I used to believe that all things new-fangled and eclectic came from across the pond. I used to imagine a country with sparkling four lane highways, laden with slow moving wide cars, filled with good looking, shiny people...and then I visited New York and the shackles fell from my eyes.
As a Brit, your first trip to the Big Apple is a bit of a shell shock. The drive from the airport on crowded pot-holed roads is not a far cry from a third world city ring road. There are homeless on the streets, which appear dirty and unkempt. The people are not the plastic super race one sees in the shallow rom-coms of our time, but a seething mass of diverse socio-economic groups from dozens of ethnic origins.
As you get into the high rises of Manhattan, the streets close in and the urban squalor intensifies. Neon lights advertising liquor stores sit next to high end independent boutiques and global brands. Are we in Bond Street or Peckham; it's hard to tell. A Vietnamese street hawker stands at the corner selling fruit, presumably there for over 30 years since the war but when asked which way is 'Uptown' he shakes his head, unable to a understand, let alone inform. The doormen of upmarket stores - often African American with big grins, appear at first too friendly. Of course they are not "missing me already" as they state when they hold open the door on my departure. The highly efficient sales teams tell me they "love the outfit" which I try on but reject within a glance in the clever figure flattering mirror which I know not to trust.
I stop for a coffee and stare with incredulity at the size of the cookies and muffins. Are they for sharing? Who can I share with, I'm travelling alone. But suddenly I realise I'm just not alone. I'm everyone's best friend - from the waitress refilling my coffee before I ask, to the smiling security guard who leaves me feeling warm, to the sales assistant who lied about my outfit to entice me to buy. It's funny but the weird thing is I believe them all; it just takes a little while to settle into accepting that here is the US of A people are genuinely 'nice'. They are kind and thoughtful, happy and helpful. Their manners are impeccable and customer service is a given. (I reserve the right to exclude all New York taxi drivers from this positive endorsement. Their flabbergasting lack of empathy to the New York newcomer warrants a blog of its own.)
This is a real city with nothing shiny about it. The Hollywood movies don't tell the true story, this is a fantastic place, a miracle of multi-cultural hotchpotch all living and working in an engineering genius of an island with the most extraordinary architecture and culture. Despite everything I used to believe and all those first impressions which shocked me so, I can only say - I love it here. It feels safe, real, human and extraordinary. It feels as if anything is possible, and maybe it is? Can a British girl with a niche market brand really make an impact in the land of plenty? Is it possible that I could survive (let alone succeed) where so many bigger and apparently better have failed?
Twenty years ago, when I started JoJo at a kitchen table, I would never have imagined taking a day trip to follow up on a first meeting with Bloomingdale's as I have just done. I only thought as far as the next wages bill or supplier payment run. Two years ago we launched our international trade department and this well-kept British secret started brand building outside the UK. I'm always so flattered and humbled by the way other working Mums (AKA Moms) relate to the struggles we've been through and how generous they are with their encouragement even though we appear to have a level of success that start-ups might consider to be pie in the sky. Success is relative and whilst JoJo has grown to a multi-channel business with 60 stores across the UK and is a household name amongst discerning families - I am still ME. It feels like only yesterday that I was touting my first sample bag around department store buyers or working through the night as I painted our first store ready for the grand opening the following morning.
I'm always amazed by how generous women are to each other. My male business contemporaries often become grouchy and disinterested on hearing about our growth, generally preferring to talk about themselves. If I ask a male-run business for advice on who they use for shop fitting or graphics they will often skirt around the question - even if they are a in a non-competitive field. But women spill the beans with warmth and encouragement and I'm delighted this appears to be the case in the USA as much as at home. I love that.
Thank you New York for being my gateway to the rest of America. I'm feeling like a Staten Island immigrant right now, a little lost and sick with nerves. Next month I'm embarking on my three week trip around Canada and USA trip to meet you all. What will I find? I'm excited, but full of trepidation. Will you like my brand? Will you understand my ethos and why my team is more important than our profits? Will you like me?
More than anything will this trip, which takes me away from kids (and dogs) at huge personal sacrifice, be worth the effort? I may have grown a £2K loan into a £40M business, but I'm human and I'm scared.
I'll keep you posted.
Love from a very nervous Laura
Follow Laura Tenison MBE on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LauraTenison