“My advice to female entrepreneurs? Act like the barriers aren’t there.”

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“My advice to female entrepreneurs? Act like the barriers aren’t there.”

Natalia Welch is the founder of Pura Panela, selling the Colombian sugar alternative panela around the world. She is also the co-founder of Loro Crisps

Why did you start your business? 

In a way I have always been an entrepreneur. When I was growing up in Colombia, my parents had a shop and I would help out and serve customers. I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit in me. So when I finished my English degree in Sheffield, I knew I didn’t want to do a boring job. I wanted to do something that would have an impact back home in Colombia.  

The idea for the business came to me on a visit to the Eden Project in Cornwall. There was a showcase for panela — the national sugar of Colombia. It was a lightbulb moment.  

Panela is an amazing product and I grew up with it. And as 350,000 families in Colombia are supported by panela production, I knew that introducing it to the rest of the world would help people back home. I said to my husband, “I’m going to bring panela to the UK.” 

How has your business grown since then? 

I started marketing my product to small shops. Now we sell panela to wholefood markets, coffee shops and to customers on Amazon.  

We also import shipping containers of panela and distribute it to food manufacturers, including ice cream companies and biscuit makers. But the fastest growing part of the business is supplying panela to rum distilleries. It’s very good for the fermentation process. 

What are your three top tips to set up your own business? 

1. Validate your ideas first  

Starting a business is an amazing thing to do, but you don't want to spend lots of money developing something and then realise it's not what the market wants. Listen to feedback and validate your idea before you start spending money. 

2. Never give up  

Resilience is very important. You have to keep going for long enough. A lot of people didn’t believe in my idea at first, but are now buying it.  

3. Prepare to work hard 

Don't think being an entrepreneur is the easy option compared to getting a job. It's harder, but more rewarding. 

What are the three biggest challenges you have faced? 

1. Communicating the product 

Getting people to understand what panela is and introducing it to the market is a big challenge. 

2. Funding 

Not having a lot of money behind me has been difficult, but also a blessing — because if you have a lot you may not spend it as wisely. 

3. Going it alone 

Being a solo entrepreneur is challenging. You make all the decisions. I try to bounce ideas off people and also find it very important to take time off without feeling guilty — it helps your decision-making. 

Is there a piece of advice you wish you had received? 

Keep your accounts in order from the beginning! At the start this seems like a boring job that can wait, but if you leave it until your first tax assessment it can be a bit of a nightmare. 

Also, follow your instinct. Early on I worked with the wrong suppliers, and even though something didn’t feel quite right I pressed ahead because I was excited that things were happening. I lost money and it wasn’t nice. Use your head, but make sure you listen to your feelings too. 

Do you have any advice for other female entrepreneurs? 

It can be challenging. When I go to networking events with my husband, people often talk to him assuming he is the owner and he has to tell them that I am. But I use it to my advantage — when I’m in a room full of men in suits people remember me because I stand out. 
My advice to young women is: act like the barriers aren't there. It’s important to acknowledge barriers to overcome them, but when you're on your journey, go about it as if they weren't there. 

How is Sheffield as a city to start a business in? 

It’s a brilliant city to start a business. There’s so much support available. There are two universities, Business Sheffield, and the Enterprise Team at Sheffield Hallam is a fantastic resource too. 

Ever since I’ve moved here I’ve always felt at home. You feel part of the community, and everyone helps each other out. People who have achieved a lot are happy to speak to people who are just starting up. You don’t get that everywhere. 

Business enterprise support available:

ScaleUp 360
Is an exciting programme providing tailored support to entrepreneurs, start-ups, and trading businesses with the ambition and potential to scale up their activity.

Sheffield Hallam Enterprise Team 
Supports students and graduates to develop the key enterprising and entrepreneurial skills when starting a business venture. 

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