Sonya Barlow is an award-winning entrepreneur, founder of the LMF Network, TedX Speaker, LinkedIn Changemaker 2021; Linkedin Top Voice 2022, BBC radio presenter and author.
In 2021, Sonya published her debut handbook on entrepreneurship, business and becoming your own boss titled Unprepared to Entrepreneur and was announced as the host of BBC Asian Network’s The Everyday Hustle
In 2020, she was named as one of the Most Influential Women in Tech (Computerweekly), Winner of the Women in Software Changemakers (Makers and Google), Top 50 BAME Entrepreneurs (TechRound), Future Shaper (Marie Claire). She was also a Forbes 30 Under 30 Shortlist runner up 2021, recognised in Inspiring Fifty UK 2021 awards and one of the Most Influential Women in Tech 2021 by Computerweekly.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Sonya Barlow: After finishing my degree in Business Studies in 2015, I went into the corporate world in the technology industry as a consultant. Since then, I entered four different spaces, each smaller than the one before, which meant wearing more hats and bearing more responsibilities. At some stage, I was the youngest senior staff member and top 10% of earners in the UK, which is a great achievement as a South-Asian woman. However, none of this means that much if you are discriminated against, which I was and therefore parted with two companies. These are facts many people would try to hide, but I like to talk about both failure and successes – and it’s a big part of why I am doing the work as I am now.
Between my first and second corporate roles, around spring 2018, I felt lost and insecure. That’s when I decided to go to my first networking event with businesswomen, and I was sold into that life. But when I realised the cost of entry – £1,500 per month, nearly half the monthly cost of living in London -, I experienced shock, anger and determination. How could it be so expensive to find people to talk to about life?
That was why I decided to go find my own community, my entrepreneurial baby: the LMF Network. It started as a closed LinkedIn group that has grown into a global social enterprise.
In the beginning, I kept LMF as a side-hustle. Through 2019, I was balancing building LMF and starting my third corporate role. But, as my love for LMF grew, my love for corporate environments lessened. I was no longer motivated by suits, ties and money. Instead, what drove me was helping others build their dream career and launch campaigns on diversity. Today LMF has over 50,000 in social following and has upskilled over 15,000 people, plus launched the largest virtual mentoring programme from the UK.
So, in November 2019, I took a leap of faith and focused on LMF full-time, and then the pandemic hit. I lost 75% of my total revenue, so I decided to pivot my energy into building my personal brand. Within 18 months, I was named a LinkedIn Changemaker in the UK, radio presenter at the BBC Asian Network and wrote a global bestseller titled Unprepared to Entrepreneur.
I also launched my second business venture under the LMF Brand. This focuses on helping companies and organizations understand and implement diversity, equity and inclusion strategies within their business structure. DEI efforts are important for brand association especially as we continue to learn and share experiences with one another – and that’s what makes us different and stronger as a society. And that’s where I am at the moment.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Sonya Barlow: In my opinion, entrepreneurs are not born, they are made. Entrepreneurs unlock their creative minds to form solutions. It is a maddening lifestyle, but it is one you choose.
Based on my own experience, and after speaking with other award-winning entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship is sometimes accidental. It is a way of getting out of a bad place or ‘grey area’. This is an expression I use to describe a feeling of dissatisfaction or frustration over something you haven’t yet found a solution for. At times, it’s not a want, but a need. For example, I HAD to sustain my life and put food on the table, and for that reason entrepreneurship wasn’t a nice thing to have but a necessity.
I wrote in my book that Entrepreneurship is one cup madness, one cup dedication and three cups of strategically winging it until something satisfactory is made. I really believe that it’s something you learn as you grow. More nurture, less nature.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Sonya Barlow: I consider myself an accidental entrepreneur whose motto is ‘strategically winging it’.
I am someone that is always coming up with new ideas and creative methods to find solutions. I am determined enough to put my thoughts into actions and make them work. That’s why I always take the initiative by asking, ‘what is the worst that could happen?’. Strategically winging it is giving something a go that you think you can do or understand 30% of and figuring the rest out – it’s entrepreneurship with a rough plan, but big dreams and even bigger ambition.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Sonya Barlow: I founded the Like Minded Females (LMF) Network in May 2018, which started as a small initiative through a closed LinkedIn group. Originally, the goal was to bring together women from diverse backgrounds to have career and confident conversations during brunch meetings. Now, my company’s mission is to redefine community; companies and culture by building confidence, upskilling capabilities and encouraging careers. Our work is in two-fold – to build our community and ensure they are able to succeed, whilst sharing their pain points and finding solutions for those with the companies who want to be inclusive, representative and accessible. Our USP is that we work in both worlds and can therefore truly provide long term action plans with insights from the people, for the people.
Today, LMF Network is a global social enterprise with a mission to educate, empower, and enable women and underrepresented groups in sectors where diverse talent is missing, like tech, digital, and entrepreneurship.
