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In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are celebrating women’s empowerment in businesses, especially within the packaging and retail industries. Foldabox couldn’t have been possible without the hard work of our amazing team, which happens to be majority female.

We dedicate this blog as a thank you for all of the support and love that we’ve received over the years from other female business owners, no matter how big or small. There are too many to count, but if you are reading this, we are grateful for every one of you. We feel very honoured and empowered by being surrounded by this network of great talent.

For this occasion, we interviewed Nicole Hines, our founder and MD, on what it means to be a female entrepreneur in the packaging industry 18 years after launching Foldabox. Nicole established Foldabox in 2005, and founded it on the simple idea that high-quality packaging is the first thing that a customer sees, and it should represent the brand’s ideals. There was a gap in the market for high-quality, easy-to-store and space-saving packaging available to small businesses that did not have large volume requirements. She remained fanatical about quality, innovation and creativity, and now, after many years, Foldabox has over 140,000 combinations of sizes, colours and closures alongside both printing and bespoke services to make sure your business is presented as you’d like it to be.

Tell us more about yourself, Nicole

I’m a hard-working 55 year-young woman who works from home and, for 13 years has lived with a supportive and dashing partner (he’s likely to read this!) Being the Managing Director of Foldabox involves wearing many hats, from developing new products, driving our overall business strategy, monitoring and maintaining stock levels and profit margin, to having fun planning our company Christmas party. Last year we went axe-throwing!

Because building an empowered staff is rewarding, I’ve managed to move processes that can be streamlined online so that each of us are left only with tasks that we can add value to, which in turn creates a friendly and supportive place to work. There are nine of us, and most of us have worked together for nearly 20 years or more, so we enjoy the trust and friendship that other small businesses strive for. I consider myself incredibly lucky to work with my best friends and family.

Though it sounds funny, I learned my trade by performing it. I’m just a girl from Luton who went straight from a Sixth Form College to a career first at the Crown Prosecution Service and then to a medical marketing company before starting my first company in 1997. I’ve learned a great deal since then, and now Foldabox is the premier seller of high-quality folding gift boxes in the UK. Our end-users range from L’Oreal and the NFL to home-based crafters on Etsy.

What are the main challenges as a women entrepreneur in the packaging industry?

Like many industries, packaging is largely run by male owners and decision-makers, but I am delighted that more and more prominent companies are owned or managed by women. Our warehouse is owned by a woman. Our factory is owned by a woman. My team is mostly women. Gender inequality surely exists, and we must stand against it, but good people are out there, so we should surround ourselves with them, irrespective of gender. I’ve encountered sexism in business when I ran Nile Consultancy, but it was several years ago, and they’re not a customer anymore. In my personal experience, it has thankfully been more of an incident than a trend. My approach is to call out these people and then remove them from my life as quickly as possible, ultimately having a career surrounded by rational, fair and open-minded friendly professionals.

What is your biggest achievement so far?

I’ve enjoyed, and I’m proud, of being an innovator and not a follower. We were the first in the UK to introduce folding gift boxes in the range of colours and sizes we offer from stock as an e-commerce business. I developed the slot box with additional decorative closures and photo frames. We were the first to introduce pale pink, pale blue, natural kraft, rose gold and then rainbow boxes during Covid. We were the first to create folding boxes in recognised paper sizes such as A6 and A4. Our USP is simple: we sell folding boxes with a vast range of coloured ribbons and unique decorative closures that work for any brand. I take a great deal of pride in the fact I have grown this business from nothing, and didn’t get here to the detriment of anyone else.

I’m also very proud that Foldabox has helped so many small businesses start or grow. My primary aim, even before I actually launched Foldabox, was to offer high-quality, space-saving folding gift boxes available in small quantities to small businesses, and I think, as a team, we’ve achieved it.

You started the company 18 years ago, how have you grown as a female entrepreneur?

Though I did start Foldabox 18 years ago, I set up my first company, Nile Consultancy, in 1997, so I’ve run my own business for 26 years (boy, that makes me feel old!). I was made redundant twice in two years and wanted to avoid putting my employment future in someone else’s hands ever again. I knew I wanted to run my own business by the time I was 30, but I had no idea doing what, so I used my month’s salary in lieu of notice to buy some fancy letter-headed paper and put a fax machine on my credit card. 

