When Anwyn Rowberry returned from maternity leave to her post in high value consultancy sales in London she discovered that her job had effectively been given away. “They thought I wasn’t coming back even though I said I was. I had no clients, no desk, no computer,” she says. She was given a role selling to a sector she didn’t have any experience in. When she remarked on this she was told she might be better off quitting.
Anwyn, who was the main earner in her family, was told she could walk out, but would not get paid or she could work her notice, but would need to be in the office the whole time [she had regularly worked two days from home before her maternity leave], meaning she would not see her daughter. “I broke down on the train home and went to the doctor who signed me off with depression,” she says. “The mental stress was awful. I had been a high-performing, successful worker. I had never failed to hit my targets and they didn’t want me back just because I had had a baby.”
Anwyn’s experience is, unfortunately, not unusual. But she fought back successfully and now, seven years on, she has established a new life running pop-up creative workshops.
Anwyn decided to take her company to tribunal for constructive dismissal, but before the case went to court she received a threatening solicitor’s letter from her employer. She managed to find a feisty no win no fee lawyer who encouraged her to stand her ground.
By the time she went to tribunal, she was six months pregnant with her second child. She describes the tribunal process as “horrendous”, “very personal” and extremely stressful.
Not only had she lost her job, but due to the niche area she worked in she knew that it would be difficult to find any new job. Indeed she was told by a recruitment expert that she would not be able to get a job unless she was prepared to work full time and to travel. “I was effectively unemployable as a sales executive,” she says.
In the end she won her case and she feels very positive that she stood up for the many women who suffer similar situations. “It is so stupid. 80% of my income was commission and I didn’t need any supervision. Companies should positively discriminate to get mums in because they can do everything. You turn into a superhero when you have children,” says Anwyn.
While she was waiting for the case to be heard in 2012, Anwyn started learning to sew and craft “for my own sanity”. After the tribunal, she began selling cakes and doing the odd craft market. She took her newborn with her.
Two years ago, Anwyn attended a women-only business coaching session. She had been making skater dresses and wanted advice about scaling this up around the children as she had no family nearby. However, she had long harboured a desire to set up her own creative cafe and mentioned it to the group, although she did not feel financially ready to take the plunge. She was asked why she didn’t consider running workshops in other people’s venues. “It was a lightbulb moment,” she says. She started running workshops in cafes and people’s homes.
Last summer Anwyn was at an event held by Wenta, the social enterprise which provides support and guidance to those considering, starting or growing their own business. They suggested starting a pop-up cafe.
Anwyn, whose children are now aged seven and five, says finding a location for a pop-up cafe was difficult despite council support for pop-ups. The problem, she says, was a lack of empty council property in Bedford, where she lives, and the fact that private landlords often don’t want to offer short-term leases. She eventually found a private landlord who was willing to do a short term let, but she says the fact that she escaped certain regulations because her two-storey cafe was not a permanent business did not go down well with some of the other businesses.
Anwyn is treating her pop-up craft cafe as a trial, although she doesn’t expect to make a profit. The response she has had has been very positive, particularly from Bedford’s mayor. Her cafe idea included drop-in creative workshops for adults and children, a cafe with wi-fi and a creative co-working room but also support for local artists through selling their products. “There has been some very beautiful work that has come in. There is some amazing local talent out there,” says Anwyn. “It is my dream business,” she says. “I love seeing people coming in and being creative.”
She says that she has no intention of going back to the stress of her previous life. “I am earning less, but my experience blew my trust in all corporate employers,” she says. “I hope employers see what they are losing when they treat mothers so poorly.”