Gracie and Sophie Tyrrell founded sugar-free snacks business The Squirrel Sisters when Sophie was diagnosed with a heart condition and, after surgery, could not tolerate sugar. The sisters began creating their own naturally sweet, but sugar-free, recipes, and launched in 2015. They now have a booming business, selling £2 million of their snacks through stockists including Whole Foods and Selfridges. But sexism, the entrepreneurs say, is embedded in British business — and holding them and others back.
“We were relatively young when we started the business, 27 and 29, and lacked confidence because neither of us had ever had any experience running a company. Being a team of two young women turning up to big meetings with much older, suited men, we noticed early on that we were spoken to differently, we weren’t taken seriously and felt patronised in a lot of meetings.
“At one point, when we were in talks about marketing strategy for a big launch, one of the older men made a joke suggestion that me and Sophie should ‘run down the street naked’ because that would ‘get lots of attention’.
“We managed to secure listings with major retailers in our first year of trading but struggled to raise investment. Over the years we received a couple of investment offers, but the one that we ended up pursuing we eventually had to turn down due to the investor questioning Sophie’s ability as she was about to become a mother for the first time. She was quizzed about her ability to work, and the investor wanted to add a clause to the contract where he could pull out of the deal and get his money back if Sophie ‘went off the rails as a mother’. We pulled out.
“We have a lot of male entrepreneur friends in the industry that have been in a similar position to us but managed to raise investment instantly. We have questioned why we couldn’t: was it a confidence issue on our side? Were we not bolshie enough?
“After much deliberation we realised that potential investors were very focused on our age and personal position — by then we were 29 and 31 and in long term relationships, living with our partners. We were asked personal questions about our relationships and even asked ‘are children on the cards’? It was clear that investors were being cautious with us because we were at ‘childbearing’ age. During one of Sophie’s pregnancies (she’s now a mother of two) someone we worked with said: ‘I don’t give a sh*t that you’re pregnant, stop using that as an excuse.’
“It wasn’t just our business either, this was happening — and still is — to several female-led small businesses that we knew. But it never seemed to be an issue for the male-led companies. Women-led SME’s contribute £85 billion to the UK economy yet only 1% of female companies get financial investment.
“Our society is not set-up to allow women to flourish in their careers. If a heterosexual couple wants to start a family, then it is down to the woman to take on the huge physical and mental toll. Women are torn between having to sacrifice time with their children and their careers because the support doesn’t exist. If women were offered more options and support then they would be able to thrive in their careers and not just survive.
“Early on we didn’t have the confidence to call anyone out so we would laugh off any sexist comments. Now we have the confidence to speak up. We make it clear that we will not accept or tolerate being spoken to or treated in a certain way. If we sense that someone is treating us unfairly, we will talk to them about it and if they are unresponsive or behave in a way we don’t like then we will walk away.
“We still believe there’s no better time than now to launch a start-up. Running a business takes a lot of hard work and you have to be passionate about whatever it is that you are doing. We had no experience in running a business before we started Squirrel Sisters but we knew if we didn’t give it a go we would regret it forever. Trust your gut and believe in yourself.”