This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. See what you can be.
Gabriela founded Huckletree in May 2014 to cater for an emerging group of entrepreneurs in London. Today Huckletree operates three spaces in London and one in Dublin with a community of over 2000 members. As Huckletree's CEO, Gabriela spends the majority of her time recruiting top-level talent to join her team. She has a great passion for creating a strong team culture, and takes pride in seeing her team enjoying their work.
Gabriela has an overriding passion for startups, technology, architecture and design, and was a recent speaker on the 'Future of Work' at TedXMorganStanley in London. Gabriela is an influential female founder within London's technology ecosystem, and currently serves on the advisory board of several startup businesses.
Gaby is also mother to one, Jack, who will soon be two years old.
“Anyone who has a good idea and has a strong head on their shoulders can build a business that becomes a brand that people identify, associate with and appreciate. A lot of people undermine themselves and maybe don’t have the confidence to go out and start something, but we are living in an age where everything is possible, nothing is out of reach. If you have that idea go test it out, get some feedback, validate it then go out and do it!”
Who is your role model as an entrepreneur?
The first people that always come to mind are my parents and I’ve grown up with both parents working incredibly hard. I remember during my wild university days, driving home from a nightclub and seeing the office light on at my father’s workplace. As every family, we’ve had our shares of ups and downs, moments of financial difficulty and my parents always put myself, my brother and their values first. They worked very hard to make sure we had everything we needed and a good education and have done in a way that was focused, honest and respectable, even to the point where if I need to take a personal day off work I actually feel guilty because I know my parents are both still hard at work in their respective workplaces.
On a more celebrated public figure note, I have really admired Sahar Hashemi, Founder of Coffee Republic for a long time and actually wrote my 2007 dissertation on the rise of the Coffee Shop Culture in the UK. Sahar and Coffee Republic really came up as a brand on that scene and I always respected and admired how they built up the brand. I recently spoke on a panel with her, which was incredible because I was in awe. She was so blunt and factual about things she would have done differently and really shared her practical, hands-on advice. As I was sitting on that panel with her, I was thinking how that moment was elevating me to learn more, to share more bluntly and I really enjoyed the experience. The advice that really helps is not generic advice, rather advice that touches on hard points. Today she continues to be an inspiration to me.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
My greatest achievement to date has been building Huckletree, alongside my team into a brand that’s recognised. I think that’s a huge achievement and some days I have to pinch myself when I think about it. What has been key to this, is the family of team members we have built along the way that comes down to the emphasis we place on hiring. All of my 40 team members would testify that we have a very special team, where we enjoy spending time together outside of work, which has a direct impact on their day to day enjoyment at work. That makes me very happy and proud! Obviously we hire based on skills and past experience, but personality is very important and the first question I ask myself when hiring someone is ‘would this person enjoy being friends with my team, would that be a natural process?’ That has really helped us build a great team.
The other achievement I am most proud of was leading my first round of big fundraising when I was 7 months pregnant. The funny thing was that my co-founder Andrew was also about to have his first baby as well, so our children ended up being born 10 days apart! It was a challenge for both of us, but I was the one visibly pregnant. We would walk into meetings with investors and sometimes I think they would take one look at my growing stomach and spend the rest of the meeting engaging with Andrew. I actually remember walking out of a meeting because I was so appalled by the way I was being treated. I just hadn’t been in that position before and wasn’t about to start then. We did finally find great investors who came on board. Then the next challenge for me was to continue demonstrating to them that I was as committed to my work, even though I was approaching childbirth. That was a much better challenge. I ended up working until the day before I gave birth, which I don’t think I’ll do next time, but it was an experience.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
Balancing work-home life is my biggest on-going challenge. Every day I feel guilty about not being there with my son, who turns 2 in January. These are really crucial years where he’s not in a structure and framework at school and needs his parents around him. My husband and I both work incredibly hard. There really is nothing more important to me than enjoying quality time with my family and creating a happy loving environment for my son, where he can feel secure and confident. Only this morning was thinking, who can I call out of my girlfriends, to see how many times a day they are checking on their children, just to make sure I’m doing the right thing and am not a bad mum? That guilt really is something I suffer with every day, to be honest. Guys don’t have the same guilt at home. For example, there are days when my husband comes home from work and our son is already asleep, and it doesn’t bother him, because he compartmentalizes and he knows he’s doing a good thing by working hard to create an environment that our son can flourish in. He sees it differently. It is what it is.
What in your opinion is the key to your company’s success?
The key to our success is our team. First of all their minds that become the value that we offer to our members (we are really luck to have an incredibly intellectual team) and also their happiness, that becomes our members’ happiness. This has quickly become a differentiator for us in a hugely saturated market. I genuinely believe that without the team we have, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Hiring is incredibly important. One thing we have not done is go and poach people from our competitors, because we look for vastly different things to what they look for. It comes down to that thought process in the interview, about would this person fit in with the rest of the team? Are they friendly, engaging, do they work hard, are they intelligent? If you build a team based on people like that, no matter what you are doing you’ll be able to do it incredibly well. Other people look for different things, but this is what has worked well for us so far.
