In her nine years in business young British entrepreneur Zoe Jackson has collected countless awards and accolades.
Last week the founder and managing director of performing arts company Living The Dream was told that she’ll receive another; one of the first ever Queen’s Young Leaders Awards.
Last month she was named one of Elle Magazines ‘Top 100 Inspiring Women’ alongside the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, and is regularly feted in the UK press as one of Britain’s brightest young business brains and a role model for female entrepreneurship.
What’s surprising about the 25-year-old’s story is that her company, which has performed for Queen Elizabeth ll at Westminster Abbey, was launched when she was just 16.
It was borne out of frustration. Determined to pursue a career as a dancer, she had secured a place with the National Youth Theatre, only to find she couldn’t afford the course fees.
Determined not to be thwarted she decided to stage a showcase performance to the raise funds to subsidise the costs.
“I begged family and friends to donate a few hundred pounds, I begged teachers to let me use the school facilities and I begged advertising space,” recalls Jackson. “After that first show, which was for charity, I knew it was what I wanted to do, and started putting my plans into action.”
Her age was her biggest handicap. Many of those who could provide funding and business support didn’t take the teenager and her plans seriously. But what she lacked in years she made up for with determination.
She says: “I’ve always been fearless and I don’t take no for an answer very easily. I believed then, and still do today, that if you show how passionate you are about what you do, somebody will take notice.”
Eventually somebody did. While studying at the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts she wrote letters to 300 celebrities asking for their help and advice. British actor Alan Rickman replied.
Jackson says: “I couldn’t believe it. He told me that he’d been inspired by my story and my passion and he invited me for lunch. He gave me some amazing advice, which really helped me in building Living The Dream and which I still value today.”
Today the business comprises a school of performing arts, a professional dance company, and a talent agency, with three of its signings currently performing in West End shows.
Jackson’s achievements as an entrepreneur and a performer have won her acclaim, yet many who know her say her real strength lies in her passion for championing young talent.
She has launched a charity, the Dream Foundation, which supports disadvantaged young people by giving them access to the arts, and one of her current projects is an outreach arts programme, ‘I Have a Dream’ to empower disadvantaged youngsters through dance training programmes and performance opportunities.
Her other strengths of course are her fearlessness and her vision, and she played to them both when she came up with the idea of Living The Dream staging a flash mob at London’s St Pancras International railway station.
“It was a fundraising idea I’d had for a long time,” she says. “One day I decided to ring St Pancras and spoke to someone on their PR team called Sam Kidby, who said ‘let’s go for it!’ And we did, with 100 dancers performing on New Year’s Eve 2010, to raise funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust.”
As a member of the Virgin Media Pioneers network for entrepreneurs, her drive and determination soon caught the eye of Virgin founder Richard Branson, who took her under his wing and supported her.
And it was through the Pioneers that Jackson and her fellow members campaigned for the idea of start-up loans along similar lines to student loans to help other young entrepreneurs get a foot on the business ladder. No one was surprised when she was appointed an ambassador for the UK Government’s Start Up Loans scheme.
“You have to have a solid viable business idea, and you have to believe in it, be passionate, and stick at it, even when people are telling you that you can’t do it. You can,” she says.
With its core team of five, plus a wider team of freelance dancers, Living The Dream is still growing, now running corporate teambuilding events – yes, senior executives learning to street dance – and about to start working with some major brands to help create their advertising campaigns.
It is a lesson in how passion, tenacity, and working for the greater good can lead to even greater things. Those starting out on their own business journey and daunted by the prospect of pitfalls, deterred by the difficulties; take note.