Every now and then you meet someone who changes your perspective on things entirely. When I was first introduced to Faye last summer in London via The Princes Trust, I not only was blown away by her story- but her complete lust, enthusiasm and drive for life- and her outlook of boundless positivity when the going gets tough. After becoming extremely ill in 2013, Faye began her incredible brand, BearHugs– something she now runs as a full time business. Aiming to not only brighten peoples days (which I know to be a fact) but to employ as a Disability Confident employer and change the perspective on disability in the workplace. She’s comfortably one of the most inspiring businesswomen I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, so was incredibly excited to head up to BearHugs HQ in Sheffield to find out more about building a brand from scratch, pursuing your dream career no matter what and getting your business head on…
Hello lovely! So, I want to get straight into BearHugs and your hugely inspiring story- but for those that haven’t met you before- can you introduce yourself?
Hi lovely Liv! Hi Liv’s lovely readers! My name is Faye, and among other things, I’m the Chief Sender of Hugs at my social enterprise BearHugs. I’m most often found in our cosy ‘BearHub’ in Sheffield where I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful, supportive, inspiring women. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been keeping myself super busy trying to turn my little idea about spreading some kindness into a reality. I feel incredibly fortunate to now get to help people send ‘hug in a box’ gift hampers to their loved ones and to offer part-time, flexible working opportunities to people living with chronic illness as my day job.
So, after becoming poorly in 2013 and pretty much putting everything on hold- the BearHugs story began. What inspired you to begin the beautiful brand?
I think there’s two parts to the story – why I wanted to start something for myself and then where the idea for BearHugs came from.
Like you said, I fell really ill and by 2013 I’d had to leave my job as a Speech and Language Therapist. I now know that my symptoms are caused by Lyme Disease. My health was fluctuating so much, I couldn’t really commit myself to finding a regular 9-5 job. To be honest, most days I couldn’t even get out of bed. In spite of that, I wanted to feel some kind of purpose, and I wanted to find a way to do something constructive and positive with the moments where I felt slightly more capable of doing something.
So! One day, my beautiful friend Sophia sent me a surprise package in the post. It was full of all these lovely, personal things to try and cheer me up. I was having a really rough time and it totally made my day. That more than anything convinced me how much gestures like that can mean to people, and that was when the first spark of the idea of BearHugs was born!
It takes such a lot of confidence to start a business from scratch and before beginning BearHugs, you enrolled on the Princes Trust Enterprise programme, how did that help you know where to start?
I can’t stress how much I literally had no idea how to run a business before I started. I always want people to know that so they know that running your own business isn’t just for businessy people. I still don’t think of myself as a businessy person! Before I fell ill I had trained to be a Speech and Language Therapist and that’s what I always saw myself doing. After I fell ill and couldn’t leave the house much, the internet became my main way of interacting with the world. I ended up selling a few things on Etsy and eBay, but that was the extent of my business knowledge before the Prince’s Trust!
What kind of things did you learn on the programme? How did everything first begin?
The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme was perfect for me as it covered all of the business basics. Across the (completely free) four day course we looked at market research, book-keeping, tax, marketing and business planning. Attending the course was a huge personal challenge for me. There were times due to my health that I found it very difficult. When I was open about the difficulties I was having though, the Prince’s Trust staff were incredibly warm, supportive and accommodating.
Over several months, I then had a series of one-to-one meetings with my Prince’s Trust mentor, Greg. Greg helped me work through writing my business plan in a structured systematic way. This made the process far less daunting and kept me engaged and on track. Once my business plan was complete, I talked through my idea in front of Prince’s Trust panel and answered some questions about it. This was far less frightening than I thought it might be and it felt incredible to be launched as a Prince’s Trust business at the end. It was also at this point that I found that I would be awarded a grant which I could use to fund some of the initial costs of getting my business off the ground. The fact that Greg and the Prince’s Trust had enough faith in my idea and planning to put money in was really important to me and helped a huge amount with my confidence.
It’s so amazing coming into your office now and seeing you grow as a team (!) when it all began as just you! It must be so surreal…
It’s totally surreal! There are times when people ask me things about running a business and I think ‘why are you asking me?’.
Sometimes when the BearHugs team is all working on something together I feel like I could burst with happiness and pride. To have such wonderful people working on something that I believe in so much, knowing that it all came from my little idea, is just the most incredible and strange feeling.
One thing I particularly love about BearHugs (aside from your unwavering determination and warmth) is that you’re also a Disability Confident employer- how important to you was this when growing the Bear Hugs family?
