Former Dragons Den mentor, Sarah Willingham, is one of the UK’s most successful female entrepreneurs, in her own right.

Mother and entrepreneur, Sarah Willingham. reveals how she juggles family and work life / Photo credit: Pour Moi
Mother and entrepreneur, Sarah Willingham. reveals how she juggles family and work life / Photo credit: Pour Moi

Having extensive expertise and knowledge in the hospitality industry, she is one power women making waves in the business world.

Along with her successful business accomplishments, Sarah is a mother of four, and admits she has to constantly remind herself to keep the perfect balance.

As if Sarah wasn’t busy enough, she will be taking part in the ‘Pour Moi Uplifting Women’s Awards’ which are being held this month. Sarah will be on the judging panel, along with other familiar faces, including Love Island star, Demi Jones.

Sarah chats to Female First on juggling family life, being a woman in business and taking part in the women’s awards.

You will be on the judging panel of the Pour Moi Uplifting Women’s Awards – What should we expect from the award ceremony?

First and foremost, the awards ceremony that takes place on 19th May will be full of so many amazing and inspiring women. It will showcase their incredible stories and I’m so excited to be seeing so many women come together to celebrate each other in such a positive way. The judging panel, in addition to myself, includes familiar faces such as Demi Jones, who after appearing on Love Island, found out she had Thyroid cancer, so has gone on to raise awareness and beat cancer. Then there’s Kiss FM DJ Tinea Taylor and female photographer Amanda Akokhia, as well as the amazing Sandie Roberts, who suffered a stroke in 2019 and found out she had Functional Neurological Disorder but has gone on to empower other people with disabilities.

Each of the other judges has an interesting story whether it is overcoming adversity, championing women or trailblazing, and I can’t wait to see all of them again and celebrate all the amazing female finalists and winners!

How did it feel to be asked to be a part of this exciting event?

It's always such a privilege to be part of anything that celebrates brilliant women, the best of women and getting great, strong empowered women together, where they're lifting each other up and celebrating all that's good about us, our friends or colleagues.

How can people enter the competition?

The competition is designed to recognise the amazing achievements of women from across the UK.  And you can nominate yourself (and I encourage this) or a woman you know by going to

There are five categories: Innovator in Business, Extraordinary Entrepreneur, Activist Achiever, Charity Champion and the special Pour Moi Loves award. Winners of each category will receive £5,000 cash prize and £2,000 worth of Pour Moi vouchers, so I think it would be crazy not to put yourself or a woman you know forward!

Why do you think it’s vital we continue to celebrate women, not only in business, but as a whole?

I think it's really important that as a collective, we get behind each other because there is still an imbalance. Unfortunately, the reality is that despite being somebody that grew up in the 90’s, in business, you can see we've made some progress, but I think it's really going to be Gen Z that moves the needle. As we know, there is a disparity. I think often, when I speak to younger women, it's still often a confidence issue. Not feeling that they can stand and negotiate in the same way that often men do, where they say, “well this is actually what I want.” A lot of the younger girls, and older actually - a lot of the women that I speak to, don't like to ask. And that shouldn't be a gender trait, but I find it every single time I speak to a group of girls that one of the things that comes through the most is this. It's the confidence. So, the more they can see women who have come through the ranks who have made themselves put their marker down and made a difference and celebrate each other, the more we will close that gap, because women should not question their right to be there, their right to be in the room. I think men and women get impostor syndrome, but women get it more than men.

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Sarah with the other fabulous women on the judging panel / Photo credit: Pour Moi
Sarah with the other fabulous women on the judging panel / Photo credit: Pour Moi

What will you be looking for in a ‘winning’ contestant?

I'm always really interested in the story. I will be looking for inspiration more than anything, somebody that has made a difference and who has been able to carve their path, in a way that I know will inspire other people when they hear the story. I can’t wait to read through the applications and to meet the finalists in person at the awards ceremony.

You are a very successful businesswoman – what advice do you have for women in business? And who want to get into business but are apprehensive?

I would always say, firstly, if you're apprehensive, don't let your legacy be the person that came up with a great idea and never did anything about it. That’s just not a good place to be. But always cover your downside: What if this doesn't work? What if I try and sell my product and nobody buys it? What happens? Because often people just get stuck and use thousands of excuses for why they never actually start. And when you really unpick it, it's a confidence issue. There's no real practical reason why they can't get going. I would say, taking action is really important, actually doing it, and then say to yourself, what's the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is nobody buys it, then you're back to where you were without even having ever started, so you're no worse off. Don't risk your livelihood, don't risk your house. So don't make risks that you can't handle if it doesn't work - that's really important. Always mitigate your risk. All of the risks that I've taken have always been calculated. So, my downside has been protected. I say to myself, what if I lose my time, maybe density, my reputation, a little bit of money that I can afford to lose? Then I'm going to go ahead and do it. But I wouldn't risk the roof over my children's head. I think that's very, very important. I think if you're apprehensive, one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given in my 20’s was to surround yourself with brilliant people. That sounds like such an obvious thing to say. But it really is the most important thing. And it's not just in business, it's also in your personal life. It's about surrounding yourself with people that lift you and that rejoice in your success, help you get there, are inspired by you being great, and that allow you to be great, as these will help you and have your back. If they see you walking towards a hole that you haven't seen, they'll go whoah, stop. What about doing it this way? I think it's really, really important, as I said, not just in business, but also in our personal life, that we surround ourselves with those types of people.

