Alison Cork is a serial entrepreneur, broadcaster and writer. Over the past twenty years she has built up the Alison at Home Group of homes and interiors businesses, spanning publishing, online retail, design, licensing and TV shopping. Prior to that she co-founded a publishing company which floated in 1994, making her one of the youngest ever female founders of a publicly quoted company.
In 2017 she founded The National Women’s Enterprise Network, to encourage and support women who want to start their own business, and which runs the Make It Your Business seminars and website.
In March 2018 she was appointed Government Ambassador for Women Entrepreneurs.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think being an entrepreneur requires you to be a natural leader. Every day brings a variety of challenges and the typical business owner will find themselves having to deal with all of them, whereas in a corporation there would probably be different people tasked to handle different issues. I have only ever been an entrepreneur, and have never worked for anyone else, so leading from the front comes pretty naturally to me. I’m not sure I would know how to hide at the back, so to speak!
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
Each business I have run has taught me skills which I have then taken forward to the next business. I would also say that If you haven’t failed at some point as an entrepreneur, you probably haven’t tried hard enough, and it is through those learning experiences that you hone your skills. Having said that, I was variously a bar maid, shop assistant and travel agent years ago, and those jobs reinforced how much I do enjoy communicating with people and finding out about them.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
The highlights of my role as CEO of Alison at Home have been many and varied, from writing and presenting my first TV series, to designing my first piece of furniture and launching the Alison at Home range on QVC. I love the variety of what I do, and that keeps my interest alive.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
To be honest, my career path has been completely organic and self driven. I have never had any formal training in interiors, design, writing or broadcasting and I shall always happily admit to that, as it should be an encouragement to others. In other words, if you want something badly enough, just go for it, learn as you go along and don’t let lack of experience put you off. A lot of it is about self belief. I keep my favourite and most brutal rejection letters as a reminder of all the people who told me not to bother with my ambitions, and guess what, they were all wrong.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
Never give up and be prepared to work ferociously hard. There are naturally talented people out there who nonetheless don’t succeed as they lack drive or the necessary work ethic. There are few obstacles that can’t be overcome if you are prepared to put in the effort.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
For me it’s about routine and structure, which helps me get the most out of the day, and which in turn allows me to aim for that balance between work and rest. So I do get up early, at 5.50am, but that allows me to have a gym session before making breakfast for the kids and seeing them off to school, and to get into the office for 8.15am. At the other end of the day, unless I am traveling, we always sit down at the table as a family to eat supper and have a chat. On the occasions that we don’t, or one of the chairs is empty, the day just doesn’t feel right somehow. My other non negotiable is having a little time away from everything every few months, which for me means walking some mountain range. I’m just about to walk the mountains of north east Sicily – can’t wait.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
This is a difficult one for me to answer from experience, as I have never worked in a corporation as such. But the women I speak to tell me that there is still a ‘boy’s network’ mentality in the corporate world, and clearly that has to be redressed.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
I think there are several very practical things we can do to help women start their own business, around helping them to network, meet female role models and build self confidence. I always say, you can’t be it if you can’t see it, so the Make It Your Business seminars which I run are designed to bring aspiring female entrepreneurs face to face with women who have trodden the path and succeeded.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship can be transformational, and I was lucky to have a mentor in the form of my first business partner, who taught me a lot about running businesses generally. It isn’t essential and you can of course succeed without one, but a good mentor will save you from a lot of pitfalls, and in the process, save you time and money as well.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Well that would have to be our two female Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher was my entrepreneurial poster girl of the 80s when I was starting out, and our current PM gets my vote for her sheer consistency and unwavering determination to do the job she was elected to do. Consistency is in my opinion a much underrated quality.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
I have many goals for 2018 – professionally I want to grow the Alison at Home group yet further, with an emphasis on social media and digital. I also want to see my not for profit initiative to help female entrepreneurs, Make It Your Business, extend its reach to the whole of the UK. I recently became the Government Champion for Women Entrepreneurs, so much to be done there too. On the family front, I have two teenage sons, one of whom is preparing for his university application and the other of whom is a promising fencer, and I want to help guide them as well. Somewhere amongst all that, my husband and I are squeezing in a walking holiday in the mountains of North West Greece – it’s getting to the point where I have to take him somewhere remote just to manage a conversation!
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
Be willing to work, fight for what you believe in and just keep going.