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Women In Business: Lavinia Davolio On Waving Goodbye To Investment Banking And Saying Hello To Fortnum's

How An Investment Banker Became A Confectioner Extraordinaire

Lavinia Davolio became an investment banking intern in London at the age of 21.

Nine years later, she'd fought off stiff competition in a testosterone-fueled environment to become director at the same firm.

But fate had other things in store for the Italian-born banker, who turned up to work one day only to find a redundancy package awaiting her.

The initial shock and upset was soon replaced by a desire to create. And from this hunger came Lavolio - a company selling luxury, sugar-coated fruit and nut confectionery made using traditional Italian artisan techniques.

Now, Davolio's artfully-crafted sweets are stocked on the marble shelves of Fortnum & Mason. Not bad for an investment-banker-turned-confectionery-connoisseur from a modest outfit in Fulham.

But perfection comes at a price, which for Davolio has been a career-long battle against sexist remarks and supplier promises not being fulfilled. Although, being her own boss, she's always had the last laugh...

What was it like working as an investment banker?

It was a fast and challenging career.

Everything that people assume about investment banking is pretty much true. It’s a cut-throat environment, it’s stressful, there’s a lot of attention to detail and pressure, everyone is pushing you about your targets.

But it’s also quite an entrepreneurial environment in the sense that you get to physically create your own projects, follow your own clients and it’s up to you how you manage everything.

Did you find that your gender presented any obstacles in this environment?

As a woman it can be very challenging working in this kind of industry, but I enjoyed it. A lot of the time I was the only female on the team, and I’ve always worked with an Italian team, so at one point because I was the only female out of 34 Italian guys, whenever I'd answer the phone people would think I was a personal assistant.

I can’t count the amount of times that I’d pick up the phone and a client would ask me about my colleague’s calendar availability.

The industry taught me a lot and I’m really glad that I had the chance to experience that kind of world. Sometimes I do miss the big corporate environment. But I definitely don’t want to go back.

When you were made redundant, how did you feel?

It was a big shock and I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

I have a huge passion for food and cooking so I thought that maybe I’d start my own restaurant or perhaps a nice lunch place.

I think it came at a good time in my life. I was ready to change my career and had enough business experience from banking - being diligent, being detailed, being able to handle stressful situations - which allowed me to go my own way.

What was the biggest challenge setting up your business?

It’s very, very hard at the beginning because you have a clear idea in your mind in terms of what you want to do.

But then reality sets in and you realise that you have to get a lot of different people to help you achieve what you want to do. The process involved managing a lot of other people, who would tell me they could do something in two weeks, and then two months came along and they still hadn’t done it.

From coming up with the concept to getting my product to be sold, it took six months. Despite this, these months were pretty fun and I gained three kilos from trying all of the different sweets.

Did you face any obstacles relating to your gender when you were setting up the business?

I’m very pleased to say that in the food business, as a woman, it’s far better than the finance sector.

However, again, I deal with Italians and I find that you have a lot more challenges with them. When I was dealing with suppliers during the product development phase, there were so many times when they'd ask me: “Where is your husband? What does he do? Why does he let you roam freely?”

Another Italian supplier was calling me “Mrs” and then turned around and said: “Oh no, you’re not a Mrs. You’re a girl.”

It's safe to say I didn't do business with him.

I think in Italy, it’s not just being a woman that's an issue, it’s being a young woman. A lot of people don’t give you credit because of your age and gender.

Despite this, I really do love Italian food and trust Italians to do an amazing job with it. I trust the artisan producers that make our sweets because they do it with such love and passion.

What’s been a major highlight for your business?

We’re now stocked in Fortnum & Mason which was a major turning point for the business as it gave us a lot of credibility. It happened quite quickly too, as we had been trading for less than a year.

Having such a prestigious client was a dream come true. I remember visiting Fortnum's and envisaging our products on their beautiful marble shelves. I almost created the product so that it would sit beautifully there. And then it happened!

Why is it important to you to use healthier ingredients?

I think it makes an incredible difference. Firstly, the treats - when made this way - are much more satisfying and you end up eating a lot less than you would if you bought cheaper, mass-produced sweets.

Can you describe a day in your life…

I wake up later than when I worked in banking - I need to be up by 8am. Then I like to prepare breakfast at home, so I have a large latte and make homemade yoghurt everyday. Sometimes I have fruit or cereal or porridge.

I like to have quite a big breakfast, because then once I’m in the office I won’t have a big lunch - most days I’ll just grab a salad or a sandwich.

We have a small office, which is ten minutes from where I live. Once in the office, we all get on with our individual tasks, but also work collaboratively. The morning is spent catching up on online sales and internet orders. Then we’ll look at current clients and there’s always something to do in regards to the operational side of the business.

How do you manage your work/life balance?

I find it very hard. Over the Christmas period it was very busy so I was working from home more, including at weekends. Now it’s more settled, so when I come home I try to do fun things like yoga or cooking.

It’s important that I try to be diligent with working hours for myself and my staff. I’ve learnt from banking that your work can easily take over your personal life. I didn’t like that aspect, so I’m very strict with the time we come in and the time we go out.

How do you let off steam after a busy day?

For me, going home and spending an hour in the kitchen is the perfect way to unwind.

I love cooking complicated dishes and making things from scratch like fresh pasta. In Italy, where I’m from, we make stuffed pasta parcels. There are lots of different types with vegetarian, meat and fish fillings. It’s very satisfying to make.

It's funny because I'm a foodie, but my friends make fun of me because when you come to my house there’s no food ready to eat - I make it all from scratch.

I also try to do yoga once or twice a week to help me keep fit and relax. If, for some reason, I’m very busy and have to skip it, I definitely miss it. But I guess that’s one part of having your own business - finding the time is hard, but it’s still possible.

What tips do you have for women who might be considering setting up their own business?

Just go for it. If you have that entrepreneurial spirit then the next step is to crack on and start doing something.

The best advice someone gave me was: “Just start doing it and you'll find a way to make it work.”