Visible Women was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Poppy Mardall, a 31 year old Alternative Funeral Director and all round Visible Woman; on what it means to work in a male dominated industry and what it means to be a Visible Woman.
“I think that is the key; it’s basically having the confidence in yourself and trusting your instincts”
After graduating, Poppy became an expert and Deputy Director at Sotheby’s auction house. Though Poppy loved her job at Sotheby’s, she really wanted to set up her own company in order to help people in a more critical way. Poppy started to reflect on major life events such as birth, love and death and the more she thought about it, the more she felt the world of death and dying needed the most work. Feeling that she had the right values for the job; Poppy wanted to bring a new perspective to an outdated world. Poppy quit her job at Sotheby’s and with a few months’ savings, went to Ghana for a month to get some space. Whilst in Ghana, Poppy saw some incredible Ghanaian coffins along the coast where the Ga tribe get buried in coffins shaped and painted to represent their lives. Ghana also gave Poppy the opportunity to think about what she really wanted to do and also the courage to throw caution to the wind and do something she truly believed in , no matter what hurdles seemed to be in the way.
Poppy experienced a series of major life events. She got married, her dad got cancer, her brother moved to America, and she was ill with typhoid for 8 months. As life seemed to be changing quickly, she decided to carry out plans of starting her own company.
Poppy Mardall is now 31 and expecting her first child.
What inspired you to start an alternative funeral business?
So, it was number of things. There are some people who are doing things differently in the industry who have basically had a really bad funeral experience and I think often good business ideas come from that. When you’ve experienced something that’s really bad and you think hang on a minute – that was horrible and I don’t want anyone else to go through that. That wasn’t really my experience. For me it was more that I think I was looking for a really long time; for more meaningful work (which I feel that a lot of people are). I was working at Sotheby’s Auction House and it was really fun and kind of exciting but it didn’t fulfill me in terms of wanting to help people in a critical way. So a number of things happened. Both my mum and dad got cancer (this was about four years ago). Although they both survived, my dad in particular was quite ill and as a family we just started having those conversations (which every family needs to have at some point) and now I believe that people need to be having these conversations much earlier. We started having conversations about what we would do if he died and quite quickly realised that what was out there, was mostly pretty traditional looking; sort of black Dickensian kind of companies just weren’t going to give us what we needed. It’s not like we are a bohemian family who wanted a pink hearse or anything, but my mum felt really strongly about things. If he died at home, she really didn’t want his body being taken away by men in black boots. You know the whole sort of cliché around the industry is quite true. It just planted a seed in my brain and I bought some books from the internet. There’s a really fantastic book called ‘The Good Funeral Guide’ which just dispelled all the myths surrounding the industry and I just started thinking- hang on a minute, I could do this – and that’s really where it all came from.
What do you enjoy about running your own business?
I think the thing I love the most – which is something that a lot of people say, is that feeling of being able to get on with things. We talk about everything as a team but I don’t need to get approval from some board to do the things that I want to do. So I wake up in the morning and think we really need to be doing this – then I can come into the office and do it immediately. The other thing I love, love, love; is building a team of amazing people, which is really hard. Obviously, that sounds so easy and straight forward and it’s not like that at all. Recruiting the right people and keeping them happy and all that stuff; is a full time job. But that feeling of looking around the office and thinking; you guys are amazing and you’re working alongside me and we are all pulling in the same direction to achieve the same thing is the best feeling in the world ever and I absolutely love it. Do you think that there is a difference in management style between men and women? I think that there are all different types of women and there are all different types of men. I guess my take on that is that; women should have much more confidence in their abilities to run an amazing company because women often have fantastic skills. There are clichés but they are often true. We care what people think a lot and that includes our staff and that’s a really good thing. It’s really good to have a business where you are looking around at the faces of people working with you and thinking – are you happy? Are you fulfilled? Are you being challenged? Are you being developed? To have someone ploughing on in a self-centred way is not very good and obviously there are women like that too and obviously, there are fantastic men. I think women definitely have great skills that are probably particular to their sex and they should feel super confident about how they can use those skills to run an incredible business. I think sometimes, that women don’t think that they are made for the job because they are looking around at men running businesses and thinking “I’m not like that” and actually that’s a really good think that you’re not like that.
How do you find the balance between being an understanding manager and also being a firm manager?
The thing that serves me really well is following my instincts. It’s really interesting; I’m 8 months pregnant and I’m about to have my first baby and I think a lot about how this might be a lot like being a parent. If you’re a good mum, then you’re someone who absolutely cares about the welfare of your children and the happiness of your children, but is also really clear on boundaries and really clear on where someone has stepped over the mark. I think it’s exactly the same in the office. I feel my instincts are very strong on where there are times that I should give someone a break and support them and help them along when and then there are times when someone needs to be told that they’ve messed up or behaved badly. I assume (I have no idea yet) that is probably quite like being a mum and obviously women are designed to be mums so that’s like managers as well.
“I Am Visible” is a statement of empowerment to every woman to aspire to achieve their dreams regardless of who they are and where they come from. What would you say makes you a Visible Woman?
I think that’s a really point and a really good one. I was thinking about it long and hard and I think the key to this is, whatever the position and whatever the situation in whatever way is appropriate to you; it’s basically about having the courage to take a leap of faith and for me that was about setting up my own business but it was also about becoming an undertaker. I came from a background in the art world which made a lot of sense to a lot of my peers and my family and friends and, I suddenly woke up one day saying I’m going to set up a funeral company and everyone thought I was completely insane . Obviously there were people who supported me and people who just didn’t get it, and thought I was making a huge mistake and I think that is what makes me a visible woman. I personally think it’s that decision to take a leap in the face of doubt or in the face of other people’s lack of confidence. I think that’s true even if you’ve just started out and even if you feel that you’re at the bottom of the tree (whatever that means) and you’re asking your boss for a pay rise or you’re in a team meeting suggesting an idea that you’re not confident other people will support. I think that is the key; it’s basically having the confidence in yourself and trusting your instincts which is something I feel that women could do more of.
Have you faced any challenges working in a male dominated industry?
I faced loads of tiny shallow ones. In a male dominated industry where people are used to taking orders from men I definitely met loads and loads of people who just don’t get it or don’t understand what it is that we are trying to achieve, which is massively because we are doing things differently and because I’m a woman, they think that you are just the secretary and why is your opinion important. But none of that is important I haven’t felt even a tiny bit bothered or hurt by that. If anything those experiences affirm why we should be doing the things that we are doing because all that stuff needs to change. I would say being in a male dominated industry actually serves you quite well – it actually catches people off hand. You can get a huge amount achieved without people feeling threatened because people don’t see you as a threat or think you’re a threat because you are just a woman. So, I think it has worked out really well for us.
What would be your advice to young women wanting to start a business?
I think above all else, the most important thing is to make sure that you have a support network around you. It doesn’t matter who those people are – whether that’s friends, family, your neighbors; there will be so many times where you just need to call someone who believes in you because you are facing a wall and you just don’t think you can do it. There are always doubters in our lives, but if you can, locate the people who believe in you and really use them and let them help you. I’m not talking about financial help or even practical help; I’m talking about belief and confidence, because there are times where it is very lonely and you really need to talk to someone who thinks that what you’re doing is really worth doing. Get that support network in place and then use them a lot.