Sarah Willingham On Investments, Superpowers & Entrepreneurs
Serial entrepreneur, former Dragons' Den UK investor and Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards judge Sarah Willingham chats to The Suite Collective about succeeding in business and picking potential investments.
Sarah Willingham
Sarah Willingham’s earliest memories are of baking – “lots and lots of baking when I was very, very young” – with her mum. These days, when the serial entrepreneur, former Dragons’ Den UK investor, and current judge of the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards isn’t making deals and running companies, she’s again finding joy in her kitchen as it’s the one place where her brain truly switches off.

Which, we can only imagine, is no mean feat. Even during our 20-minute phone conversation, as she runs errands, it’s clear Willingham’s modus operandi is ‘firing-on-all-cylinders-at-all-times’. Full of energy, optimism and wisdom, she’s also warm and open, someone you could have a giggle and a gin with. Speaking of, here’s a fun fact: the most successful business to come out of Dragons’ Den to date is the Craft Gin and Bubble Club that Willingham invested in back in 2016. Watch here for the moment when Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden both passed on the opportunity. It’s rather enjoyable.

And so is interviewing Willingham. Here she shares some insight into what she looks for in potential investments, why some people aren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs and how she’s exceeded her own expectations.


No One Sees The Rhino Coming

“I’ve spent most of my career championing women wherever possible, but I’ve certainly felt as I’ve got older, it’s something that I’ve wanted to do, almost disproportionately compared to a lot of the other things that I do. I talk to Gen Z a lot, and while I love the fact that they don’t see gender or sexuality in the way that we did going up, sadly young women are still feeling like imposters in situations where they shouldn’t be. That’s not say that men don’t have impostor syndrome but, certainly in my experience, women suffer from it a lot more.”

“If there was one thing I’d want my younger self to know it’s that imposter syndrome is a superpower. People don’t see you coming, and they normally underestimate you. I always use the analogy; ‘no one sees the rhino coming’. You’ve got this huge rhino with tiny, little legs, and people think, ‘what’s he going to do?’. Well, he’s the biggest killer in the savanna. If people underestimate you, let them. You now have the advantage.”


Strap On Your Jet Pack – You’re Going To Need It

“A lot of people really aren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs. One thing you need to possess when you start the journey of being an entrepreneur is self-awareness – you must ask yourself, ‘Am I the right person for this?’ You also need to be self-propelled. By that, I mean you must be okay when you fall into holes.”

“Entrepreneurship is a lonely place at times, it can be very difficult, and you will come across problems constantly. As a result, you’ve have to be very resilient, optimistic and self-motivating. Entrepreneurs need to be the type of person that says, ‘I can do this.’ That doesn’t mean you don’t ask for help, or you don’t surround yourself with brilliant people – that’s essential – but you need the ability to drive yourself and push yourself further. I almost think you have this little jet pack on your back when you’re an entrepreneur – you’ve got to be able to get yourself out of those holes because nobody’s throwing the ladder down to you.”


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Don’t Mistake My Kindness For Weakness

“Not so much now because I was on Dragons Den and most people in the UK know who I am now, but before that, I think there was a misconception about me. I’m very feminine – I like my lip gloss and don’t mind the odd false eyelash – so people would constantly underestimate me, and it became a superpower of mine over the years. It gave me the ability to go into a meeting when I needed to negotiate well, because the group of suits sitting opposite me were clearly not prepared for the meeting. They probably thought ‘this will be easy, she’s really nice’.”

“The thing is, I am nice, I have a big smile and I’m always very friendly and very fair, but I’m also really tough. I often think that can be a big assumption – just because someone is kind and polite and is genuinely interested in you as a person, I think it’s very easy to underestimate them and think they’ll be a pushover.”


Three Is The Magic Number For Investments

“I look at three things with a potential investment. First, I look at the product or service that’s on offer, and I question; ‘Is there a group of people, a demographic, or a segment of society that needs this products or service? That’s number one. I’m not talking about when people try to tell us that there are 7.6 million people in the world who need their product. I mean, a smaller demographic that you can see particularly needing this product or service.”

