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the WM interview; I've never found a challenge I couldn't overcome She almost died in a car crash which broke 20 bones in her body, but that didn't stop Laura Tenison from fulfilling her dream to launch her own design company. Rin Simpson spoke to the founder of Jojo Maman Bebe about business, babies and how she owes it all to a Brecon nun.

LAURA TENISON has never been one to let common convention get in her way.

When she founded Jojo Maman Bebe in 1993, her first maternity-wear range included a bright pink skintight cat suit.

"Actually not very practical for the average pregnant woman with all her lumps and bumps," the 42-year-old laughs.

"But it looked great on the model and got a lot of press attention.

"There was a piece in one of the papers saying 'Is this the future of maternity fashion?'"

And then there's the fact that when her two sons - Ben, 13, and nine-year-old Toby - were younger, she preferred having a male nanny to look after them.

"What I really wanted was someone to mend the kids' bikes and make Airfix models with them - I wanted a second husband!

"By having a male au pair rather than a female, it left me to do the bits I like doing: the nurturing, being there to cook their meals and wash their clothes and bandage their knee if they fell over.

"I'm not a feminist in any way," she adds. "I believe in a division of labour. It doesn't matter which role each one takes on, but it's got to have a division of labour.

"My husband is a great man but very definitely not a modern man, so I found I had a lion's share of the domestic chores.

Having a male nanny evened that out and meant I didn't have to nag my husband!"

Speaking at roughly double the speed most people talk, Laura crackles with energy so potent you can feel it even over the phone.

Which isn't really surprising, given that she single-handedly created the Jojo Maman Bebe brand, which has grown from a one-woman mail-order start-up to a thriving company with 22 shops across the UK, around 140 employees and a gross annual turnover of about pounds 19m.

As we chat I can hear the occasional tap of a computer keyboard and ringing of phones that are the soundtrack of a busy working woman's life, but our conversation is also interrupted at one stage by a call from the au pair.

Laura is the ultimate multi-tasker, who aims to be both a full-time managing director and a full-time mum.

She was back at work days after each of her children was born and Ben spent the first few months of his life sleeping in a moses basket under her desk.

"He became an overnight baby model!" Laura says. "At age two or three I would say to him 'Smile for the camera' and he would say 'Which smile mummy?' He loved doing the modelling because he was in the office with me.

"It's a huge advantage being a working mum if you can bring your children to work. I've always been determined to be a full-time mum and a full-time MD. It is possible to do, but it doesn't give you much time for pampering or shopping."

Sleep is another thing that has to take a back seat in Laura's schedule if she is to give sufficient attention to both the office and her kids.

"Last night I left work, got my sons from school, got them to bed at 9 - that's the problem with them not being babies any more - worked until 1am and then got up at 6am to be in the office by 7am.

"I don't know how much sleep I got in between, maybe four hours."

It's enough to make even the most successful working mum feel like a total failure but Laura is keen to point out that it's only a lucky combination of factors - being the boss, working in a child-friendly environment and total flexibility - that has allowed her to keep work and family life balanced.

"I don't like my situation to be used as a role model because my situation is unique and it can put pressure on other women and make them feel that they haven't achieved as much, but they can't in their circumstances," she says.

"If I had been in banking and not able to be as flexible, I would have given up my career and put my children first.

"Balancing motherhood and business is a huge, huge challenge and I know a lot of my friends have succumbed to one or the other: some of my very successful friends have decided they can only cope with the family, and others have decided not to have children."

Laura's own childhood was an adventurous if unsettled one.

The daughter of a diplomat, she spent the first nine years of her life travelling around Europe before the family settled in Abergavenny, and later Brecon and Monmouth.

It was while at Brecon Convent that 11-year-old Laura made her first foray into sewing, and demonstrated the first signs of her goal-driven work ethic.

"The nuns asked us to make some soft toys to send to an orphanage in Kenya," she explains.

"Everyone was requested to make one soft toy and I quite enjoyed the project and ended up making about six.

"I kind of realised that sewing was something I enjoyed doing and something I was good at. I wasn't particularly academic so it was nice to latch on to something I was able to do.

"So that first project led on to others.

"There were occasions when I would make clothes for my friends and I certainly made clothes for myself."

By the time she started her A-levels, Laura's design ability had been joined by a fiercely entrepreneurial spirit and she launched a menswear collection which she produced as she did her studies for more than two years.

It wasn't, however, to make her the fortune she would one day achieve.

