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‘Put in the hours and don’t be afraid to fail’, say Britain’s top black founders

Tahlia Gray - SIMON J HARVEY 2020
Tahlia Gray - SIMON J HARVEY 2020

When Tahlia Gray set about creating tights specifically for black women, “there was no blueprint”.

“I didn’t have a fashion background so finding a manufacturer, pricing, stock management, and dealing with buyers was all foreign to me,” Gray says.

It was a leap into the unknown for Gray, who worked as a recruiter for investment banks before launching fashion firm Sheer Chemistry in 2017.

“Sadly, there aren’t many options for hosiery manufacturing within the UK, so we had to look to Europe. This meant getting on a plane to rural Italy, not knowing the language and meeting with a list of potential suppliers.”

It is this ability to learn and adapt that helped Gray secure one of the finalists spots on this year’s Black British Business Awards, of which The Telegraph is the media partner.

The event, now in its ninth year, celebrates the achievements of some of the UK’s best black corporate bosses and entrepreneurs.

“The most surprising thing is having to constantly learn and develop new skills,” she says. “A typical day could include anything from coding our website, pitching to a new partner, analysing Facebook ads, responding to customers and packing retail orders. No two days are the same, which I love but requires continuous development.”

Gray and her fellow finalists spoke to The Telegraph ahead of the awards ceremony on Thursday, in the hope of inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs. A key theme that sets the finalists apart is their determination to overcome challenges and learn from their mistakes.

Gori Yahaya - SIMON J HARVEY 2020
Gori Yahaya - SIMON J HARVEY 2020

“Failure is pretty synonymous with entrepreneurship,” says Gori Yahaya, who founded UpSkill Digital in 2015 to prepare people for a workplace far more reliant on IT skills than ever before. A veteran of two previous start-ups, he knew a great idea wasn’t enough on its own.

Yahaya tried to take his business “as far as we could go” on his own but hit a limit when he realised “how much I needed to sharpen my financial acumen”.

Putting in the hours to improve his knowledge has quite literally paid off for UpSkill Digital, which Yahaya says is now profitable and “cost-conscious” while still delivering on its core vision of digital learning.

A common thread among this year’s finalists was recognising their own limitations. With all the demands placed on an entrepreneur’s shoulders, there comes a point when the next vital step is hiring skilled people to fill out areas in which their knowledge is lacking.

“Ultimately, your first few hires, especially as a solo founder, can define the trajectory of your start-up,” says Yahaya, who admits a poor hiring decision in a key role set his company back in its early days.

Fellow finalist Trix Worrell, already an award-winning writer and director who has worked with the likes of Denzel Washington and Ridley Scott, says entrepreneurs must find the “ying to [their] yang”.

Trix Worrell Black British Business Awards - SIMON J HARVEY 2020
Trix Worrell Black British Business Awards - SIMON J HARVEY 2020

He adds: “Having somebody who is detached from the emotional journey, who is strategic in mindset and methodical in their approach to driving the business forward, is for me essential.”

Worrell started media company Distant Voices in 2021 with the aim of building a bridge into the industry for minority groups, and industry veteran and former Sky executive Celia Taylor was one of its first major hires. Within six months of its launch it was already turning over more than £1m.

Further down the line, another question entrepreneurs must answer is whether or not they want to lose equity in their firm in order to raise external funding. Worrell declined a lucrative offer in order to maintain Distant Voices' independence as a black organisation, but it meant having a solid plan to grow organically was vital.

For Gray, the plan to grow involved conducting extensive research into her customer base and working with makeup artists to identify five dominant shades. She took a painstaking 18 months to identify the best shades for their customers.

Collaboration with other firms has also proved key in Sheer Chemistry’s success.

“No business can thrive alone,” Gray says. Networking events helped lead to “some amazing opportunities”, such as retail partnerships with John Lewis and Waitrose.

Her advice for would-be entrepreneurs? “Surround yourself with mentors,” she says, whether they be experts with specific skills, those further along their start-up journey, or peers in the same boat. “It’s true when they say your net worth is your network.”

Yahaya tells future founders: “Don’t sweat the small stuff and trust in your team.” Doing so, and giving them room to innovate, “will give you even bigger returns”.

Worrell’s advice is simple: “Just do it!”