The Veuve Clicquot Awards shortlist: Susie Hewson of Natracare

The entrepreneur tells MT about combining business and ethics, and how attitudes to women have changed during her career.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Susie Hewson is not your average entrepreneur. A long-time environmental campaigner, Hewson started her organic feminine hygiene business Natracare way back in the late 1980s because she was 'appalled' by the big manufacturers' nonchalance about the environmental impact of their products. Although she's still going strong 20 years later, with her products on sale in 54 countries, she insists she's never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. 'To me, it's all about solving a problem. But then you need the courage to go and do it, you need total belief in what you're doing; and you need a lot of common sense. You also need to have a good business plan and stick to it.' Sounds like a classic entrepreneur to us...

Since Natracare's products tend to be about 10% more expensive than the mainstream alternatives, there was always a chance it would suffer in the downturn, as customers traded down to cheaper options. But although she accepts that the organic industry as a whole was worried about this prospect, she says Natracare has barely been affected. It helps that she's in a fairly recession-proof business, of course: 'Women bleed,' as she rather bluntly puts it (slightly to your correspondent's discomfort). But it's also about being bold, she says. 'Fear can sometimes be more crippling than reality. We're cautious, but relatively fearless.'

Hewson's other advantage is that Natracare is now a truly international business - so while some markets have slowed right down, others (like Germany, for instance) have ploughed ahead regardless. In fact, she says the only effect of the recession has been an indirect one - panic-buying by the big manufacturers has pushed cotton prices up massively. But generally, she says: 'We never saw the recession. Our customers tend to be very brand loyal.’

Hewson had originally wanted to be a fashion designer, but decided it was too unethical and switched to graphic design instead - where she found her analytical skills were better suited. And after more than two decades in the industry, she's seen lots of things change for the better. 'When I started out, attitudes to women in design were not great. I used to be asked at interviews when I was going to get married and start a family. But it's not like that now, thank goodness.' Although we get the impression she didn't stand for much nonsense. 'I'm quite strong in my approach to business. I'm very resolved and determined to achieve.'

She doesn't think boardroom quotas are the right way to get more women into senior roles, arguing that women ought to be there by right. Equality of opportunity is the key, she says. 'The gaps start further down; it's about preparing women to run a business, and then giving them the chance to show what they can do. We need to start in the schools and colleges - so they're familiar with economics and problem-solving.' But she also believes employers have a role to play further down the line, by making it possible for women to return to work after having a family (a common refrain among this year's finalists). Around half of her own staff are women, some of whom work flexibly.

The other aspect, she suggests, is providing positive role models - which is where awards like this come in. 'It's important women see that other women can achieve success and also help other people. If you don't see women in senior roles, it sends out the message that this isn't a place for women to be.' Like the other finalists, she acts as a mentor to several other women who have started their own business or are working in small companies (having herself been mentored by an aunt during her formative years). 'It's something all women need,' she says. We're sure they can rely on some plain-speaking advice...

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