This week we interviewed the inspirational Laura Tenison MBE, founder and Managing Director of JoJo Maman Bébé. Laura lives with her two sons, Toby and Ben, and two dogs, Ruby and Truffle. Laura divides her time between JoJo’s design studio and marketing office in London, the company’s headquarters in South Wales and her cottage in Brittany, France. 

You’re the ultimate inspirational mumpreneur.  How challenging is it to juggle such a successful career and a busy family life? What tips would you offer our readers in how to strike a balance?

It’s a nightmare; feeling guilty running out of the office early in time to pick up the children and then being late at the school gate because you were so busy at work.  The juggling stage is pretty full on, but it does not last too long – only about 10 years! Now that my children are teenagers, life is so much easier. When the children were little I did have some help, mostly au-pairs who were there to do the housework as well – which is the ideal situation. I wanted to be the ‘hands-on’ parent and I’m glad I was for most of their childhoods, but it’s an exhausting time and it’s not for everyone.  I don’t think I had much ‘me time’ for at least 15 years, but I never regretted it – being with children is such a rewarding part of life and I’m glad I did not give up my career. 

I think working part time is the ideal situation, but when you run your own company this is not an option, neither is maternity leave. However, we were organised in the after school routine. I did leave work to pick them up but we then sat down to do homework all together – they did theirs and I did mine in the same room. Once that was over I would cook supper while they played in the kitchen, followed by bath and bed. Bed time discipline is essential because I generally needed to do a couple of hours catching up on work once they were asleep.

Describe a typical ‘day-in-the-life’ of Laura Tenison, and tell us your favourite part of a typical day.

The alarm goes off at about 6.45am and I do a quick check of my emails which have come in overnight. It’s then a mad rush of shower, breakfast, dogs and getting my youngest son on the school bus. He is so self-sufficient now and we are lucky that the bus comes past the door.  If I’m ready and I’m not on the road that day, I will cycle down to the London design studio in Battersea to arrive around 7.45am and have an hour before most of the team arrive. The day is taken up with in-house meetings – with graphics, international trade, design and operations, interviews, research and of course keeping on top of the 200 or so emails which come through each day.

There is no stopping for lunch, but I eat a salad at my desk made the night before and brought in with me. Generally goat’s cheese, my favourite! Although at the moment I’m very keen on spinach, walnut, pear and blue cheese – a great combination I came across on my recent long trip to work on JoJo in the USA.

At least two days a week I’m on the road visiting stores, looking for new locations, talking at conferences or visiting our head office in Wales. On these days I try to leave the house promptly with the children at about 7.30am and cycle to the station to catch the train. I hate driving these days – it’s such a waste of time. By cycling to the station I get there quickly and I love the train where I can work on my iPad which now has a fabulous little keyboard. I write many of my blogs including my regular one with Huffington Post as well as my JoJo blog, when I travel. If I’m in the office for a long period my blogging tends to dry up – there’s just no time.

Now that the children look after themselves, I tend to get home a bit later, generally about 7pm, by which time they are hungry and have done their homework. I go straight down to the kitchen where they will chat to me as I cook. I find chopping is the best de-stressor after a difficult or tiring day, so most of my meals start with a chopped onion!

We sit down to a family meal every night, with our loveable dogs begging by the side of the table. Every night we discuss how naughty they are and promise to instil discipline the following day. It never seems to happen. We talk about the day at school and at work. My boys know so much about JoJo, they have grown up with the business and my team are like extended family.

Once in bed I used to read, getting through a book a week, but these days I am more likely to take a look at Facebook and Twitter. I don’t sleep till the final day’s figures have arrived by email and I have dropped a line to the best performing stores of the day. It’s still so exciting to see how we have done each day, in store, online, via the catalogue and of course now across the world. Having a smart phone is a blessing and a curse all at once.

You’ve won countless awards and honours over the years – what’s been the most cherished moment of your career so far?

