Share Guide. I really learned to sit at the feet of the master. He gave me enormous responsibility from day one. I was Managing Director – it was terrifying to think of it now but I didn’t even think of it, didn’t blink. I just said ‘yes, okay fine, I’ll do that!. We had many failures but I identified the title of a book that went on to sell many, many copies and then we had a number of successes and they resulted in the company floating in 1994. At that time, that made me the youngest female board director of a publicly floated company and co-founder.”
Cork’s decision to reconsider working with Gomez ultimately changed her entrepreneurial journey and taught her many business lessons that she carries with her today. Perhaps one of the pivotal changes to occur during her time with Gomez and by becoming the youngest female board director of a publicly floated companies was self-confidence and, more importantly self-belief.
After a few years post the company floatation, Cork decided that she’d had enough of the mail-order industry and wanted to do something connected with what she felt passionately about.
“I’d always loved interiors and I was trying to think how can I make interiors into a business. What I’m effectively saying is I want to be a housewife and I don’t think my mum and dad are going to be very impressed with that when they’ve just put me through Cambridge and all the rest and I’ve got a good degree.
I started looking around and I saw Martha Stewart and obviously a great business brain. At the time, her business was worth about $1bn. I just thought that was really interesting. There is a woman who’s taken something emotive called home and turned it into pounds and pence, or rather, dollars. She’s created a business that has four very clear verticals – she’s got television, publishing, licensing and online retailing. We don’t have a British Martha Stewart – we have people who do cooking, people who do gardening but we don’t have anybody who is home which incorporates all of those things. So I decided to be the British Martha Stewart and that was the beginning of Alison at Home.”
Having done a lot of broadcasting on QVC and also radio work, the Alison at Home brand continues to thrive and evolve. Next year, Cork will be taking it to America which will be interesting given she will be in direct competition with the inspiration for the business.
There is a saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person and Cork is certainly that! As well as launching her retail brand, Cork founded the National Women’s Enterprise Network running Make It Your Business Seminars in 2017 (Hyperlink to: www.makeityourbusiness.co.uk). With an interest in politics, particularly around getting more women into public office and being extremely interested in entrepreneurship, Cork was struck by the fact that only 1 in 5 MPs is a woman and only 1 in 5 businesses is owned or run by a female.
Cork’s curiosity led her to investigate this further and her research uncovered that it was the all too common reasons that were holding women back: women lacked self-confidence, they lack female role models, they lack networking opportunities. With the cause established, Cork believed the solution was very simple.
“We create seminars where we put established female entrepreneurs in front of aspiring female entrepreneurs and the only golden rule is that they have to be really honest about their journey and how difficult it’s been. Or the good, the bad and the ugly, so that we can equip those women with sufficient knowledge to make a proper decision as to whether or not it’s for them, because it’s not for everybody. We’ll then connect that network online so that anybody, anywhere can speak to a woman in another part of the country and access her knowledge and benefit from it. The decision to call it ‘Make It Your Business’ was deliberate literally to make it your business, your enterprise, but it’s also make it your business to fulfil your potential. So, there are two meanings to that title and there was always meant to be.”
With approaching 3,000 members in less than 2 years, it would appear that Cork has found potentially thousands of women looking to move into business ownership despite the not insignificant challenges that running your own business brings.
Cork herself is no stranger to venturing into difficult territory with her eyes wide open when she decided to run as the Conservative candidate for the Lord Mayor of London for 2020. Although she lost out to another candidate, Shaun Bailey, whom Cork is now working with and supporting, Cork thoroughly enjoyed the challenge – even the interview which sounds worse than being grilled by Lord Sugar’s business panel experts when she was questioned by 24 people sitting in a horseshoe asking any question on any topic relating to London.
Politicians are hardly enjoying the most positive of publicity at the moment but Cork is eager to try to set the record straight.
“I know lots of politicians who work extraordinarily hard day in and day out, and who are not showy and not in the headlines but they are working really hard on behalf of their constituents and I’m so respectful of the job they do, which, in relative terms is not that well paid as they put in insane hours. I think there people out there who genuinely want to achieve stuff and I think politics can be a good way to do it.
I’ve absolutely enjoyed that journey and whilst it didn’t end up with me being Mayor of London, it did perhaps teach me an equally, if not more important thing, which is that I really enjoy being in the political arena and I can work through politics to effect the changes I want to see around women, women in business, the economy and a greater equality. I’m not one of these bra burning individuals; it’s just common sense to me that if you want sensible balanced policies, you need a sensible balance of men and women contributing to the formation of them. It’s not rocket science.”
For a person who could have easily taken an easier path, Cork’s determination to control her own destiny and discovering the entrepreneur within have together seen her achieve great things to date and we don’t think this lady is finished yet. We look forward to catching up with her in the future to share the next chapters of her life.