In these past three years, we have built a global community of more than 50,000 followers across social media channels, upskilled more than 15,000 people through our workshops and fostered close to 1,000 mentoring relationships through our mentoring programmes.
I have led this amazing initiative with little funding but with the support of a great network of 25+ global volunteers and an engaged community. It’s the people who make the business strong and our greatest differentiators. Since 2021, we have become profitable – with partnerships, campaigns and delivery of inclusion services. It’s one reason why I was awarded the LinkedIn Changemaker of 2021 – because my efforts are creating actual change which is being recognised globally.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Sonya Barlow: Businesses and entrepreneurs start with good intent, but rush to the end game. The fact is that you will fail, not once but several times. That’s the reality of starting a new business, the environment is incredibly unpredictable, and you must prepare for things to not go according to plan. So, what you need to do is change how you see failure. This is the great learning and opportunity to innovate rather than an area to give up.
Failure, for me, is a disruptor. It is an opportunity to take a step back and ask yourself: ‘What went wrong?’, ‘How can I get better?’, and ‘What can I do differently next time?’.
This way of thinking is vital for creating a viable business. Analyzing your idea, actions and processes to know what worked and what didn’t bring you one step closer towards success. Businesses and entrepreneurs need to reframe failure as an opportunity to innovate – expand and become their true selves.
Also, running a business is not always going to be profitable or fun – so know that if you start this journey, you need to have a couple of safety blankets. For me, I chose to not invest into PR or marketing and have built my business organically. Instead, I used my resources to invest into technology to keep us running such as Google Suite applications, Zoom and Notion.
The final thoughts would be around mental health and wellness. When starting a business, take it slow and don’t be afraid to start your business as a side hustle before stepping into it full time. Entrepreneurship is a lonely and long journey – you may even lose yourself along the way, and so you need to know that taking stock and wellness breaks is good for you and your business.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Sonya Barlow: Initially, I started LMF with good intentions. However, somewhere along the way, I turned my focus from making positive change and social impact to how much I could make in a short amount of time and based every decision around income. To be honest, I got lost in the clout and what others were doing online or in podcasts of social media. That left me frustrated and bored by month three of deciding to work on LMF full-time and even made me consider shutting down LMF.
In the books I’ve read and podcasts I was listening to, no one had mentioned anything about losing your passion so early on, so I felt lost and that there was no one I could talk to. That’s also when the idea of Unprepared to Entrepreneur came along – create a guide that didn’t exist.
After taking a step back, I realised that the money would come once I can better define my mission; vision and USP. And so, I spent a few months building the brand presence; talking to potential customers and validating the solutions before I increased my charges. This worked out in the long term, though at that moment it was frustrating.
LMF and I have had an amazing journey together, because I believed in myself and the vision. Belief in yourself and your intent is very important, even if the world doesn’t get it.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Sonya Barlow: Establishing what kind of entrepreneur, you are key to keeping your business innovative and thriving. Otherwise, it is easy to lose your passion, drive and style. Why are you starting your business and what does success look like?
I was offered a spot in an accelerator course for social impact companies, which allowed me to re-identify my entrepreneurial style, a combination of a hustler and social entrepreneur. Before that, I hadn’t considered starting a social enterprise as it’s a fairly new concept in the UK. Education, information and asking the right questions from a place of curiosity is only going to help you and your business.
Once I did that, the business model’s direction of LMF became easier to navigate and allowed room to evolve as we grew as a social enterprise. This enabled our two arms of the business; the focus on diversity & inclusion and always centered around community.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Sonya Barlow: It is not advice I received, but a lesson learned as an entrepreneur. Being a ‘yes girl’ at the beginning of my business made me lose focus on who I was and what I was offering as an individual and business owner.
What I learned was that identity is important as it’s the first element that speaks to potential customers and consumers. You can lose projects and potential clients because you are not being authentic.
It is crucial to have a strong sense of identity. You need to be clear about what values you follow, your core principles that direct your gut decisions, and, most importantly, a reason (your why) for your actions or approach.
Losing your identity can even make you lose your passion and drive towards your business idea. It is also a sure path to burning out.
I said yes to things that didn’t serve me or my business and became noisy (sometimes I even panicked and didn’t charge a penny). This made me sad, broke and feel silly. When I started building my confidence back through curiosity, communication and community, I reignited my passion and decided to lead the company with my authentic self and being driven by my values.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Sonya Barlow: What Covid-19 taught us is that things can change, and change faster than we are ready for, so we must learn to adapt just as quickly. This reinforces what I have learned: you don’t need a perfect business plan to start. Unfortunately, a bulletproof business plan won’t mean a lack of setbacks and disruptions.
Instead of giving a structure or direction, these fool-proof plans can become a restriction and make you fail quicker. Your plan does not allow room to make mistakes; this perfect plan begins with the assumption that you have ‘eliminated all errors’.
