In 2012, at just 22 years old, Julianne Ponan acquired Creative Nature taking on the position of owner and CEO, with just one other employee. Today her products can be found in supermarkets across the country as well as being listed in Ocado, Co-op and other independent health shops. Earlier this year Julianne was named as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 to watch, in 2018 her company won the title of UK Small Business of the Year (FSB) and in 2017 she won the Guardian Leader of the Year Awards and was the youngest winner of the National Everywoman Awards for Women Entrepreneurs. She is noted for being a Virgin StartUp mentor, FSB Winner and a Keynote Speaker. Julianne also featured on Dragon’s Den receiving an investment offer from Deborah Meaden which she later turned down and instead raised capital through crowdfunding.
1. We read that you have South American, Kenyan and a bit of Welsh heritage, tell us a bit about your background and the key moments that have led you to where you are now.
My father originally came from Guyana and moved over here many years ago. He had no English and got himself a job as a mechanic – he even worked for free for a while to prove his worth. My mum is from Kenya and moved over to the UK. Key moments for me include being brought up with a mum who encouraged me to succeed in education and a dad who taught me some of the elements of running a business – particularly around the accounts and finances. These, I now realise, all prepared me for Creative Nature.
Alongside that, was the discovery that I have life-threatening allergies. This meant that my family and I have had to make choices every day about what I can eat, what I can smell and – as I have got older – what I can put on my skin or make-up I can wear. This daily task of staying safe is the real drive behind creating products for people like me and being a leading free form snack brand in the UK.
2. With a degree in Business Management and Finance and a previous role in Investment Banking - how did you get into the allergen-friendly, superfoods industry and become CEO of Creative Nature, at just 22? I got into the business as I was doing some due diligence on Creative Nature and was offered an opportunity to do a Management Buy Out. The company was in over £56’000 losses at the time and I do love a challenge. After giving it some thought and letting go of the whole management team, I took up the challenge. Moving the brand away from gifts, candles, incense, and some foods to allergen-friendly snacks and superfoods was in my mind from the start. I have anaphylaxis and am allergic to almost everything so it’s part of my daily existence. I knew how little choice there is available for people like me when it comes to safe snacks.
3. What does your day-to-day job look like? Busy and it’s not nine to five. I get up early and often do some exercise – have breakfast, usually my own product snack bar or our Banana Bread is honestly amazing and then head for the office or appointments for the day. I will have done a to-do list the night before (something I always do), my day varies so much so I could be in the office, checking that tasks have been done by the team, taking telephone calls, building relationships, working on new products, having meetings with those who support us in our business. Alternatively, I could be out networking, doing speaker slot somewhere or taking up a media opportunity on the tv, radio or with print or digital media. I will always keep an eye on my phone and email and will also go through my to-do list last thing to ensure I’ve done what I need to that day and plan another list for the next day! It’s busy!
4. What do you love most about your job and what has been the highlight for you so far?
It’s hard to say what aspect I love the most – as any entrepreneur will know you have to be passionate about what you do, otherwise, how can anyone else be passionate about it? Highlights include seeing your brand stocked on a supermarket shelf for the first time, being recognised as serious among your own sector and seeing other team members grow and succeed. A significant personal highlight for me is to know that I’m a voice in the campaign to raise awareness of food allergy and hopefully, over time, ensure that society as a whole takes it more seriously.
5. One of The Female Lead’s key themes is ‘find strength in setbacks’. Can you tell us about a particular obstacle or challenge that’s affected your professional journey and how you overcame it?
One of my setbacks has been my youth and my gender – more than once I’ve had to justify myself due to my age and being female. I’ve been referred to more than once as ‘little girl’ and there can be assumptions that my partner Matt is the boss (in fact he’s operations manager). I chose to deal with these moments by being persistent, consistent and not looking back. Even when they make me angry.
6. How do you lean on others to gain strength?
For me, there are three aspects to this – my partner, my family, my entrepreneurial friends, and those around me in business that I know have my back. Every business person needs this kind of support – no one is an island, no matter how resilient they think they are. Matt is my rock at home and at work. My family support me and will listen to me when I need to chat. I also have a handful of business contacts I can call on for support and a listening ear when I’m just having a bad day or have had to deal with something unexpected. In business, sometimes good people have to have difficult conversations.
7. As a Guardian Leader of the Year and National Everywoman Awards winner, are there any particular female role models or mentors who have acted as a source of support or inspiration for you?
I have had many incredible female role models, Julie Chen who is the Co-Founder of Cheeky Panda is absolutely incredible and paving the way for a more sustainable lifestyle. Fiona Scott from Fiona Scott PR who has not only been incredible to work with but also a support to me personally. Helen Hambleton founder of people untapped who is one of my coaches is also an incredible role model to me. I also have people that have inspired me such as Michelle Mone, Kanya King. On top of this as I have always seen my mum strive to do better and both her and my dad have always pushed me to strive to be better.
8. Looking at how far you’ve come and everything you have achieved - if you could go back and tell your teenage self-something what would it be? It would be – start earlier, don’t be scared, trust in yourself & focus on passion and persistence rather than perfection.
9. What advice would you give to girls and young women who are feeling uncertain about the future?
Follow your passion – what do you really enjoy doing? What do you keep going back to? Don’t spend 40 years doing something you dislike and come back to your hobby or interest when you are older. Trust that if you focus on your passion the opportunities will come. Also take the opportunities, even if you can’t quite see where it will lead. Trust it and invest time and energy in opportunities. You only need to succeed once. Also remember if you don’t succeed, you’ll learn.
10. Last year you were on Dragon’s den - what was this experience like and what sort of impact has this had on business?
Dragons Den was a stressful process where your business is laid bare before the Dragons – we filmed for over 2 hours and you only see 16 minutes, a tiny part of that on the tv. These are serious business people and you cannot pull the wool over their eyes. I was very fortunate to be offered investment and I’m grateful for it. However, after the programme, I felt it was not right for us and that a more community approach to raising funds was a better route. I’ve no regrets about that however I’m grateful for the brand awareness which came just from being part of the series.
10. What’s next for you and Creative Nature?
Growth is next. We are looking for consistent growth and we already export to many countries including Jordan, Iceland, Portugal and more – we wish to grow our exports. We will be aiming for the American public in the medium term and we will also be introducing more products over time. For me personally, I will continue to campaign for better understanding and support of people who live with dangerous allergies and for my own industry to take labelling of all foods far more seriously. For people like me it can be the difference between life and death.
To find out more about Creative Nature follow Julianne on Twitter: