To call Anna Sweeting an overachiever is an understatement. For starters, she became a CEO in her 20s (for context, the average age a person becomes a CEO is 47*) before going on to co-found the UK’s first female-led specialist investment fund Vaultier7 with business partner Montse Suarez (as a side note, private equity is typically one of the worst financial services sectors for promoting gender diversity - something Vaultier7 is striving to change).
“Much data has proven that people invest in things that they have an innate understanding of. It is a fact that globally, across all funds, the ultimate investment decisions are dominated by males, and this for sure has an impact on what capital is allocated to. Diversity of people making investment decisions, is needed, for that diversity to be reflected in the companies that receive capital,” says Anna. To put it simply: female-run businesses need more attention and more funding. To date, Vaultiuer7 has invested in multiple female-founded companies such as family care brand Joone, haircare brand Gisou, and baby food brand Little Spoon.
“I was dedicated and driven ever since I can remember,” she reflects. It was her grandfather – a self-made entrepreneur – who proved her greatest inspiration and her childhood set her up with ambition, drive, and a passion for propelling women forward. “As women, we have unique strengths that we must leverage, and I certainly saw those come to life in the CEO role: perceptive communication, collaboration, inclusiveness, resourcefulness, and improvisation,” says Anna.
When she’s not helping to drive the female-led companies of tomorrow, she’s at home with her adorable baby girl, Isabela, who just turned one. Here, we visit Anna at home in London to talk about her first year of motherhood as well as what it takes to build an exceptional company.
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I want to talk about your private equity firm Vaultier7, but before I do that, I want to talk about your career before Vaultier7. You became a CEO in your 20s which is phenomenal. And I want to know, were you always the girl who was going to become a CEO? What were you like at school?
My school friends would definitely have called me an overachiever, a bit of ‘a geek’ – I was always very curious, exploring beyond what I was required and it’s true I was dedicated and driven ever since I can remember. My grandfather was a great source of inspiration for me. He was a self-made entrepreneur and he did a lot of trading on the stock market. He and I had a very close bond and I used to sit with him in his office, asking constant questions. He used to give me photocopies of his stock certificates, and I really believed I then owned a part of that company. I think this planted the seeds in my mind of what was possible and then as I stumbled upon economics as I got older, it had a profound impact on me. Economics, at its very heart, is the study of human behaviour. Yes there is a focus on statistical analysis, models and problem solving, but at the core, it opened up for me the power to peel through layers, grasp underlying themes and harness a level of foresight into society and people. This guided me into business, leading a business as CEO and then investing in businesses, all of which in the end are investing in people and I always remained guided by this human element.
When I graduated with my economics degree, it was my grandfather who I came back to – I had no interest in joining an investment bank, which seemed to be the career of choice for many of my peers, but I wasn’t sure what I should do – funnily enough, I found myself googling ‘what do you need to become a CEO’ and I remember specifically learning that more than half of the chairmans and CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are qualified accountants. I took this fact to my grandfather, and said I needed to become an accountant. He told me I would hate it, but that I would learn to ‘read’ companies like no one else, and therefore I should do it. He was right – he knew me, it was a good lesson in perseverance, but the foundations it gave me are immeasurable. I always say as an accountant you learn a new language that means you can translate numbers in a very powerful way, and numbers always tell you the true story about what’s going on, so I would still recommend it as a career starter to anyone. What is more, doing something I really struggled to have passion for, in a huge corporate framework, taught me very early on that I must go after my dreams, find my own way and find independence in whatever I did.
You were the CEO of the British luxury design brand Linley. How would you describe the role of CEO? What were your greatest learnings?
Moving from the city to become CEO of a luxury brand, I knew from the outset that I had a natural disadvantage coming from a non-retail background, but I focused on what that gave me that was different to others – a unique ability to penetrate what was going on by letting the numbers tell me the story and a sensibility for people. The people behind the brand and the DNA that existed, the team, the suppliers, and the clients. Getting to the core of what really matters to all of these stakeholders is a great enabler for driving your business agenda.
