Entrepreneur Bianca Miller Talks Tights & Business with TBB
Bianca Miller, was already a successful businesswoman when she appeared on our screens in series 10 of BBC’s The Apprentice in 2014. As founder of personal branding company, The Be Group Miller decided to take a her idea of launching a nude hosiery line for all skin tones, for a chance to win investment and backing from Lord Sugar.
Although she made it to the finals of The Apprentice, Miller didn’t win, but that hasn’t stopped her. Since then her success has seen her speaking at business and youth events, being nominated for and winning quite a few awards including Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 at the Precious Awards. Now her hosiery idea is a reality, Bianca Miller London is available across the UK and in America. We caught up with this inspirational business woman to find out how she did it…
When did you set up the Be Group?
In 2012 when I was around 22/23. Previously I was working for Accenture, a Management consultancy in the city as their HR advisor. Working with a group of 1500 graduates, I noticed that they were academically very good but lacked personal attributes, like how to dress, network and communicate so a senior manager asked me to help them. That was my first taste of personal branding. My parents always taught me to dress to represent who you are; communicating and networking were normal in my household but it was never described as branding. I always wanted to have my own business, so after 2 years I left Accenture and moved to Financial Recruitment. But it wasn’t the industry I wanted to be in, the environment was very aggressive but what I took from that experience was that I enjoyed working with candidates on their CVs and interview skills, people of all ages needed help in their personal branding, and future thinking about their careers, not just graduates, so The Be group was born.
The Be Group was very successful early on, why did you apply for The Apprentice?
I’d always been a fan of the show, but I had gone past the age where I thought I could definitely be on it and do better than the people I was watching. Since the age of 18 when out looking for tights I couldn’t understand why no one had bothered to make a hosiery brand that would cater to more women. I’m a fair skinned black woman and I couldn’t get the right colour, so I knew my friends and colleagues were surely struggling. My husband suggested I should go on the show with that idea as a way of getting investment, support and potentially a business partner with retail experience and exposure. I was reluctant at first, because people go on there and their dreams are shattered, they are fired, or ridiculed and it could be very negative to my business or personal brand, but in the end I thought life is a challenge and it would be better to just go for it.
What has life been like for you since then? Not everyone is lucky enough to achieve sustainable success.
It’s been difficult, people assume that once the programme ends everyone starts helping or supporting and that’s not the reality. You finish the show and you make of it what you can. There isn’t a lot of media around unless you’re stumbling out of bars & clubs and that’s never my intention I’m a business woman first and foremost and that is what I wanted to portray. I had emails from people who were interested, wanted to invest, then had meetings with them, often several meetings but it never resulted in any investment. I had Pretty Polly approach me and wanted to do the tights for me as long as I gave them the whole concept and only retain 7% profits which was ridiculous. They’ve now gone into administration… At one point I thought, do I need to do this? I already had one business, did I need the extra stress? But so many people emailed, tweeted or even stopped me in the streets saying ‘Are you the tights lady from The Apprentice? Where are the tights? Are you still bringing them out?’
I decided to go forward without the investment at a smaller scale. Thankfully I found a manufacturer in the UK willing to go on the journey with me and do smaller initial orders. At first it was a nightmare going to some of the department stores. I had some of the biggest ones saying to me Bianca we don’t really get it, all white women want to look tanned and do black women even wear tights? I would be quite emotional at times because I’m putting all this time and energy in just to have buyers telling me that we don’t buy tights. In the end I decided to just do it anyway without the department stores, just launch online. A lot of brands are doing better online than in stores, so in November 2015 I launched Bianca Miller London, named after myself because people kept calling me the tights lady!
Sales were good from the outset, eventually we went into Selfridges in January 2016. Unfortunately it didn’t work out with them. They committed to 12 weeks in-store and only did five. they redeveloped and only took their Top 3 brands which have all been around for centuries. They did this without any notice or communication which at the time was frustrating for me. Sometimes you have to go through these hurdles to learn. So then we went to TopShop, they thought it was a great idea and they tried it in a couple of stores. In September we started rolling out in Topshop in London; Oxford Street, Canary Wharf and Knightsbridge. Edinburgh, Birmingham and in the US two stores in New York and one in Chicago. It actually reached America before Edinburgh which is strange but I’m so glad that I’ve been given a chance to get that international exposure and see if the brand can really stand the test of time, so far we’ve had great feedback.
Was it challenging to approach big stores like Selfridges and TopShop? Did it take a long time to get your brand onto the shelves?
It did. With Selfridges I contacted them, got the meeting and they said they’d never heard of me or The Apprentice. So it was a great triumph to get the deal, they loved the idea as they had diverse customers. At the time I thought, this is amazing, Selfridges had been voted the best department store in the world. But I think they felt that my product was not luxury enough for their demographic, they sell Wolford’s which retail at £20 – £30 a pair. The fact we even got in the door for a new brand was brilliant. TopShop, thought this is a great idea, but said ‘well it’s summer now’. I had to wait 4 months for it to go into stores. I never like to count my chickens before they are hatched so I wouldn’t announce it before I knew it was definitely going in. But that’s always the way, you can never be certain and for some that’s the exciting part, terrifying but exciting.
On The Apprentice people complained about your initial price point in the final, did you change the price because of the feedback you received after the show?
Yes, absolutely. They’re down to £15 now. I think the criticism was a bit harsh because there are brands out there who sell at the initial price I had chosen and have multi-million pound turnovers, but I listened to the feedback and I was trying to create a brand that was about diversity and accessible to all women so I needed to bring the price down, I wanted it to be a product that most women could buy. The other issue was quality, I could’ve made it cheaper but then I would have had poor quality tights. I had to find middle ground.