If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?
Generally I go by the rule of thumb that everything that happens, makes you into the person you were supposed to become. There are definitely one or two situations where I was treated condescendingly and I allowed it to happen, and I definitely wouldn’t let that happen today. I don’t know if it was because I was a woman, or people on the other side of the table had a chip on their shoulder and something to prove to themselves, but I accepted at the time. Today with the confidence I have, I wouldn’t let that happen.
As you get older and go through life, you achieve more things and become armed with more confidence where you know you don’t need to take things certain situations, whereas when you are younger you may not yet have that confidence. As a leader and one of the people running the show at your company, it’s important you step in and stop any inappropriate talk and take a stand.
What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is an incredible journey. If you’ve got an idea and think it has legs and build a business around it, it’s an incredible feeling to know you’ve essentially done it (obviously with the help of a lot of people). The advice I would give is that we see a lot of startups with big ideas, but who haven’t done any market validation or testing at all. The key thing is to get some validation before your quit your day job, because there are a lot of ideas out there – some are good and some not so good. On this journey, you are fortunate to surround yourself with people you choose and build a culture that represents your own personality and I think that’s incredible for anyone to be able to build.
“Nowadays especially, there seems to be a lot of romanticism around entrepreneurship and more people want to do it when they leave University and that’s great. However a touch of reality is always a good thing to have as well. You need to know that building a business is always very risky. In the early days before we did our seed funding round, I didn’t have a salary and even once we did our seed round, I paid myself next to nothing for year and a half – it was not easy. No matter what the economic environment is like, you have to have a good idea, a strong team and support yourself financially before that happens – so cook easy affordable dinners and anticipate doing that for at least 18 months!”
If you are one of the lucky ones who has savings, then go ahead and do it, but don’t be under any false illusion about how long it can take before you are paying yourself a decent salary you feel is fair for what you are doing. I was lucky to have some savings and didn’t have a crazy lifestyle so I could make it work, but the salary I paid myself after our seed round was ridiculously low and I’d even go so far as to say it wasn’t good practice to pay myself what I did then. When you are raising your seed round, make sure to raise enough so that you are paying yourself industry standards for what you are doing. It must be something that’s fair, but allows you to live and eat. Equity is great but doesn’t put dinner on the table at the end of the day!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I hope my team members would say I am somebody who comes to the table with suggestions not impositions, someone who hires well, who is flexible with her team members’ needs and tries to understand how I can help them – without being a pushover. I genuinely care about the welfare of my team both inside and outside of work, because we have become like a family. I encourage people to bring their best self to work, try new ideas even if it means failing and feel confident in the environment we are creating to allow them to do that.
I’d also say that I’m incredibly blunt and the older I get, the less I beat around the bush. I act quickly when I need to. When a team member is doing incredibly well I will praise them for what they are doing and if somebody is not doing a great job, I will openly tell them I’m disappointed once or twice. If I see they don’t up their game quickly enough, I’ll let them go because they are underperforming and I won’t let them bring down my whole team and watch that happen. The rest of the team appreciate that because it is about having targets we can meet and extract value from and if somebody is letting that down, then a conversation needs to be had. Communication is key.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I was very shy until University. I would tell my younger self and other young women around me, not to worry so much. I worried a lot and wanted to be in with the ‘cool’ crowd at school and never quite made it, which ended up fine in the end. I was constantly worried about how I was perceived.
“I would tell my younger self: ‘Don’t worry about that, spend time discovering yourself, learning about your likes and dislikes, hobbies, passions, what you are good at, what your values are and what you want to stand for as a person. Once you have that knowledge, you’ll have the confidence to be the person that you should be. That will bring the right people around you and bring you confidence. Nothing else really matters. It’s about encouraging independence, creativity and not being afraid to be yourself, whatever that may mean.”
I things differently now that I have my own child and see what I want for him as he grows up. I want him to be the person that he wants to be. My real wish for him is that he doesn’t feel he needs to please anyone, or be friends with anyone – that he is empowered to just be who he wants to be.
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I’m going to be very honest. I had this answer mapped out about all the great things I want to achieve with Huckletree, but the truth is that when I think about 5 years from now, I think about what I want my family to look like. I’d love to have four children, lots of animals, live in a place with a back garden where we can leave our back door open (which we can’t do in London). I think that living in a environment where you can leave your back door open has a huge impact on the sense of community and the feeling you grow up with. I’d really love that!
I also want to continue to build a great relationship with my husband, travel the world to explore and develop ourselves and become the people we want to be, together and as individuals. And to be in really good mental and physical health. If I have all of that, I’d be the happiest person. That is what I want really. I have a long list of things I’d like to achieve in the next five years from a professional standpoint, but at this point in time, this is what’s most important to me.
3 key words to describe yourself?
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