When I arrived at Linley, I was for sure met with some skepticism, but I leaned into my belief in myself and why I was given the role. I learnt to surround myself with people who knew way more than me about different aspects of the business – I was hungry to learn from them and this openness to be taught by others is, I believe, an important part of being a CEO. Being a CEO can be a lonely role, and I am grateful to have learnt the power of inclusive leadership – you must be bold and have courage in the direction you are taking things, but that conviction comes from always basing things in the numbers – they literally tell you what’s going on – as well as having a humble approach to others opinions.
I had already learnt, coming from a very male-dominated environment in the city, that as women we have unique strengths that we must leverage, and I certainly saw those come to life in the CEO role: perceptive communication, collaboration, inclusiveness, resourcefulness, and improvisation – you must be prepared to be flexible and respond dynamically to what you see going on in the data real-time.
Private equity is known to be one of the worst financial services sectors for promoting gender diversity, and Vaultier7 was the first female-founded specialist firm. Tell me about why you created the company, and what your ambitions are?
We exist to provide backing to entrepreneurs, in beauty and personal care, health and wellness and lifestyle, who are building bold brands at the forefront of the consumption revolution.
We had seen very clearly in previous investment structures we’d run, that a funding gap had been left by more traditional private equity structures, and we were also very clear on creating a structure that allowed our sensibility of being the consumer ourselves to be at the forefront – females are the main decision makers and purchasers in all of the categories we target. Coupling a perspective on the quantitative and emotive drivers behind what enables business to succeed, as well as our innate understanding of evolving consumer preferences, has allowed us to reach for partnerships with founders from all walks of life, and to be flexible in the way that we support the needs of their businesses.
We are invigorated every day by founders who understand intimately how to excite their customers and who inspire their teams through integrity and enthusiasm, and we will continue empowering and equipping them to reach their full development potential with sustainable strategies.
“ It is a fact that globally, across all funds, the ultimate investment decisions are dominated by males, and this for sure has an impact on what capital is allocated to ”
According to research by The Harvard Business Review, investors appear to unfairly favour men over women when it comes to pitches. Yet, interestingly, that report clashes with data from BCG research showing that women return twice as much revenue per dollar invested than men. Why do you think research has shown that investors favour men in pitches given that research shows we get results, and what can we do about it?
Much data has proven that people invest in things that they have an innate understanding of. It is a fact that globally, across all funds, the ultimate investment decisions are dominated by males, and this for sure has an impact on what capital is allocated to. Diversity of people making investment decisions, is needed, for that diversity to be reflected in the companies that receive capital.
I think leading by example is very important. The amazing late Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks perfectly about how ‘as society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things’. This emphasises the importance for all of us of just showing up and doing what we do, and for amazing amplifiers of female leadership like The Grace Tales: all of this is helping barriers to fall.
Networking is key when you’re an entrepreneur, yet it can be quite daunting for many people – what is your advice on how to network and your thoughts on the importance of it?
You have to think about building business relationships in a much broader context than traditional ‘networking’ suggests: your business circle includes your customers, consultants, buyers, suppliers with whom you do business as well as people working in and with, businesses that have overlaps with what you do, and are even competing with you. When you think of it this way, you have a network at your fingertips to start nurturing every day.
Social media tools must be a part of your personal strategy – whether it’s LinkedIn, Instagram etc, these platforms have democratised access. This is something I believe we all must lean into, and this is a simple as just having a presence and being open to building relationships this way. I cannot tell you the number of messages I’ve received via social media that have led to an interesting conversation or vice versa, the discoveries I’ve made.
Early on in your career, who were your mentors or people who guided you, and what did they teach you?
As a young executive I was like a sponge, so I approached all of my bosses like mentors. Of course, I wanted to show them I had everything under control, but I do believe those who are not afraid to ask for help are most likely to succeed as entrepreneurs. Whether the help is for constructive criticism, feedback or brainstorming about ideas, asking for help sets the tone for a beneficial relationship with others.
My first real boss told me that ‘whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in life’. I have found that to be true on my journey: for better or worse, our expectations and the actions that stem from those, can be self-fulfilling, so allocating a few quiet minutes to consciously check in with ourselves about what exactly it is we are holding in our minds, is something we should try to do regularly.
I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way is to really tune into your intuition and know what you stand for and what you don’t. It gives you clarity, decisions come more easily, and as an entrepreneur once you can identify where you are in conflict, and therefore which things no longer serve you, you are guided towards building the future.
