On her childhood: I grew up on the Isle of Wight, where no-one’s door was ever locked. My mum was a social worker and my dad was a teacher: helping others was always high on our agenda. I’d take the hovercraft to Portsmouth Grammar School every morning (or stay at home if there was a storm) and play on the beach in the afternoons. Up until the age of 16, I hadn’t been further afield than France – so I took a gap year and worked as a volunteer teacher in Sri Lanka with Project Trust then moved to London to study art history at The Courtauld Institute of Art.
On her early career: I spent a year working as a graduate trainee at British auction house Christie’s before joining Sotheby’s. Within four years, I was deputy director. My job involved flying around the world to source and value fine art. It was fun but somehow, for me, the work just didn’t feel meaningful so in 2011 (with three months’ savings) I quit and went to Ghana with my husband for some time out. But I contracted typhoid there, which wiped me out for nine months. While I was recovering, I watched a series of TV exposés on the funeral trade, highlighting some of the appalling practices and unethical behaviour in the industry – and it made me absolutely furious. I wanted to make a difference so I researched the sector, shadowed a funeral director then spent a month working in a mortuary. I was 27 – and that was the first time I’d seen someone who had died. I launched Poppy’s Funerals in 2012 to provide a more thoughtful, personal service and revolutionise the funeral trade.
On her current role: We’re based at Lambeth Cemetery, where we have offices and our own mortuary in a converted chapel. We plan to open two more sites by 2022, with the aim of becoming London’s most trusted funeral director and educating people about their options at the end of their lives. Scaling a business is tough and it can be lonely at the top so earlier this year I did the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme. It armed me with the self confidence I needed to take the business to the next level and it gave me a group of mates who are all in the same boat as me.
On her style: While I’m always smart and respectful at work, I’m also very aware of how short life is – and I don’t want to spend it hiding in the shadows. I love bright colours and bold jewellery. My favourite piece was a pink beaded necklace from Ghana but one of my kids grabbed it and it ripped. I bought a beautiful Missoni wool skirt-suit with multi-coloured buttons, mini shoulder pads and shimmery lining from a charity shop in LA. Whether I’m speaking at a conference, directing a funeral or attending a board meeting for Cruse Bereavement Care, it’s my go-to power suit.
On her toughest moment: I started Poppy’s Funerals from my home in Hammersmith, I was eight months’ pregnant at the time. Trying to find permanent premises for the business was an utter nightmare: commercial agents would run a mile. Sometimes I’d feel so defeated and exhausted, I’d just lie on the floor and weep. It took me two years to find our current site. My darkest moments have been organising funerals for people I love – but that’s also a privilege and an honour.
On role models: I have huge respect for the late Fred Rogers, creator and host of kids’ TV programme Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He treated children as equals and used his show to tackle issues such as disability and death. He didn’t shy away from taboo topics. I also admire Ina May Gaskin, the most prominent figure in the crusade to expand access to, and to legalise, midwife-assisted homebirth. She took on the American medical system and she gave women a choice.
On staying sane: I’m pretty good at switching off. When I get home from work, I put my phone in a cupboard and spend time playing with our three kids, Juniper, Calon and Jesse, who was born in June. We love having friends round at the weekends: coffees at 10am frequently turn into margaritas at 10pm. I cycle to work every day and, if I need to clear my head, I’ll go for a swim at Tooting Lido.
On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: Women consistently under-estimate their abilities. Whether it’s a mentor or a business course, find the thing in your life that will help you unleash your power.
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