Who are your motivators or idols in the women business world?

I'm finding myself extremely inspired by the younger generation - Generation Z. I have a lot of people who work for me at that age. One of my daughters is that age. And I love the fact that they are working through the gender norms, and certainly sexuality. This is the generation, it feels to me, that are really going to move the needle in terms of equality. And I love the fact that they think so often they just don't question it. I'm really finding myself inspired by that generation.

You’re a mother of four – What advice can you give to other working/business mums on maintaining a healthy work/life balance?

This is without a doubt the hardest thing to get right. And I think there is no such thing as getting it right. It is a constant recalibration, constant moving beast. You find yourself feeling - within a week, that you might have done too much work or spent too much time with the kids or whichever way it is, and you need to recalibrate all the time to get that balance. I don't find that it's as simple as going “I do X amount here and X amount here, and I've nailed it" - that just doesn't work for me at all. I have to very much go with how I feel. And sometimes I just need to take a day and be with the kids or spend more time being a mum. Suddenly I'm like – “Oh my God, my team really need me, I've clearly not spent enough time with them.” So, I find that it's really important to constantly readdress that balance on a regular basis. The thing more than anything really is understanding that you can't be both at the same time. And I really learned this the hard way. When I'm a mum, I'm a mum. And when I’m working, I’m working. Don't try and feed your kid at the same time as replying to an important email. Even I have to constantly readdress this balance.

I noticed a couple of weeks ago, Mike and I had just got back from the gym – I go at 6am every morning, I got back at 7am to get the kids ready for school. I was making an amazing breakfast and feeling great, and Mike was like “Oh, have you seen this email?” (We work together). I could feel my stress levels rising and I suddenly engaged in a conversation with him about it. And before I knew it, my morning was ruined. Afterwards, I reflected on it and said, you know what? That's a boundary we absolutely have to set. There will be no emails or no work discussion at all until the kids are gone to school. I have to constantly redress the balance as well. It was only because that has happened that I was like, hang on, this isn't right, what are we doing?

I’m a big Dragon’s Den fan too! Were there any business ideas that you wished you had invested in? What was your experience like during your time on the hit show?

There were loads of businesses that I would have loved to have invested in, but they didn't pick me and that's the reality of the show! It's rarely about if I wish I'd have invested in it, it’s more about the ones you didn't get even though you tried to. There was one lovely clothing business called Hope and Ivy. I absolutely loved it. I loved the girls and they had great experience as well. But they didn't pick me; they chose Deborah and Peter. It was the first series, and it was really difficult in the first series because nobody knew who we were, so it was hard to kind of ‘win’. It’s hard to get the good ones, basically. It’s less about regretting the ones that I didn't invest in. It's more about, I often just didn't get the ones I really wanted. But, I came out with an amazing, amazing investment in the Craft Gin Club, which will probably be the most successful business ever to have come out of the Den, and that's one of mine, so that was great.

Regarding my experience on the show, I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I'm still great friends with Deborah and Nick. I love all of the Dragons and loved the experience. My brain was so shocked by the end of the filming - it was like a boot camp for your brain! It was wonderful. I absolutely loved it!

What’s next for you?

I'm definitely loving Nightcap. That was the business I started a year ago. I've got 32 bars now. I’m opening new bars all the time with lots more on the horizon. I’m also really enjoying being back properly in the heart of hospitality - I love it. Part of that journey is that I am trying to encourage more women into hospitality as a career, rather than just as temporary employment as a stop gap. I'm trying to get more women behind the bar, so that women feel safe in the bars where possible, so we've got a good balance of women behind the bars as well as in front of the bars, and I'm really enjoying that.

I’m also enjoying where I can be able to spend time now, with other women and especially with younger women, really trying to help where I possibly can encourage, motivate and inspire women to enter into the field of business. A perfect example of this is the work that I’ve been doing with Pour Moi as a judge for their Uplifting Women Awards. I just want women to believe that they're brilliant and want them to be the best version of themselves. I'm really enjoying that.

The Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards are open for nominations until the 21st of April, with the awards ceremony. To nominate yourself or others, visit

Written by Laura, who you can follow on twitter, @LauraJadeC20

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