You’ve said of being an entrepreneur “Don’t be afraid to fail frequently”. What are your thoughts on failure and how we can approach it and recover?
Failure is the hardest thing, but I think we should talk about it more, and normalise being comfortable with struggle. Not just effort, but struggle and confusion, as this is the most effective process by which you allow yourself to learn, reflect on your mistakes, and do better the next time. How amazing is that!
By the way, I didn’t always think like this. I was the overachiever who thought failure was the end of the world and there were times when people definitely made me feel like this was the case. But this is when I was able to tune into what I knew was right, and I knew a certain outcome didn’t take away from what I was capable of, and as I harnessed this I was able to reflect positively on what led me to that certain outcome. I can truly say I built some of the most amazing things out of my lowest points, and this is why I am such an advocate of switching this perspective.
With this mindset, no failure is final or fatal, so we must reframe our focus on embracing challenges as a chance to get better, to learn and develop, all things which propel us into fulfilling our potential. And this is why we cannot be afraid to fail. What is more, if you only focus on the possibility of failing, you will miss remarkable success as well.
In a previous interview, you spoke about how you are who you surround yourself by and that it is scientifically proven that you become the average of the five people you spend most of your time with – this is fascinating. Tell me about the role of your relationships in success?
Yes, the people we surround ourselves by are the biggest influencer on our behaviour, attitudes and results. In fact the influence doesn’t stop anywhere near the five people you spend the most time with. It’s far more dispersed and with social media, can include people you haven’t even met yet. There is no question that the people we expose ourselves to shape what conversations, attitudes and behaviours, dominate our attention. What they’ve got you thinking, saying doing and becoming, impacts the course of your life, they shape who you are.
That’s huge and has important consequences. I believe in actively constructing your environment, not letting it depend on proximity or chance or on how it has always been. I think it is worth consciously planning which opinions, attitudes and life-philosophies you do and do not allow to be in your life. You can accelerate your personal growth by spending time with people whose values are already aligned with who you want to become.
In terms of customer experience, what is your advice for retaining customers and giving them the best experience possible?
Nothing makes founders and brands more successful in engaging with their communities and customers in a meaningful way, than being aligned with who they truly are – knowing their values and being authentic to those, and sharing and inspiring what they stand for.
I also believe there is a difference between merely satisfying customers and truly impacting them by showing them they matter, that you understand their journey, and making them really feel that you are there for them – such feelings are remembered and will make people return. This also extends to your team, treat them well, and let them be a shining light for what you stand for, because they are your intermediaries many times to that customer.
As entrepreneurs, it’s inevitable that you will come up against naysayers. And it can be incredibly distracting. What’s your advice for dealing with naysayers?
As I mentioned before, being focused on what you stand for, must underpin your day to day dealings. With this foundation, if someone gives you advice or feedback, you can always come back to ‘is this in line with what I stand for? or is it not?’ This will help you filter the noise, from what can be helpful advice.
Importantly, being focused on a goal, does not mean you should block out others and their opinions, which may be critical or opposing to yours. This is actually the worst thing to do as you can fast-track learning and outcomes by leveraging the experience and insights of others. However, if you are tuned into what you know is right versus your values, and you are guided by that, you will be able to see clearly the path ahead.
I’ve read a lot of interviews where founders will say they never had a business plan. What are your thoughts on this? And can you talk a little about the role of a business plan?
Whatever your goals you need a business plan: it will act as a roadmap to where you want to go. This is not limiting as I think some people perceive: a business plan is a living breathing document, it is not rigid, nor set in stone, but it does set your intentions.
Remember what I said earlier about expectations, and the actions that stem from them being self-fulfilling, this is why business plans are at the base of all good companies. If you know where you’re heading, you will navigate accordingly. Keeping your central aim visible in the headlines of a business plan helps you minimise distractions, and provides a vital reference for every decision you make and that you inspire your team to make.
Business plans also give you the framework to determine what return on investment is needed. All organisations, no matter their aims, whether funded internally and organically, or whether supported with outside investment, need to be financially effective in what they do, otherwise they will cease to function. By treating return on investment as a vital requirement of planning we increase the likelihood that plans will be viable and therefore sustainable.
