When mum of four Sarah Willingham arrived on Dragons’ Den last year, her Unique Selling Point – as business jargon would have it – was a woman who successfully combined running a family with being an entrepreneur.
The scene unfolding in her open-plan Oxfordshire farmhouse kitchen, as she makes coffee, would seem to bear out the truth of this. While two of her company associates – she is involved in 11 businesses – hover near the Aga, husband and business partner Michael Toxvaerd is engaged in the decidedly domestic task of unloading the dishwasher. School holidays have begun and her children (Minnie, ten, Monti, eight, Nelly, six and Marly, five) can be distantly heard, if not seen.
Taking our drinks outside, Willingham, 42, expands on the theme of her work – life balance, recalling events of the previous weekend when she hosted a get-together for a group of her oldest friends from her native Stoke-on-Trent.
“My best mate was giving me loads of grief about the quality of the ironed bedding,” she laughs, astonished by his gall. “Then another guy who was there said, ‘You don’t really iron your bedding do you?’ And I said, ‘Well you know what? I kind of have to.’ I know it sounds ridiculous, but to me it is so important that I do that stuff.”
Although she had the help of a nanny until her youngest, Marly, went to school in September, Willingham now has no domestic help, bar a part-time cleaner.
“I need to do my own shopping, I need to do my own ironing. I need to feel normal as much as I can. And I am fiercely normal. Anybody who reads this will probably think I’m bonkers but I need to cook in my kitchen, I need to pick the kids up. Between me and Michael we do all the school runs. I’d give it all up before I gave up that.”
Filming has recently finished on the 14th season of Dragons’ Den, which is her second. Shot in Manchester over two months with the Dragons seeing more than a hundred pitches, many of which run over two hours, it’s clearly a rewarding but time-consuming addition to her already hectic lifestyle. She confesses to feeling more comfortable with the show and her fellow Dragons this time round. “Last year people didn’t know who we were [she joined the show at the same time as Touker Suleyman and Nick Jenkins] so it was an uphill battle for all three of the newcomers,” she recalls. “This year I feel we got a fair shot at the good businesses and we won the ones we should have won. We had a good fair fight.”
A more streetwise Den mother, she’s also invested more heavily this time round. Cagey about exact deals, she reveals that she has already signed agreements for two investments of £75,000, one of which is with fellow newcomer Jenkins.
“A couple that I picked up this year were complete no-brainers,” she argues. “They just slotted in perfectly.”
She invested in only one business last series, Sublime Science, a company run by “Mad” Marc Wileman, dedicated to selling science-themed children’s parties. (On the show, she agreed a deal with skin camouflage-cover company Vitiliglow and with the creators of Grounded Body Scrub, but neither reached completion, as is often the case.) She and fellow Dragon Jenkins handed over £50,000 in return for ten per cent of the company. It has since doubled its turnover and she could not be happier.
“It’s already successful in terms of dividend and return on investment,” she explains. “The challenge now is the exit. It’s how, where and why there would be some form of exit, if at all.”
But it’s another kind of exit that gives her more immediate cause for concern. “I’m really, really shocked, disappointed, surprised and worried,” she says of the EU referendum result. “I make no secret of it. I’m very proudly In.”
Although she admits some people will find opportunities, she is deeply sceptical of how a post-Brexit Britain will work for business.
“I do believe free movement of labour has to go on,” she reflects. “I’m naturally very liberal at heart. Somebody called me a champagne hippy the other day and I think that’s just about right. That’s my default setting, I believe in a team. How on earth could ‘I’ be better than ‘we’? Whenever I get asked about the best piece of advice, it’s always, ‘Surround yourself with great people.’ The EU is full of great people, let’s surround ourselves with them. My husband is a European immigrant, my children are half-Danish. Michael has done nothing but start businesses, hire people, integrate within the country. It’s very sad.”
And what of the parallel political discussion point: do mothers make better leaders? “No. God no. I don’t think being a mother impacts on your ability to do business in any way shape or form. I wanted to be a mum. I love being a mum more than anything else I do in the whole world. But it definitely doesn’t have any impact on my ability to do business.”
But, as a woman, does she negotiate differently from men? “I don’t think women negotiate differently. I think people negotiate differently. You can get really ballsy alpha females and you can get much softer females.”
Brexit fears aside, Willingham – to quote the coverline of a million women’s glossies – would appear to have it all. To the rear of the sprawling farmhouse is a walled garden and beyond that 12 acres of woodland and ponds. The family own a property in London and they take long holidays in exotic locations – she confesses that her most-read books are Lonely Planet Travel Guides.
With all this behind her, does she still have the urge to take risks that business requires?
“It’s not about risk, it’s about calculated risk,” she counters. “There’s a huge difference. When people ask if they should start a business I always say, ‘What is your ultimate downside? Can you handle it?’ If the answer is yes, then don’t be the person who came up with a great idea and did nothing about it. Do it.
“If you can’t handle the downside, don’t do it. If my downside is that I’d lose everything then not – a – chance. But if my downside is that I’d waste some money that I would like to have, probably a lot of time then I think that’s worth doing.”
Dragon’s Den: Sundays, 9pm BBC2