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The Welshwoman Who Brought Breton to Britain

11/02/2016 10:43 | Updated 09 February 2017

Few fashion designs have stood the test of time like the Breton stripe. It came into being in nineteenth century France, was a symbol of haute-bourgeois style between the wars, and few women today could imagine a wardrobe without it. It's chic yet practical; it knows no bounds, be they age, gender or nationality.

But before a bottle-blonde Welshwoman suffered a catastrophic car accident 23 years ago, the stripe was out of reach to a much-in-need group here in Britain: pregnant women. Back then, JoJo Maman Bébé founder Laura Tenison MBE tells me, maternity outfits consisted of tent dresses and unflattering dungarees.

Like many entrepreneurs, Tenison has a fascinating story to tell. Her enterprising tendencies began at a young age, when she would sell fruit to lorry drivers as they meandered past her childhood home on the A40. During sixth form, she created a men's clothing business. Later, when a role at a publishing house failed to inspire, Tenison decided to turn her love of tailoring into a full-time job.

We often hear of entrepreneurs struggling to access finance, of banks not lending and VCs predominantly investing in male-led tech companies. The tenacity with which Tenison approached financing goes some way to explaining why she's has been so successful:

"I was turned down by half a dozen high street banks, and couldn't find a family member or friend willing to back me. So I decided to become a French property agent - my father was a diplomat so I speak the language fluently. I taught myself how to design architectural plans and set about finding derelict, rural houses in Brittany to sell to British clients. The company was sold two years later and the proceeds gave me £50,000, which was matched by a bank overdraft - enough capital, at last, to go into fashion."

Tenison had planned to focus on menswear, but while recovering in a French hospital bed after a near-fatal collision, she met a bed-ridden mother who complained about the lack of choice in maternity and babywear. The idea for JoJo was born: quirky British fashion inspired by her French adventures.

Knowing little about the market, Tenison launched JoJo as a 24-page catalogue with a collection of maternity and baby clothes. Over the past two decades the business has grown organically, and is proud today to be the largest independent mother and baby brand in the UK. Tenison has fended off competition from bigger retailers, like Mothercare, by offering unique products designed in house. JoJo doesn't do wholesale, and Tenison thinks those businesses which fail to safeguard their retail offering "dilute their unique position and impair the customer experience". She has a point. If TK Maxx starts selling JoJo items at a discount, where's the incentive to pay full price?

But while its designs channel French chic, JoJo's operations remain firmly British. In its 23 years of operation, the retailer has been based in the unemployment-ridden dock town in South Wales where Tenison grew up. The company's ethos is to help regenerate local high streets, rather than open in big retail parks. She may crave growth, but you sense she'll forego the fast cars or lavish yachts: for Tenison, success goes hand-in-hand with social good.

Somehow, while managing a company with 300 staff, a turnover of £55m and over 70 UK stores, Tenison finds time to champion female entrepreneurialism (through the Female Founders Forum, for example), take on work experience students with Down's Syndrome, and support the Nema Foundation - which works with Mozambique communities to relieve poverty and protect the environment.

"The best thing a human can do in this world is provide safe and ethical employment. You should help people, give them education and practical advice. Business shouldn't just be about money," she says. She has little sympathy for those individuals who think entrepreneurship should be easy: "There's an extraordinary belief among some founders that everything should be given to them on a plate.

"I worked three jobs when I started JoJo. I slept on the floor of my flat and rented out my bedroom. Entrepreneurship is hard. And even in an established business you will come up against downturns, changes in legislation, new competitors. But I feel those entrepreneurs who are really challenged in the early years are those who achieve longevity. They're the ones who know how to solve problems." She needn't look far for proof of the theory.