Finally, business planning is not just financial, it’s an opportunity to establish a strong ethical philosophy from the outset. A strong clear ethical code communicates your values to staff, customers, suppliers, and creates a simple consistent basis for operations which conventional financials, processes, systems and even people, do not address.
We started The Grace Tales because I found that after I became a mother, so many of the articles I read about women focused on their career, yet ignored their other job – being a mother just wasn’t spoke about. Yet as mothers, we know how all-consuming and important that role is – and it should be spoken about more. You became a mother to Isabela 10 months ago. And I know she was premature. Tell me about her early arrival and how you navigated that time…
I love the quote ‘This is my something, but you are my everything’. I think it puts into words for me how I feel being a founder of a business, and a mother. I love my business, it’s a part of me, nurtured over many years, and I love being a mother to Isabela, a part of me, that I am drawn to nurture as much as possible every day. And these two parts of me, they exist together, this is who I am. I don’t believe you should have to give up any part of yourself, but for sure I have internal conflicts and it can be hard, as it is a new journey and it involves balancing and prioritising different things at different times.
It’s incredible how connected I was to Isabela even before she arrived. I found pregnancy really hard partly because I pushed myself not to stop, and it was exactly when I had a moment to stop over Christmas, at the one time of year when I can truly put pens down, that she knew I was ready, and she was ready, five weeks early no less!
I didn’t take any real time off after the Christmas holidays, by choice. For me, my business is part of me, so it was natural to not step out: I wanted to be there, we were investing in a partnership we’d spent many months on at that time, and I wouldn’t change being involved in that.
That said, with hindsight, I should have been kinder to myself. I pushed myself to travel to NYC when she was very little, and it had an impact on me. I felt I’d let her down, I judged myself as not ‘good enough’ and I had to work hard to re-build that confidence in myself as a mother. Talking to other mothers really helped, new and experienced ones alike, as I discovered that no matter our situation, being a new mum is scary, and we all discover new insecurities that we project onto our children, but the reality is we are everything they need, just as we are.
Prioritising is so key after you have children – and there’s so much you’re not able to do. I know for me, if work is busy, then my social life is non-existent because I can’t do socials, work and kids – it’s too much. How do you approach prioritising?
Well, this is a great skill that all businesses should look to mothers for! I had always thought I was efficient, but nothing highlights the importance of spending time wisely than having a baby. It brings every decision on how to allocate time into sharp relief and so you become laser focused on what has an impact.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you? And what about the most rewarding part?
I thrive with structure, plans and visibility – it’s how I do business, and I had all these amazing plans to run our new family inspired by the things I’d learnt in business. For example, I figured that given I’d never done it before, I should surround myself by people who are more experienced than me when it comes to babies. So I had a maternity nurse guide Isabela through a sleep routine and I have an amazing nanny that is qualified in optimising her development. This has all worked incredibly well, and I see that Isabela has thrived on structure also, which has been incredibly rewarding, knowing that I have given her that foundation. However, of course, it doesn’t take away the unpredictability and emotionality of babies and parenting those babies.
At first I put myself under a lot of pressure to keep the structure and the plans, sometimes resisting against my natural instincts for the sake of maintaining her routine, and also making our weekends, after very long working weeks, super painful as we tried to fit developmental ‘fun’ around rigid meal and sleep times. But then I realised it was okay to let go, and to do what felt right for us and for her in a particular moment, and I allowed myself to do this and I saw how she also thrived on this, just with my husband and I being with her and cherishing her. Which by the way, a solid base structure, overlaid with being true to what you know is right, is the business advice I gave above!
Finally, 2020 was a year like no other. How has your Vaultier7 helped the companies you invest in navigate this period, and what is your advice going forward?
I have not ceased to be amazed by the resilience and adaptability of the entrepreneurs we work with, and meet every day. It is our role as investors to encourage and support the teams in leaning into the very strengths that brought them to where they are, and to help them pre-empt and overcome any weaker areas. I think the pandemic has emphasised the value we all place on community living and social consciousness. The brands who are authentically motivated by these shared values, and who inspire on a personal level, will surely be the ones having a positive impact on their customers, their teams, their suppliers, their investors and everyone else they work with.