“The second thing I ask myself is, ‘Can I talk to this group of people?’ This is the marketing strategy. I need to know that I can reach these people, and that there’s a way of reaching them. So, again, someone walks in and says, ‘We can reach 7.6 million people!’, I just think, ‘well, that’s just not a business model’. How on earth am I going to talk to that many people? But if it’s a smaller group, it’s much easier to reach them – there’s a marketing model.”

“And then the third thing I look at is the entrepreneur, and I think; ‘What makes you better placed than the person standing next to you to make this business a success?’ It could be extremely relevant experience, where they’ve already done the same thing for a much bigger corporation and now they’re doing it themselves. Or it could be on a more personal level where they’ve just got it – they’ve got that drive, and even if the business isn’t quite right yet, they’re going to find that business model within and make it work.”

“So, it’s those three things that I look at. Of course, there is a level of intuition, but I have learned over the years that in business you always need to back up your intuition with fact.”


“I’m very feminine – I like my lip gloss and don’t mind the odd false eyelash – so people would constantly underestimate me, and it became a superpower of mine over the years.”


Willingham On Leaving A Legacy

“What’s the one thing I’d like to be remembered for? When you have kids, it’s hard for the answer to that question not to involve them, and because I have four children, my legacy lies with them somehow. But when I think about it, I have by far exceeded my own expectations. I don’t have long-term goals – it’s not how I operate – but when I think about what I’d still like to do, I haven’t properly given my time and brain space to giving back to others. My kids are still quite young at the moment, but I think that will be the next chapter of my story. It will probably also involve women in business, and women in general – that’s really important to me. I will continue to do as much as I can, and more, to encourage younger women to feel their strength and believe in themselves.”

“Also, I very sadly lost my oldest school friend – my soulmate, actually – my best, best, best friend to suicide this year. We’d been friends for over 40 years, and he had never suffered from any mental health issues. So, when I saw what he went through, the impact lockdown had on him, and the lack of treatments that were available to him, I realised it was something I’d like to become involved in. Not right now as it’s far too raw, I’m not ready for it, but it will come. So those two things together will be something that I will hopefully look back on and say, ‘I moved the needle a little’.”


The Great British Baker

“I have a lot of very early memories baking with my mum. From a very, very, young age; they are probably my earliest memories. And now I bake and cook a lot. I love to be in the kitchen – I have four children and it’s my way of providing for them and nurturing them. It’s also a creative and relaxing process – it’s where my brain switches off. I cook anything and everything but my signature dish is a kind of Singaporean chicken soup. It’s funny now that I think about it – that my earliest memories are based around food and it’s what brings me so much joy now.”


Age Is But A Number

“You know, I feel like I’m stuck in my early 30s (I’m 48), and the reason it’s that time period is because I’m a mum, so it has to be a time in my life when I was as a mum. I had all four children between the ages of 32 and 37, so I’m definitely somewhere in that age bracket. I still party as hard as I did in my 30s, but I’m definitely fitter now than I was back then. I’m just mentally kind of stuck in that age and long may that continue!”


Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards
The judges of the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards, from L-R: Amanda Akokhia, Sarah Willingham, Michael Thomson, Sandie Roberts, Tinea Taylor and Demi Jones


Uplifting Women

“From the second I got involved with the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards as a judge, from meeting the most unbelievable women that have done the most incredible things, to seeing all of the different categories covering the brilliance of women, it’s felt like such a privilege. Whether you’re innovating in business, an entrepreneur, or you’ve stood up for adversity, the fact that Pour Moi are celebrating all women across the board is remarkable. I just love everything that the brand stands for.”

For more information on the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards, open to women in the UK, read HERE.


Like what you’ve read and want to read more? We can recommend our exclusive interview with CEO, philanthropist and Real Housewives of New York O.G. Bethenny Frankel. She reveals her best decision, her worst times and what excites her right now.  You can read it HERE.