Zoe Jackson was 16 when she set up her performing arts company afford getting into the National Youth Theatre but not being able to afford the fees.
Zoe's had support from various celebrities from Alan Rickman to Richard Branson, and is often invited by the latter to deliver talks on entrepreneurship.
We picked her brain to find out how she made her journey from talented teen to theatre tycoon - and what advice she can share with young entrepreneurs.
How did you first get into business?
I set up the Living the Dream Performing Arts Company when I was 16 in 2006.
I got into the National Youth Theatre and couldn’t afford the course fees so put on a showcase as a fundraiser and realised I had a viable business idea that I put into action. Also that young people in my area (including me) couldn’t afford the expensive performing arts training. I wanted to create something affordable but also youth led so young people could express themselves and feel empowered.
Anything you've learned on the way?
Whilst studying full time at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) for a degree in dance and performing arts, I was running Living the Dream during the school holidays after receiving funding from our local council.
When I graduated from LIPA in 2010 the Government decided to cut funding for the arts and our support was completely gone. It was tough, but made me look at things completely differently on how to lead my team and innovate to create a viable business without any funding. The Chinese word for “crisis” is “wei-chi” and it has two meanings, “danger” and “opportunity”. I sincerely believe that out of every dangerous situation comes opportunity and a good leader will look for those.
My time at LIPA taught me a lot, how to promote myself, network, collaborate and the fundamentals for surviving in a tough industry. I’ve learned to never give up. I have had so many knock-backs, tough decisions to make and obstacles to overcome, but I am so passionate about what I do and that keeps me fired to push forward and achieve my dreams.
How is the business going now?
Since 2006, Living the Dream has grown beyond my wildest dreams.
Our School of Performing Arts runs in five different towns in Hertfordshire with over 300 students participating in classes, after school clubs and showcases.
Our professional dance company has been running for two years now and has gained a reputation for creating and performing magical and innovative PR stunts to promote leading global brands, including Virgin, Vodafone, Pret a Manger and Arsenal.
My favourite “out of the box” brand promotion idea was in 2010, when I pitched the idea of a flash mob to St Pancras International. They loved the idea and after only two weeks, a tiny budget and a mission to raise funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust, 100 dancers performed on New Year’s Eve in the station in our first ever flash mob performance. The video has become our signature, iconic performance and has had over a 1.5m hits on YouTube.
This year we launched our talent agency in partnership with the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, which champions talented young people for work in West End shows, TV, film, commercials and music videos. We represent children, teenagers and young professional dancers, actors and choreographers for work in the professional industry.
Within days of launching, we got twins a part in CBBC’s The Dumping Ground and are so excited to be working in partnership with the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts to provide a platform for their students and graduates.
Personally, highlights so far have included meeting Richard Branson numerous times, speaking on a panel with him and speaking at his book launch. Also winning awards, the highlight was my Women of the Future in Arts, Media and Culture award.
What are your dreams for the future?
I have big dreams so there isn’t one next step there are loads – but the main aim is to grow and expand Living the Dream. I see Living the Dream becoming the biggest and most successful performing arts company in the UK and a house hold name. I want to open performing arts centres in major cities across the UK, take our professional dance company on tour, take our talent agency to a huge level and have young talent in West End shows, television and commercials. Finally, I hope to raise lots of money for our charity, the Dream Foundation to support young people who can’t afford access to the arts.
Ultimately, I want to champion young talent and inspire and empower millions of young people worldwide to believe in themselves, their futures and their dreams.
Did people take you seriously when you set up a business at 16?
I didn’t really find it that much of an issue at 16 as I was quite confident from a young age, but there were some times when I didn’t get taken seriously, but the people that did take me seriously really supported and believed in what I was doing.
I am 25 now and I find that my track record and achievements to date mean that people do take me very seriously these days.
What advice would you give to fellow young entrepreneurs?
It is tough! You will need to grow a thick skin, have bags of energy, passion and determination to get to where you want to be.
I believe that the power of networking - getting out there, talking to people and building relationships are key to making things happen. Networking isn’t just about promoting your business, it’s about building and developing relationships with people and looking for opportunities to help and connect people - and although they might not be able to return the favour, unexpected opportunities may come from unexpected people.
Have the confidence to ask for advice or potential contacts, you never know, their help or connections could be invaluable. Listen to family and friends and have the confidence to contact people that inspire you and ask them for advice too, even if they are celebrities!
While I was at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts I wrote to hundreds of celebrities asking for advice and support for Living the Dream. I will never forget the day when I rang my Mum in hysterics ‘Mum, Severus Snape has invited me for lunch!’ The famous actor Alan Rickman responded to my letter and was coming to LIPA to do a masterclass and invited me for lunch. He gave me some incredible advice which has really made a difference to Living the Dream today.
Do some good. I’ve learned from Richard Branson’s business philosophy, “Have fun, do good and the business will come”. I sincerely endorse his view that every business has a moral obligation to make a significant positive difference in today’s world. The key is to help others selflessly in any way you can, and the karma will return to you when you need it most.
Do the right thing: no matter what the costs of doing the right thing might be. Your integrity and reputation are all you have in business and in life – it’s forever. If you always choose to do the right thing, it won’t matter what the outcome is because you will be successful as a human being, which is true success.
Believe in yourself! The belief you have in yourself and your business idea is your most precious commodity and communicating your passion about your product or service will make people remember you. Keep believing and dreaming because if you put your mind to it you can make it happen. I have had so many knock-backs, tough decisions to make and obstacles to overcome, but I am so passionate about what I do and that keeps me fired to push forward and achieve my dreams. Stay passionate and inspired and remember that out of a crisis comes an opportunity.
Finally, when things go well, pat yourself on the back.