Instead, you need to allow setbacks. You need to allow yourself to fail and try again, adapt, and move to the next challenge.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that there is no right or wrong way to become an entrepreneur or a perfect time to start a business. If you keep waiting, the right time will never come.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Sonya Barlow: A common misconception is that you need a perfect, fool-proof business plan before you start a business. For me, that is an outdated and unrealistic idea.
Instead, what you need to do is take a chance on yourself and your idea. Resilience and adapting are what will propel you and your business forward. That is why it is one of the hardest parts of launching a business. You will need to let go of your own reservations and just take that risk.
Honestly, you won’t regret it. Even if your idea doesn’t work, or you decide that entrepreneurship is not for you, it will teach you valuable lessons about yourself, and you will develop skills that you can use in other roles. In Chapter 11 of my book, I say, “if you aren’t an entrepreneur, at least you are way more employable” and I stick by that – entrepreneurship teaches you more skills than a standard corporate job could ever do.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Sonya Barlow: Creativity is a key to starting a successful business. A trait that all entrepreneurs have in common is that we start our journeys by identifying their problem – that ‘grey area’ I talked about earlier. Being able to creatively solve problems is an underrated skill. You must also have a ‘give it a go’ or “what if” attitude to keep carrying on, especially when you get knocked down.
To survive as an entrepreneur, you also need to make sure that your idea excites you. It must be strong enough that you will be willing to ‘give it a go’ at all costs. This brings me to another quality you need is to be resilient. I ironically have a TED Talk called “Failure Comes Before Resilience” because I have only failed so many times before realising that the path to success is not binary, but complicated and fun.
And lastly, curiosity – stay asking questions; always the why; how and what – and don’t worry about not knowing the answer there and then but enjoy the figuring out journey because that itself will bring on new opportunities.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Sonya Barlow: First, understand that life is ever-changing, and you will fail. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make failure your best friend. Building resilience – the capacity to recover from setbacks and difficulties – is a muscle that every entrepreneur needs to strengthen if they want their business to thrive and grow.
Second, prioritise your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing at every point of your entrepreneurial journey. Your business won’t be successful if you won’t put yourself first. Burnout will kill a business faster than you realise.
As for resources to learn from, I would have to recommend my book – Unprepared to Entrepreneur – which addresses everything from overcoming failures, building and leveraging your network, to mental health. But most importantly, it contains more than 30 stories from diverse entrepreneurs who have both won and failed at business.
We tend to see in the media stories of wealthy and privileged founders, about the glamour of being an entrepreneur and being your own boss, big wins and successes and inaccessible quotes about the six-figure dream.
So, it is important to read the entrepreneurial stories of those from underprivileged backgrounds. Those who started a business with little money or launched their side hustle into something life changing. These stories will tell the truth about entrepreneurship. They will talk about the many attempts and failures along the way to becoming the successful business they are today.
I would also recommend The Everyday Hustle on the BBC – which was created to support normal people who want to get started, ahead and rich with their business idea – taking into account the actions of other businesspeople who have made it.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Sonya Barlow: I don’t know if this counts, but I would choose to be a social activist – which is not that far from my style of entrepreneurship. I am passionate about enabling people into their version of success through education and empowerment.
I am a loud and confident brown girl – something which as a child seemed to be a negative but in my adult life has really worked in my favour. I realised my loudness and confidence to voice my opinion has given me the ability to raise topics, speak on behalf of others and really advocate for change. Be that as a radio presenter, author or LinkedIn changemaker. It’s about recognising your skills and working to amplify them – something that most of us don’t do.
For this reason, my personal mission is to encourage females and people from ethnic minorities to strive for more. So, if I wasn’t already doing it through the platform of LMF Network, I would definitely aim to reduce gender and race inequality through activism and grassroots paths.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Sonya Barlow: It is hard to choose, but I have three good candidates.
One being Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder and CEO of Bumble. Aside from becoming the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, she is an inspiration and example of overcoming challenges and coming back stronger. When she left Tinder as the co-founder due to sexual harassment, Herd went and built a successful, women-oriented dating platform.
Another would be Deepica Mutyala, the CEO of Live Tinted and a fellow South Asian entrepreneur. Through her efforts and Live Tinted, Mutyala is adding to the diversity and inclusion in the beauty industry with her products and by giving a space for underrepresented individuals to share their stories.
The third one is Melanie Perkins, the founder of the design platform Canva. She experienced a lot of rejection from investors at the beginning due to her lack of experience. But instead of letting that stop her, Perkins continued to push for her idea and now Canva is a multi-million-dollar brand used worldwide.
We need more women like them. They didn’t back down in the face of a difficult situation and instead strive to build solutions that empower women in all spheres of life.
It’s my dream to meet these three ladies in real life over a warm cup of tea and exchange stories. So, if you are reading, drop me a message!
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sonya Barlow for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sonya Barlow or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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