Not only did her vision of clothing men in fancy silk brocade fall short of its audience - "What I didn't realise was that men actually like dressing in a dull fashion!" - but the expectation was that Laura should choose a more traditional career path.

"My sewing had been considered a hobby rather than a career path," she says.

"It was considered that since I wasn't particularly academic I should go and do a secretarial course. My sewing wasn't recognised and my artistic ability wasn't recognised."

Laura duly completed a bilingual secretarial course using language skills picked up in her youth, but after six months working in the field she was convinced fashion was where her future lay. Quitting, she embarked on what she had planned as a three-month trip to the Middle East and India to source her favourite silk brocades.

Almost two years later, she returned, having travelled across most of South-East Asia and Australia.

It was time, she decided, to learn the ropes from the ground up, and so in a self-imposed apprenticeship she got a job with London design brand Aquascutum, where she started out as an assistant section manager. By the time she was 23, she was running a floor in the brand's Regent Street store, with a turnover of several million.

But it still wasn't quite time to launch her menswear collection. Though she felt ready to strike out on her own, getting finance proved difficult.

Eventually, inspiration came from an unexpected source when a friend who had been left money by a relative, called on Laura's language skills and knowledge of the Continent to help her buy a house in France.

It was the early '90s, the UK was in the middle of a recession and half the country was in negative equity. A light bulb went off in Laura's head and her next business venture was born: a French property-finding service for British buyers, which proved an instant hit.

"As long as I could get people out to France I could almost guarantee a sale," she remembers.

"I sold the business after two and a half years and the proceeds amounted to pounds 50,000.

I finally had my start-up capital."

But life was to throw one more challenge in Laura's way.

"On the way to sign off part of the business in France, I had a bad car crash - I broke 20 bones in my body - and spent two days in hospital before I was then airlifted back to the UK.

"In my recovery ward over the next few weeks I lay next to a young mum with two children who was trying to buy clothes for them and she was berating the fact that there were no nice children's clothes available by mail order.

"So I came out of hospital with my jaw wired shut and my legs in plaster to look at the baby market and to research it.

Because I didn't know myself; I didn't have children; I had no intention of having children."

In 1993 Jojo Maman Bebe was born, providing quirky, original, Breton-style clothes for children, not to mention stylish maternity wear, by mail order across the UK.

Launched with just its founder and two part-time staff members on board, the company has grown by an average of 20% annually over the past 16 years.

Now a multi-millionairess, Laura is keenly aware of her responsibility as a role model, particularly since being awarded an MBE in 2004.

"I'm completely and utterly convinced that running a company is not all about money," she says, her tone passionate.

"You need to have as much emphasis on an ethos of care and an ethos of corporate social responsibility as you do on pure profit."

As well as this, Jojo Maman Bebe supports a charity which tackles poverty in northern Africa.

"On a family holiday I was in an eco-lodge in Mozambique, my kids were playing football with local boys from the nearest village - they were barefoot, wearing raggedy clothes - and I realised a lot could be done in that area."

Laura had been looking for charitable works for the company to support and, as it happened, the woman who ran the eco-lodge also ran a charity called the Nema Foundation, mostly funded on donations from guests. Then and there, a partnership was formed.

"We're trying to alleviate poverty from the ground up," she explains.

"It's the most rewarding thing but very hard work."

Laura's successes, both professional and personal, are staggering, especially given she's not yet halfway through her forties.

So what is the secret of her success? Perhaps it's her eternally positive attitude and her refusal to allow obstacles to stop her.

"I've never found any challenges in life I couldn't overcome," she admits.

"Whether you're a woman and head of a multi-million pound company or a woman working in an engineering company, you're going to face challenges. They may not be to do with your sex but because it's a hard job.

"People often ask me am I discriminated against. I don't believe in pinning one's problems on the fact that one is in the minority.

"As a woman you can often turn disadvantages into advantages.

"For example, if you're talking to a chauvinistic character you can go all out for him being the wise person who can help you through this project. You can turn anything to an advantage.

"I'm a very optimistic person!"

Laura Tenison will be joining the panel at Bobath's annual A Question of Women event tonight at The Holland House Hotel, Cardiff, www.bobath.org.uk

CAPTION(S):

WORKING MUM: Laura Tenison balances running her baby and maternity wear company Jojo Maman Bebe with raising Ben, 13, and nine-year-old Toby; FRENCH CONNECTION: The quirky kids clothes from Jojo Maman Bebe, www.jojomamanbebe.co.uk, have a distinct Breton feel, inspired by Laura's time in France
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 20, 2009
Words:1935
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