We talk to Helen Pollock who built on her love of languages and set up a school specializing in teaching children Mandarin.
1. What made you decide to do what you do?
I was on maternity leave after having my daughter at the age of 37 and thinking about what I could do instead of going back to being employed. I studied French and Italian at Leeds University and did a bit of after-school club French teaching for someone else. That got me thinking. I kept hearing about how the UK didn’t have enough Mandarin speakers. The best time to start learning a foreign language is before the age of 10-12. This is because a neural pathway in the brain related to language learning is open until around then.
If you start learning a second language before that time then the pathway stays open for the rest of your life, making it easier to learn other languages forever! This is why adults who didn’t start learning a language until secondary school often find trying to learn one later on in life so hard. Learning languages has brought so much joy and opportunity to my life. I wanted to start a business that gave others that chance and no-one seemed to be making high quality Mandarin teaching widely available for primary-aged children.
2. Why did you wait until you did to do it?
I feel foolish saying this, but I had always thought that you had to find a niche that no-one else was in to create a successful business! Eventually I realised that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, just embellish it in many cases! Having my daughter and wanting to change my working life to fit around the family was the push I finally needed.
3. What are you hoping to accomplish?
I want Little Dragons to make high quality Mandarin teaching more accessible to families and schools – regardless of location and for a reasonable price.
4. How did you make the change? What or who helped you?
My partner, Richard, helped me to set up all the admin stuff, which is not my forte. I also have several friends who are successful businesspeople who I bounced ideas off. Finally, joining the Female Entrepreneur Association and Nadia Finer’s Profit Pack has been really useful for quick upskilling and finding some accountability.
5. How did your family and friends react?
Fundamentally, I think my parents are disappointed that I am with a Civil Servant who even as a Manager doesn’t make enough to support a family. I suspect that they are sad that I can’t afford to be a SAHM. However, I would want to work at least some of the time (it’s much easier than looking after my two young kids!) and having my own business is the only way I want to do it. I think I’m probably unemployable in the corporate sector now.
6. How has your life changed having gone down this path?
In all honesty, there has been a lot of financial worry and I have to still do a bit of PR (my old day job) and manage a couple of properties for landlords in order to try and make ends meet. There are so many exciting things on the horizon for Little Dragons that I am sure that in the very near future I will be able to stop doing those things and just work on my own business.
7. What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
I would so do it! If you can keep some sort of part-time job (if you need to) in the early days, that really helps to avoid financial stress. Get a good business coach – I would highly recommend Nadia Finer – who will help you to see the wood from the trees and plot a path to success with you.
8. What are you proud of and what keeps you inspired?
The other day, I went into a local primary school. I have donated our online course to them as I wanted some feedback from a real classroom environment. I showed some Year 6 children and their teacher a lesson. They loved it! It makes me so happy to get feedback from schools and parents that their children are enjoying learning about Chinese language and culture so much. I hope that our lessons are setting these children on a course to a lifelong love of foreign languages and cultures and that makes me feel so fulfilled.
9. What do you love most about being the age you are?
I spent so much time as a younger woman feeling ugly and worrying about being found attractive by men. I’m 6ft 1in tall and that didn’t help. Now, I don’t give a monkey’s! That does have something to do with having found Mr Right too, but I regularly take my one year old to swimming lessons without having undertaken any hair removal, which would have been unthinkable in my twenties and early thirties. Generally I don’t wear make-up other than a bit of lippy. I am just so much more comfortable in my own skin and I don’t give a shit what others think of me – which is such a preoccupation in younger life.
10. What do you hate most about being the age you are?
Chinny whiskers. That’s the only thing that bothers me on a superficial level. They just keep on sprouting! More seriously, my pension is tiny currently, so I need to make this business work well to sort that out.
11. What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
Start saving 10% and investing 10% of your income as early as you can! I would have had a much easier life in later years if I had done that. Also, don’t expect these days that if you have kids your partner will be able to support your family. Many of my friends have to work, in many cases full-time, rather than be at home with their young children. I think I saw money as a bad thing in my younger days, rather than what it actually is – something that gives you options in life.
12. What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
With regard to business lessons, keep a keen eye on the numbers. You need to know your net profit every month. I delegated bookkeeping to someone else for 2 years. This led to me not realising that one of our core services was not profitable for ages! I should have been on it much sooner and tweaking things to make more profit. That was a big lesson! On the personal side, self-care is really important. We can find ourselves working 24/7 on our own businesses and that’s no good. Set boundaries for yourself. I used to work most evenings on Little Dragons, now I set myself a limit of three evenings only absolute max. Downtime means I can relax and come back to the business with a fresh pair of eyes.
13. Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
I’m a total atheist, but the biblical quote “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has served me well. There are only a couple of people I have ever fallen out with in my working life and they really deserved it. Maintaining good relationships with people is really important and helps in so many ways in life.
14. Which woman do you most admire and why?
Blimey, there are so many. Marie Curie is definitely up there. She had to fight so hard to gain respect and parity with her husband Pierre for her ground-breaking work. Women like her, who worked in very male dominated fields, paved the way for generations of others. I’d like to say that things are plain-sailing for us in the workplace these days, but having worked in male-dominated industries mostly myself, I know from personal experience there’s still lots of work to do.
15. Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
Nope, I don’t think so.
16. How can Mutton Club readers find out more about what you do?
Mutton Clubbers can check out our website to find out more about our UK Qualified Teacher design and delivered online Mandarin courses for families and schools. I have created a discount code MUTTONCLUB, which will give readers 15% off any of our courses.