Leon’s co-founder on why more women should become entrepreneurs

The healthy fast food chain’s co-founder Allegra McEvedy believes more women should “take the plunge” and start their own business – but men need to get on board too.

Allegra McEvedy could certainly be described as entrepreneurial. She is a chef, presenter, consultant, author of eight books, owner of a new restaurant called Albertine and mother of two “gorgeous girls” aged seven and 12 weeks. But perhaps one of her biggest successes is Leon, the healthy fast food chain that she founded alongside Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent in 2004.

Leon’s sales jumped to £58.4m in the year to 25 December 2016, and it now has 52 restaurants including franchisees. International expansion is also on the cards – it opened its first international restaurant last year at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, with sites across Norway, Sweden and US in the pipeline.

McEvedy started her career as a chef, working her way up at Michelin-starred restaurants, but had “an epiphany moment” and developed a new mantra of delivering the best food to the most amount of people. So when Dimbleby and Vincent came to her with the idea of starting a healthy fast food chain, she jumped at the chance.

READ MORE: Why Leon is prioritising marketing as it looks to become an international fast food brand

“We had this strapline when we set it up, where we wanted it to be like McDonald’s but in heaven. [We wanted] the fast thing that McDonald’s does so well in the delivery and operational side of the business, but in an atmosphere you want to eat in and with food that’s good for you,” she tells Marketing Week.

Thirteen years on, McEvedy is still a shareholder and regularly talks to Dimbleby and Vincent, playing an important part in keeping the brand true to its founding values.

“It’s very easy to lose sight [of your core values] as many places have, and actually they’ve have been happy to lose sight of them and take the millions. But John [Vincent] is very keen to keep those values as CEO. He uses our time and conversations to not only reflect on the current food offering but to keep referring back and asking me how we can stay true to our heart,” she says.

Empowering women

Besides her Leon work, McEvedy is passionate about encouraging other women to become entrepreneurs and is working with the MicroLoan Foundation to do this. The charity aims to provide the poorest women in sub-Saharan Africa with the tools and skills, including small loans, to enable them to work their own way out of poverty.

The average Foundation loan is around £45, with 99% of them repaid. And 85% of women who work with the Foundation with children of school age are now in education. McEvedy is speaking at an event hosted by the charity on 21 November, which will look to celebrate female entrepreneurs.

People say we treat women equally, but on some level there is still so much discrimination.

Allegra McEvedy

“If we live in a world where it’s quite tough to be a female entrepreneur, which we do, God only knows what it’s like in sub-Saharan countries, where they aren’t even working towards [achieving] equal rights. Women have very little independence,” she says.

That is not to say, however, that Western businesses don’t still have a long way to go when it comes to supporting female leaders too. She points to the recent #metoo movement, which came after the New York Times published details of allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, as well as the gender pay gap.

“Even in our first world country, women are still not considered equal. You see these figures on how few women sit on boards in the UK’s top 100 companies and it’s totally shocking. People say we treat women equally, but on some level there is still so much discrimination. And honestly, I think many men don’t even realise they’re doing it. But it’s there,” she says.

Embracing fearlessness

In terms of what women can do to get ahead, McEvedy believes good time management, confidence and fearlessness are key. Cheffing is a male-dominated industry, so she was “clearly up for a fight”, but recognises that other women might be less forthright.

“I tend to give things a crack and see how it goes. I’m quite fearless in that way. And as I said, it’s not always a good thing – it has landed me in quite a lot of trouble. While sometimes a more cautious approach is better, more cautious women won’t take the plunge into starting their own business – and this needs to change,” she explains.

More men need to support us too, because they’re still often the ones signing the cheque and lending us the money.

But women taking the plunge is not enough on its own, she admits; men also need to start getting behind the cause and investing in more female entrepreneurs. Women-owned businesses receive just 7% of venture capital investment money, while loan approval rates for female entrepreneurs are 15% to 20% less than for men.

“More men need to support us too, because they’re still often the ones signing the cheque and lending us the money. Some of the equality we want to achieve does lie with men. They need to change their minds and empower women in the same way they are, however much we push ourselves forward,” she explains.

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  • Matthew Cushen 20 Nov 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Hear hear. I’ve an investment fund that over the last year has made investments split 41% to start-ups with female founders and 59% to those without any female founder – better than the 7% quoted in the article. We wouldn’t positively discriminate but we do avoid some of the selection criteria that ends up with investors gravitating towards the type of person they are and know (such as ‘pitching’, where confidence and bravado can disproportionately outweigh insight, analysis and thoughtfulness). But whilst we’re proud of a better (not perfect) split of female/male entrepreneurs our investor base is still 90% male. We’d love to have more women investors – if we did we’d learn some more and maybe end up with 50:50 funding.

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