I always knew that it’s much harder to try to fix things that are wrong with your business than it is to build it up how you want it to be. That’s why when I am making decisions about BearHugs, BearHugs values always play a major role. I think the most commonly heard phrases in BearHugs HQ is ‘that’s so BearHugs!’ or ‘I’m not sure that’s very BearHugs’…
My experiences before starting BearHugs had given me a small glimpse into how difficult it is for a lot of talented, capable, disabled people to find work. A lot of employers, for various reasons, are not utilising this potential talent. I knew that I never wanted BearHugs to be exclusionary to anyone at all, so when I found out about being a Disability Confident employer I knew it was something I wanted BearHugs to be.
I asked this to the lovely Charlotte when I interviewed her, but running a business is a challenge as is, how did (and do) you find determination to make things so successful, even on more challenging days?
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t difficult days! It’s been a constant learning process. No two days are the same! There have been times where I’ve felt completely out of my depth. There have been times where I’ve not felt healthy enough or confident enough or knowledgeable enough to get something done, but I’ve always had an idea of how I wanted BearHugs to be and have tried my best to make sure that anything I do matches my vision of what I want BearHugs to be.
It might sound cheesy but I’m constantly inspired by our BearHugs customers too. We have the most thoughtful, kind customers and they’ve put their trust in us, sometimes in really difficult situations, so I’m always totally determined to make sure BearHugs doesn’t let them down!
I think when it comes to staying determined, it’s important to know that everyone you admire who is successful has been through the same things, and still often has the same doubts and difficulties. Having a support team around me, be it my Prince’s Trust mentor, or my family, or my dear friend Ruth Bright, who I share an office with and who runs her own business, to offer me advice, or even just hear me out when I’m a bit stressed, makes a huge difference. If you don’t have a support network around you in person, and many chronically ill people don’t, finding people like you online can be a huge help.
You’re such an incredible role model for women to show that if you set your heart to it, you really can achieve anything. Do you have any advice for ladies in similar positions wanting to pursue a dream career?
There will be times when, especially as a woman, you will be made to think that something isn’t for you, or it’s not possible for you to do something. I don’t think it’s helpful advice to just say to ignore those people, because sometimes those voices will get you down. I’ve been in meetings where people have been so dismissive of me and clearly weren’t interested in listening to what I have to say and it’s really knocked me. The best thing about pursuing your own dream career is that it’s your dream. Nobody can tell you you are wrong.
‘Of course it’s important to get advice and listen to a variety of voices, but at the end of the day it’s your dream and your vision. You will always care the most. You will always be the most enthusiastic and you will always be the most passionate.’
And while you might not always know the most about the business side or the technical side of something, you can learn that, and you can meet people who can help you learn, and you will always always know the most about what it is that you want to achieve.
I’m so excited to continue to watch BearHugs grow- it’s been an incredible few years! What’s next for the lovely Faye?
Something I’m currently working on that I’m really excited about is developing a BearHugs Chronic Illness Work Experience Program. I receive lots of emails from lovely and talented chronically ill people who want to get involved with BearHugs. While the team is growing, unfortunately I can’t offer jobs to everyone. I want to develop the right opportunities to make sure that these people can get the fulfilling, productive experiences they deserve. It’s something I’m really determined to try and get right.
Aside from that, I’m just looking forward to sending as many BearHugs as possible! When you popped in we’d just moved into our lovely new BearHugs HQ and I’m really excited about maximising the space and getting as many hugs out there as we can!
Finally- I must ask (being my Girl Crush series)- are there any women that inspire you- who are your girl crushes?
Oh gosh so many. Can I give a little list? Jodi Ann Bickley. Her book One Million Lovely Letters gave me that warm, exciting spark feeling in my chest at a time when I wasn’t feeling very sparkly. Her warmth and loveliness in spite of chronic illness is still a huge inspiration to me. Emily Coxhead. I love anyone who makes it their mission to put more happiness into the world. Kris Hallenga. Seeing the movement Kris is creating with CoppaFeel is constantly inspiring. Sian, Lyndsey, Georgina and Charlotte. The kindest, loveliest Senders of Hugs I could ever ask to have. Sophia Galpin. The strongest lady I know. And of course amazing friends who have started amazing enterprises- Natalia Welch, Charlotte Jones, Ruth Bright, Kate Stanforth, Jayne Tapp, Sorrel Botham, Meg, Pippa Stacey.