Sophie McDermott, a former Newcastle University student, had the vision of a feminist online book club, a vision which has now become a reality.
Inspired by the harsh inequality that is embedded in the literature world, Sophie wanted to ensure that female authors are taken as seriously as male authors. Through describing on her website how only six women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the last twenty years, and that the Booker Prize has been won by thirty-one men but only sixteen women, Sophie states that she wants to “elevate women’s voices”.
The book club chooses one feminist book a month to post to all their members who have bought a subscription, and then the novel is discussed through an online platform. Interviews from contemporary authors who are at the forefront of the literary world, authors whose books are being published right now, also accompany this. Sophie Wilson had the chance to quiz the founder of Women’s Writes on the inspiration behind her company, and how lockdown has affected it.
What made you decide to start your own business, and what was the inspiration behind it?
I think deep down, I always knew I wanted to be my own boss and have my own business. I just had that gut feeling, that I would always forge my own path. It wasn’t just because I thought I could do it better than anyone else, but because I knew I worked best when I have freedom to explore, and try, and learn and it can be really hard to find that in a job. So, I thought, why not create the job that I want.
Women’s Writes came about after I took part in an 8 week coding course, and I realised, I love talking to women about their experiences (I always used to want to be a professional networker), I love reading and learning (I still want to go back to do a Masters in gender studies), and I love empowering others. So that’s how I came up with my niche business idea.
After graduating from Newcastle University, what was the first step that you had to make for creating your own business?
So, I worked for a year as a sabbatical officer after graduating. It was an incredible start because you’re sort of put into a director/trustee role, a year at, like, 21, and you are looking at account sheets and HR strategies and managing budgets, managing people, talking to and negotiating with some pretty powerful people at the University, and more. It was inspiring, and also fantastic experience. It was what made me realise that it wasn’t a farfetched idea to run my own business. And that’s the first step – to realise you can do it and start backing yourself.
The next part of my journey took me to London and into a project management role, which helped me to figure out what I do and don’t like, what I’m good at, and start figuring out what my business may be. I actually bounced three or four ideas off the Start Up team at the Careers Service, before realising it was going to be Women’s Writes.
I cannot speak more highly of the Start Up team at Newcastle University. They don’t spoon feed you or give you all the answers, but they push you and guide you in the right direction for coming up with your idea, and then the you get passed along to a business advisor once you take that leap.
Were there any particular challenges that you experienced while doing this?
Being told your idea sucks hurts. And people don’t say it in as many words. Your friends and family will always be the first to offer advice, tell you what they think will work, or is a good idea. Well I’m here to tell you, unless they’re your ideal client who you are selling to, it does not matter one bit what they think about your idea. Ask them for emotional support, not business advice.
My advice to overcome that, is pick a person who has done what you want to do. A business owner, serial entrepreneur, freelancer, CEO, whatever you want. Then, find out how they did it, and what they did on the journey. Follow their lead (not too rigidly, you have to make it your own).
How has lockdown affected Women’s Writes, and what measures have you taken to ensure that it continues to be successful during this time?
So, Women’s Writes is entirely online (although we are launching a physical book subscription at the end of the month). We opened ourselves up, entirely free, to everyone. We focused on community building, networking, connecting, finding our audience and gaining their trust by working with them during this time. This community, and group, have been such a support but I know that when we come out of this, they will remember the way we treated them, what we offered, they will remember our integrity as a business. And that will have huge benefits in the future.
How have your followers responded to these changes?
Our followers have been great, and we’ve actually grown our following during this period. We offer a safe space to network and connect to others in lockdown, which is quite rare. Would you expect to meet new people in a lockdown? I’ve actually ‘met’ a group of women in the last 8 weeks who I now have movie nights with on the weekend over WhatsApp and zoom.
The women I see as part of Women’s Writes, have absolutely blown me away with their kindness, intellect, integrity, and just love for reading!
Are there any lessons to be learned from this period of remote delivery for businesses for when things return back to normal?
Yes, I think we can all take away from this, that it’s not about massive revenue streams, but about nurturing your community of customers and clients. To do this, you need to have integrity, and really think about your ethics as a business. Why do you do what you do? If it’s just for the moment, you can’t survive times like this. If it’s about your people, they will do everything they can to keep you in business. Through times of scarcity and abundance, they are the ones who untimely, your future is pinned on.
Do you have any advice for students who are wanting to create their own business?
Just go for it. You’re not too young. You’re not too inexperienced. Go chat to the careers service, but also read, watch, listen, learn, ask questions. The only thing stopping you, is your belief in yourself. One thing that always used to sit in my head was “oh but someone is already doing it, you’ll never be that good” – but that’s just in your head. So, what if someone else is doing it? That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be the BEST at it. But you will never know if you never try.
Last modified: 19th May 2020