I started in my mum’s spare bedroom, staring at the phone, wondering who I should call and where I should start. I began by developing various packaging and gift-with-purchase products for other companies, but eventually, after 8 years, I finally found a product I could take to the market as our own product range. At the time, I didn’t have enough capital to develop and market the number of sizes and colours needed to launch a business, so I borrowed £50,000 from the bank, all secured on my mum’s house. It was a good product, but I felt like a lemming jumping off a cliff. I made what I believed at the time were considered decisions, though knowing it was mostly gut instinct and guesswork. Thankfully it worked! Slowly at first, but always getting better.

E-commerce was a market space I knew nothing about, so I’m pretty sure I made a lot of mistakes, and that’s what I’d like to tell aspiring entrepreneurs: follow your instinct, but be sure to learn along the way. I believe the secret to a good business is an unspecified mix of self-belief, hard work, determination against the odds, fear and a bit of luck here and there. Though it’s always about evolution, these days, you have to be agile and change or grow as the market dictates. The evolution can take the form of product development and advances in technology; keeping up is the challenge.

Being a female owner and MD now, do you think that it is easier than before? How did the “support” system change over the last few years?

Overall it’s easier. For sure, the internet has made it easier than ever to start a business, but it remains as difficult as ever to stay in business. You must still apply good business practices, but being a woman isn’t a barrier to entry in the same way it was in my mum’s era, when women were expected to get married and have children, and education was considered a ‘wasted effort’. Many working-class women were expected to become nurses, air stewardesses, secretaries or work in a shop if they were expected to have careers at all. I can’t even imagine living in a time when the only aspiration available to a woman was to be a good wife and mother, like all the magazines and TV shows of the time portrayed. But things have and are changing. Women’s position in the world has improved dramatically, and in many parts of the world, we have equal opportunities, but there is still much work to do. At least in the UK, women don’t need a male guarantor to borrow money because not that long ago and in my lifetime (1974), they did! We make up half the population but do not have half the jobs, nor even the same chances to develop a career, though we are definitely getting better at standing up for ourselves. Achieving equality takes work. In many parts of the world, it’s life-threateningly dangerous, and frankly, I still can’t believe we need to have this discussion in the 21st century. But we must, so it’s important to support each other not only on International Women’s Day, when the world is watching, but every day when the world isn’t. 

Has being a female-owned business influenced or changed your core values?

My core values remain the same: always support your staff, treat people the way you would like to be treated, and be firm but fair. Pay suppliers on time. Treat customers fairly. My intent wasn’t to prove to the world that women can do everything a man can do. Instead, it was to start a business and treat all people well. That I live in the UK, where there are no gender barriers, is certainly good, but this isn’t the case elsewhere. My values haven’t changed and are why we are successful. Provide a good product at a fair price and treat others well. That’s my belief. 

What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs?

Be kind and supportive of other women in business whenever you can. I’m proud of the fact that our factory is female-owned. So is our warehouse. Most of our team are women. Believe in yourself, but reach out for help when you need it. Don’t think you need to know it all, even after 26 years I definitely don’t. You don’t need to be great at everything, so be good at the stuff you love and ask other people for help with stuff you’re not so good at. Men are not the enemy, and I’m grateful for the assistance of several wonderful men along the way. Gender is not the issue here; finding great people to work with is.  

Figure out what success looks like to you. Success isn’t necessarily having a six-figure bank account. It might be having Wednesdays free to play golf. Successful people are those who manage to do what they love for a living. Find a product that inspires you or a business that enables you to find the time to live your best life while the bills are getting paid.

Which women in business do you admire and why?

I most admire my mum. That’s where I got my work ethic and values. After decades of being a PA, she took a huge risk (and pay cut) and left her job in ’98 to help me, she taught herself bookkeeping and accounting. Now she handles all our company finances, a mentally spry but physically knackered 80 years old (shhhhh!)! She’s my trusted partner and the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She’s my biggest fan, and I hers. I couldn’t have done it without her.

This sounds very clichéd, but I admire all women in business, especially those with children. It doesn’t matter whether you run a small owner-operated business from your spare bedroom or you are the CEO of a global corporation, every position presents huge challenges and is unique to the individual. Women generally still take the lion’s share of family and domestic responsibilities, so women don’t stop working when they close the door to the office. I don’t have children, and for seven years after starting my own business in ‘97 I was single, so I devoted all my time and effort to my business to the exclusion of everything else. I’m not sure if that was good or made me very insular, so how women can juggle running a business with raising a family is still a mystery and has my utmost admiration. They deserve a medal.

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