There are so many moments when I have been immensely proud of my team and what we have all achieved. Opening our new head office in Newport last summer was fantastic in every way. We have grown from a small carpenter’s workshop in Pontypool rented from my brother to our current Distribution Centre of 90,000 square feet. The new building was so ugly when we took it on, but we built lovely offices, a garden and a pretty warehouse shop. It is now an oasis of environmentally friendly space in a rather grim industrial estate. The team there have been loyal from the start, when we employed just one part time helper. We now offer good quality jobs in a pleasant environment to nearly 600 people.

I love our team parties. Everyone has grown up together and the atmosphere at work is so happy. People make great friends at JoJo and they enjoy socialising together, often planning work outings and trips to the pub. We put on a couple of parties each year, but we also have on-going team activities such as baking days, Halloween dressing up parties (I make the pumpkin soup and it’s a pretty big cauldron these days), Christmas bauble workshops and jumper days. We employ a lot of creative people and the competition is fierce!

Getting an MBE was a surprise more than a ‘cherished moment’. It had never occurred to me that I would get a gong, but it was nice to receive the Queen’s endorsement for the work ethos we have adopted here at JoJo; people and the planet are more important than profit.  Obviously we need to be profitable to remain a viable business but there is no need to be greedy and I am always so proud when I see our teams enjoying their work and our customers’ children looking great in our adorable designs.

I can’t bear waste and I’m always delighted when customers tell me how well our clothes wash and that they make great hand-me-downs. Reducing landfill and wastefulness is my particular soap box – I would love more people to make do and mend, rather than always buying new. If you invest in good quality your clothing will last much longer!

You love impromptu parties and you’re known for cooking huge meals at the drop of a hat – what are your favourite recipes for a family dinner party?

I cook every night and I’m generally able to put a decent meal on the table in much less time than it takes to call for a pizza. I’m not keen on processed food but don’t have much time for shopping, so I buy online and stock up my store cupboard and freezer with everyday essentials. I then shop from the farmers’ market for fruit, veg and cheese on the weekends, when I walk my dogs.

My favourite very quick meal is to stir fry ginger, chilli (from a living plant in the kitchen), garlic, prawns (I use frozen packets) or leftover cooked chicken and bok choy in a tiny drop of sesame oil.  I add good quality veg stock granules to make a broth and rice noodles. The children love it and I can put together steaming bowls of soup in minutes.

I’m also keen on stews and love a good Nigerian pepper soup.  Fry finely chopped onions and chopped good quality beef in plenty of palm oil. Add scotch bonnet chillies, beef broth, good quality tomato paste and cook very slowly for about 2 hours on a low heat. Just before serving, when the beef is totally soft, stir in a bag of spinach leaves and service with rice and friend plantain (called dodo). Delicious!

Or if I know it is going to be a busy week I cook up a huge vat of Bolognese on the weekend. I fry onions, garlic, and organic minced beef until brown, then add in plenty of good quality tinned tomatoes, tomato paste and leave to simmer for a while. Once nearly cooked I add in lots of veg – green beans, carrot sticks or peas. I cook about 6 packs of meat at a time and use it all week in various meals to make lasagne, shepherd’s pie, add peppers for chilli con carne, in tacos and of course with pasta. By adding a few herbs and spices I grow in my kitchen I have a staple to make so many dishes in a flash all week.

You’re a trustee of JoJo Maman Bébé’s company charity, Nema, based in Mozambique – tell us a bit about this and how important this is to you.

I have been working with Nema for about 8 years, since my children and I were on holiday at an eco-lodge in the Quirimbas National Park in northern Mozambique. It was beautiful place but pretty boring for the children with very little to do, so each day we walked in to the local village carrying a football. By the time we reached the very rough sand football pitch outside the village school there would be about 200 local children all keen to have a game. Footballs were hard to find, but they were mad keen. My boys played some fantastic bare foot football and the locals really made their holiday. When we left, Ben suggested we help the local kids by rebuilding their school which was really no more than a run-down shack.

