20 QUESTIONS: Ali Nester-Smith, Happy Box London

Nester-Smith says her gift business is all about cheering people up - and that working mothers make the best employees.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 24 Apr 2014

1. IF YOU HAD DONE SOMETHING ELSE WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN?

A ballet dancer. I'm a trained ballet teacher, but then I decided to go to university. Now I've turned 40, it's probably a little late to fall back on the ballet.

2. WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU NAME YOUR BUSINESS?

The Creative Gifting Agency - that's a term we talk about all the time when we try to explain our offering to corporates.

3. IF YOU COULD BE BASED IN ANOTHER CITY WHERE WOULD IT BE?

New York. It's an obvious answer, but it's such a vibrant city. Rather comically, one of our team has registered Happy Box New York as a brand name.

4. WHEN YOU STARTED, HOW DID YOU RAISE MONEY?

All of the investment was personal. [It means] you're very emotionally and financially committed to what you're doing.

5. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DECISION SO FAR?

Hiring my business partner. Without her, both her practical input and emotional support, it probably would have been quite a different story.

6. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST MISTAKE?

Hiring too many people too soon. We are a premium, luxury, corporate gifting business, so when all the banks were struggling we suffered and had to pull back.

7. WHAT IDEA DO YOU WISH YOU HAD COME UP WITH?

Not On The High Street is a phenomenal business. It has a wonderful ethical story in enabling kitchen table businesses to come to market. Also, I think it's a great use of the internet as a medium and the most extraordinary business model.

8. HOW DO YOU HANDLE STRESS?

One of the joys of being a working mum is that you walk in through the door and have no choice but to be engaged with what is required at home. That has its own magical way of dissipating stress.

9. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?

Shop assistant in my local village shop. It was my first experience of seeing retail from start to finish.

10. WHAT WAS YOUR WORST JOB?

In a very rowdy Midlands pub at 18. Dealing with rowdy, drunk, leery blokes was a rite of passage. I grew up pretty quickly on the job.

11. WHAT WAS YOUR BEST JOB?

Board director at advertising agency AMV. We had absolutely phenomenal clients and made the Walkers Gary Lineker ads and the Jamie Oliver ads for Sainsbury's.

12. IF YOU WERE ON THE APPRENTICE WOULD YOUR TEAM BE NAMED?

Team Happy. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to be authentic. The reason we set up this business is because I take great joy in making people happy.

13. WHAT COMPANY WOULD YOU INVEST IN RIGHT NOW?

Businesses that are involved in geriatrics, from companies who make bedpans through to care homes.

14. APART FROM PROPERTY, WHAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE THING YOU'VE BOUGHT?

I recently bought myself a Mercedes. If I have a significant amount of money in the future my failing will always be four wheels.

15. SUIT OR JEANS?

A dress - somewhere in between. I can't remember the last time I wore a suit. I don't think I have one any more.

16. FLEXIBLE WORKING OR OFFICE HOURS?

Flexible working, and I can't believe anyone would answer otherwise these days. It offers a better lifestyle, and takes advantage of the good fortune we have to be working in an age where technology makes it possible.

17. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE THING ABOUT THE OFFICE?

It's also my home - we converted a floor into a separate office. As a working mum it's perfect: we have a space where we can entertain clients that feels professional, but I also have the world's shortest commute.

18. WHAT APP CAN'T YOU LIVE WITHOUT?

The Times app. I'm obsessed with newspapers. I think my TV works, but I can't remember the last time I turned it on. If I'm not able to access newspapers I feel nervous.

19. WHO IS YOUR BUSINESS IDOL?

Cilla Snowball, the chief executive of AMV BBDO, the first lady of advertising. She is absolutely at the top of the game but treats people with respect, decency and humanity.

20. IF YOU WERE PRIME MINSTER FOR THE DAY, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE?

I'd find ways to make it possible for more women to work after they've had babies. Working mothers achieve so much, they're not at all self-indulgent, and they have no choice but to crack on. They also have huge experience that is untapped. We have a mum working for us one day a week who used to be marketing director of Chelsea Football Club.

It's sad to see so many women unable to go back into the workplace because it isn't cost effective. It's a huge loss to them and a huge loss to the world of business. I'm not sure what the answer is, but it would be top of my agenda when I am prime minister.

Want to meet inspiring women like Ali Nester-Smith? Then join us for an evening of fun, fizz and fabulous females on Thursday 10th April (6.30pm-9pm). The event, which marks the launch of our Inspiring Women 2014 event, will be held at a private room at Kettner's in Soho and will include a keynote speech from Kim Winser, founder of Winser London, and former CEO of Aquascutum.

Email inspiringwomen@haymarket.com if you'd like to come. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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