Are there any plans to bring out a high end range?
I believe we should be able to buy from black owned brands at all ends of the spectrum. I had people tell me they would be happy to pay more and then there are others who say they only shop at Primark or Poundland. It’s difficult to be a middle market brand which is kind of MAC in its approach. We’re 8 colours for all skin tones from English Rose all the way to darker African skin tones, we’re trying to have mass appeal from the colours perspective but the price is not necessarily mass appeal, its a tough combination. I hope I’ve got it right. In time I would actually hope to do a cheaper range. A lot of our customers are buying 3/4 pairs a month so they can wear them everyday for work. But there is a side of me that thinks people should be able to go to the local supermarket and get the right colours. I still find it frustrating that the average white lady can go into a Boots and pick up a pair of nude tights on any day, but anyone else would have go to TopShop or wait for an online delivery or even carry a spare. In time I’d love to bring out a black label brand which are super expensive but for now we are heading in the other direction I think.
After the Apprentice stories came out in various media outlets that claimed Bianca had stolen the idea from a former friend. Personally I found the stories to be ludicrous because I’ve had the idea myself to bring out a nude range for black women and I’d bet that there are thousands of us who have had the same idea borne out of the struggle to find our correct shade of nude on the high street, but none of us have followed through unlike Bianca…
The media jumped on that story without even trying to speak to me about it. I didn’t have the support to tell my side of the story which was, that yes, we both had the idea and when I spoke to her I was actually happy that someone was going to do it, so I didn’t need to. I’m not the first black woman calling for more diverse nude hosiery on the market. Loads of women told me they’ve thought of it too. I’m not claiming to be the first person to have the idea at all. I felt it was very unfair for her to come out and say that. I had the most trouble when I worked in the city because that was what was expected of you in terms of aesthetic, I had the idea back then and I hadn’t even met her yet. It’s sad because unfortunately the media would love to portray that we’re always arguing and not supportive of each other and this type of story just perpetuates that myth. I encourage anyone who has the idea to go ahead and do it, competition is not a negative thing.
Business is in your blood, your parents are both entrepreneurs. Do you think this is a career path we should be encouraging our children to aspire to?
My mother was a self employed make up artist and my dad is an entrepreneur. I grew up in a household of people who were very entrepreneurial. It is a great skill, there are so many things you learn, from communications to marketing, sales, customer relations, but while these are all great attributes to have I don’t think everyone can become an entrepreneur. Most companies now want people to be entrepreneurs within the organisation. Being innovative, coming up with new concepts etc. So those skills will always be important. But looking at the way employment is going and looking at the millennial generation, most people are growing up in a world where they creating their own businesses organically.
An Instagram page or YouTube channel, there are more ways to make a business that didn’t exist before and the world is changing so quickly jobs that are available now will not be around in 10 years. A Social Media Manager position was not around even 5 years ago. People need to be adaptable and ready to create their own career whether that means being employed or being a freelancer or contractor or starting their own business. The fundamental skills are what most people should try to obtain. It’s very important to teach kids the basics of business and money management, these are life long skills they should have regardless if they go into a job or start a business.
People say it’s harder for black entrepreneurs to get funding for their business ideas, do you think there is any truth in that statement?
Yes I do. The reality is it’s hard getting funding full stop. Even with crowdfunding sites. Banks are not as good at giving people loans anymore. Statistically it’s proven that women are more inclined to pay loans back, but they are finding it difficult to get approved in the first place. Banks are not really playing fair when giving out financial support and unfortunately I think race also comes into it. I’m not sure why, or how long it’ll take for that to change. I don’t know if it’s because there are not enough black entrepreneurs sticking their head above the parapet when they are successful, revealing how they did it therefore becoming that role model. It may be that we don’t have a good reputation when it comes to business? We are not strong enough advocates of each other in that regards. With the Black Lives Matter movement there has been this push towards people ‘buying black’. I’ve seen that happening now but if you look at other communities in the UK, they are actively supportive financially and it doesn’t happen for us as much as it should. It’s sad, but it’s time for a change and I think we’re seeing that happening now.
Whats next for for Bianca Miller the brand?
I’m publishing a book next year called ‘Self-Made: A Definitive Guide to Start Up Success’. Written by myself and my husband who is also an entrepreneur. It gives you a step by step guide on how to start a business written from the perspective of two entrepreneurs who never had the Lord Sugar experience or someone saying ‘here’s 20k go and start a business’. Every venture I’ve had I’ve started with very little money, and a lot of passion and made it work. Similarly my husband grew up on council estate in Edgware and now has a number of businesses, he started his first one with a credit card. We’re hoping it helps more people along their journey. People think it’s obvious or they’ll know what to do but it isn’t. We are both lucky because we have business degrees which gives you a good understanding.
If Lord Sugar offered you investment now would you take it?
Yes I would! Since the show he’s been quite supportive, he always responds to my emails. The business would’ve been much more successful if I’d had that amount of investment. Doing this on a budget has not been easy. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a lot of people talking about it, buying it and additional promo by them posting pictures wearing the hosiery, but if I had £250k the marketing and advertising would’ve been better. We would be in every magazine and many billboards. What would business be like now? With that money and Lord Sugar’s contacts and experience you can’t even doubt that. But there is something really nice about building a business from the ground up and organically and gaining supporters. I will continue on my journey of building and moving into other areas of hosiery and underwear.
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Interview by Marianne Miles / @MissMMiles for The British Blacklist