Obviously you can’t just march in to a village in Africa and start building, so I joined forces with Amy Carter, who ran the eco-lodge and started to help her with her little charity, Nema. Since then things have really progressed and Nema has built two schools and we have 110 children sponsored to go to secondary boarding schools, there being none in the area. We have also mended and installed dozens of water pumps, worked on malaria projects, HIV education projects and are setting up a mobile health centre.

This is a fantastic little charity because we know the funds go straight to helping those on the ground. Bookkeeping is handled by the JoJo accounts team and we employ about a dozen locals to help run the projects with just one charity manager. The aim of the charity is holistic; helping the local population to help themselves, so for some time we employed an agricultural technician to assist with improving productivity levels for the subsistence farmers whilst ensuring the environment was protected – something that had been overlooked for generations, resulting in serious deforestation and over-fishing. I’d love to be able to retire from helping this area one day – when they no longer need us. In the meantime we are working to reduce infant mortality in the area, which had been running at 30% and is now much reduced.

What are your favourite things to do as a family in London?

I love London and I think it should be used as much as possible. It’s harder now the boys are normal teenagers who want to do their own thing but in the past I would make sure we used the museums and theatres. There are so many children’s activities in our museums and they can always be combined with a walk in one of the local parks.

A trip to the South Bank always makes a good day out. Combining watching some of the acts followed by some culture at the Festival Hall or theatre and the treat of a pizza restaurant cannot fail to keep little ones happy.

We also have some amazing parks and so many that even at my age, I have not been to them all. I discovered Wimbledon Common a couple of weeks ago and found that it has amazing views across London, but my usual park is Clapham Common. After an exhausting time, head to one of the many village locations to enjoy great local shopping, cafes and a glass of wine. Northcote Road is a favourite, but I also love Crouch End and Blackheath. So many of our JoJo stores are in locations which I came across whilst walking my dogs and children in a local park!

The Princess Diana playground is worth a trip from all areas of London. Plus it’s a short walk from the cinema in Bayswater and just round the corner from our Westbourne Grove store.

What’s your one guilty pleasure?

Wine and cheese – that’s two I guess, but they seem to go well together. I’m a cheese addict; I’m not sure how I would live without it. I have never minded not eating meat, but cheese is very important in life! And of course cheese tends to need a nice glass of wine or two.

What are your three top fashion tips for a busy mother?

  • If there is a little baby in the family a set of great patterned scarves are a must. Let’s be honest: babies make a mess, often on your shoulder or front and you are probably too tired to notice or care. This is a fabulous excuse to treat yourself to a gorgeous Emilio Pucci scarf which will hide the posseting in the pattern.
  • Boots. You will be on your feet a lot, you will be chasing after run-away toddles, and you will be pushing the pram and kicking footballs in the park. How any mother of young children survives in posh shoes I do not know? I’m not a trainers girl, I like to dress up and be feminine but I’m afraid I just can’t be doing with silly shoes anymore. Smart boots seem to be a good compromise.
  • And fashion for the little ones… I think investing in some great pyjamas is a really good idea. When you are at the end of your tether, take the little ones to the swimming pool and make sure they take masses of exercise and have lots of fun. Once out of the pool, shower and change into their PJs and dressing gown. Quick supper in the café before home and in bed before there is time for a tantrum. It worked a treat for me every time and I could generally be relaxing with my glass of wine and hour earlier than usual.

What’s the one baby product you couldn’t have lived without?

A JoJo pocket high chair. These are without a doubt the most useful product for parents on the run. They literally fit in your pocket and can be whipped out when you need to feed your little one or just keep them still leaving you hands free. It such a simple idea and we have sold about 100,000 of them over the years. I just don’t understand how anyone manages without one.

How would you sum yourself up in one sentence?

When I was house sharing and working on my first business from my bedroom, friends used to call me “Lots-to-do-Laura”, I think it fits pretty well.