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Selma Nicholl speaks to workingmums.co.uk about her children’s talent agency and how Virgin StartUp helped her to pursue her business idea.
Four years ago, when Selma Nicholls’ daughter was three years old she started telling her mum that she didn’t like her curly hair and naming people in her nursery who didn’t look like her. Selma thought it was just a phase, but other parents she asked said their kids were not saying similar things.
Then her daughter told her she didn’t want to be brown any more and started asking lots of questions. Selma, who lives in North London, thought maybe there was something going on. She had been given a DVD of the remake of Annie with Quvenzhané Wallis as the lead character. After just five minutes of watching the film, Selma’s daughter said of Annie: “She is so beautiful. She looks like me.”
“It was a lightbulb moment for me,” says Selma. “She was not seeing images that reflected her in the world around her. She was not seeing herself represented. It made me start looking around at advertising billboards and at the images around me. My eyes started to open. I could not see a black girl anywhere.”
Selma decided to do something about that and thought what was needed was a talent agency for underrepresented children. Since then she has dedicated herself to making that decision a reality in the form of her website Looks Like Me, backed in large part by Virgin StartUp which is announcing a 50/50 gender pledge on start-up funding today.
Selma’s professional background is as a theatre producer, but despite being in the world of theatre, she had no experience of running a casting agency. She needed to buy herself some time to develop her idea, but had no idea where to begin to find funding.
A friend told her about Virgin StartUp. Selma was nervous that her idea was not good enough, but she got past the first hurdle and was invited to a one day workshop. The workshop gave her confidence, taught her how to do market research and make her think it was possible to turn her idea into reality. At the end, she was given three months to come up with a business plan. The Virgin StartUp advisers were hardened business people and didn’t mince their words. A week before the deadline when Selma had turned in her plan, an adviser told her it was an amazing business idea, but what she had put together was just “aspirational paperwork”. She was told she needed buy-in from the industry and she had to figure out how.
Selma was working three days a week and rang round every brand she could think of in any break she had, putting up with a lot of rejection. Just before the deadline she got through to Next who showed some interest and asked to see some faces of the children on her books. She then, of course, had to find some faces and managed to get a boy booked for a job in UK and Japan. That success was enough for her to show there was demand for her business idea and to win £7K in start-up funding from Virgin for the Looks Like Me agency.
The money helped her to hire top photographers and stylists and put together a book of photos of 12 children. It also meant she could leave her theatre job and take the leap of faith to put all her focus into making a success of the agency. “It felt like being on a cliff edge about to jump off with my daughter and not being sure if the parachute would open,” she says.
The look book got her a meeting with Saatchi & Saatchi who said they would help to promote the agency. Selma launched in September 2016. She connected with several other agencies and met Karen Blackett, UK manager of creative transformation agency WPP, who in turn introduced her to advertising agencies.
All through her experiences of building the business, Selma has kept in touch with Virgin and they have invited her to give talks. She says they have been “instrumental” in everything she has done. She has been interested to see people’s reaction to her business. She wrote an article for Mumsnet in the early days of the business and, while some parents really understood how children could feel excluded by not seeing themselves represented, others didn’t get it. “There was a difference between those who looked only at statistics and those who had lived the experience. I got comments from mothers of mixed race kids who wanted advice. It was this silent thing that they did not talk about,” says Selma. She says it is important that all children are represented fairly whether they are mixed race or have ginger hair or whatever it might be.
Selma, who is a single parent, says building her business has been the most challenging thing she has done as a working mum. “It has been a rollercoaster,” she says. “The business has become part of the family.” She has chosen to include her daughter in the business, which, given she inspired it, is apt. Her daughter, who is now seven, comes to photo shoots and helps out with the other children. “The shoots are very child friendly and have a homely feel,” she says. Being involved has opened her daughter’s eyes to different creative roles. In August she has been invited to give a talk with her daughter at an event in Denmark. “It is the first time she will hear me say how her words have transformed my way of thinking,” says Selma.
She is clearly extremely passionate about what she does. “I love it so much because I know what the results are. That emotion drives me,” she says, adding that she is happy to see how advertising has changed over the last three years and become more inclusive.
Selma has taken great risks for the business, selling her house and car and is still trying to ensure that it has a sustainable future. “It is important to me to see how far I can take the business. I feel I have one shot to do something meaningful and change how children see each other. I need to go for it. The worst that could happen is that I have to get another full-time job,” she says.
In addition to the risks and daily work of keeping the business going, Selma also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, relating to a knife attack that happened to her over 20 years ago. She feels her PTSD has helped with the business as she often doesn’t sleep so gets a lot of administrative work done in the night.
She is keen to raise awareness about mental health issues and describes her PTSD as her “creative superpower”. “My more aspirational, motivational side comes from the PTSD,” she says, adding that building the business has also been like a form of therapy for her. “I have seen the business grow into something very beautiful,” she says, “like a tapestry.”
*Picture credit: Josimar Senior