Emily Gill, co-founder of Levra

Photo of Emily Gill

In a short career that already boasts accomplishments such as certified coach and qualified personal trainer – not to mention Oxford MBA graduate and lawyer, having spent more than 7 years working as a banking and finance lawyer at international law firm, Clifford Chance – Emily’s professional experience is impressively wide-reaching. She is also Chair of the Governing Board at Harris Clapham Sixth Form, a Lambeth-based school helping children from underprivileged backgrounds to excel, as well as being a member of the Legal Counsel for charity, Magic Breakfast, whose work in providing free breakfasts to schools in disadvantaged areas across the UK ensures children are ready to tackle the day of learning ahead of them. At the heart of her involvement in this varied array of both professional and voluntary experience, is undoubtedly Emily’s commitment to helping others flourish, on both a professional and personal level.

Testament to this is the dedication she gives to the coaching practise she launched in January 2021 (Emily Gill Coaching) which focuses on helping people identify the barriers that are holding them back in life and instigating change. This involves co-active one-to-one coaching sessions which are scheduled around the individual’s own timetable and tailored to their specific professional, personal or health goals – or all three. In early 2023, Emily, with co-founder, Bartek Ogonowski, launched Levra “an immersive, gamified solution to training young professionals,” particularly in the legal industry. An innovation which aims to modernise traditional training programmes, Levra uses VR technology to simulate real, workplace scenarios, aiming to develop key interpersonal skills in effective communication, active listening and improve self-confidence. Latin for ‘to uplift’ or ‘to grow,’ this next business venture remains true to Emily’s dedication to helping others on their journey of professional and personal development.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Levra Logo

I graduated in BSc Political Science and Government at the University of Bristol, before doing a law conversion course at the University of Law. From there, I specialised in banking and finance law at Clifford Chance for just over 7 years, but I think I realised deep down, my heart wasn’t in it. On a 3-month sabbatical in 2019, just before the Pandemic hit, I knew I needed to step back and think what’s next, and simultaneously started training to become a life coach. I knew that working a couple of extra years in my current job was necessary before I took the leap to do something new (and I think I also needed the time to build up the courage). I completed a Master’s in Business Administration at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford [where she graduated with Distinction, in September of 2022]. During my studies there, I took part in The Entrepreneurship Project, an initiative which invited a five-student cohort to come up with a business proposition.

This is where my co-founder and I came up with the idea for Levra. I realised that many new undergraduates were lacking the interpersonal skills needed to succeed in situations where they might be faced with a challenging client or need to deliver on an important pitch. These are the kinds of scenarios simulated through the Virtual Reality technology Levra utilises. We’re partnering with law firms and schools – institutions which can sometimes have quite a traditional, even antiquated approach to teaching – to train young people how to communicate effectively with both colleagues and clients. It’s effective because it’s an immersive and engaging way of teaching the next generation of professionals – within the safe space of the VR world.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
In some ways, the term ‘entrepreneur’ is a funny one. Media representations always portray a white male in the boardroom when, in fact, I believe being an entrepreneur comes down to your attitude. I’ve always been an optimist, very much a ‘glass half-full’ kind of person. Having belief in yourself and your idea, and standing by it, is by far the most important thing. If you maintain that positive mindset, the mindset of “the dreamer”, you will make it happen for yourself. You have to be your own source of encouragement – because it’s that determination that will spur you on in the face of all of the ‘no’-s.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
In general, I think the idea of ‘a lightbulb moment’ is quite a flawed notion, really. It misguides, even intimidates, people into thinking there will be one definitive moment where everything clicks, when actually, starting your own business takes hard work – as well as a lot of self-belief. In my case, I think starting my own coaching business gave me the confidence to go full-time with Levra. Confidence is something that is built over time. I wanted my business to be people-oriented; to combine the technical skills I have with my creativity. The business ventures I set out on have combined the practical skills I’ve acquired, with my vision to help others to develop their own skill set in order to excel.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Grit. You have to be willing to work hard, that’s for sure. Especially when you’re first starting out, you’re going to face a lot of failure, you’ll be knocked down time and time again. The passion you have for your project and that resilience to the knocks will be the driving force to keep picking yourself back up again. Resilience also comes in the form of being adaptable. Every time an investor puts down the phone, you can’t be put off. It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate, reassess and improve your approach – an opportunity to learn. I also think that realising the importance of asking for help is key. Oftentimes the status quo is not to show any sign of vulnerability. There’s the sense – and it’s imbedded into the very fabric of our society – that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Having been coached myself, I now realise that that collaborative approach to assessing your own ideas, with the support of the network around you, is precisely how those ideas become bigger and better and continue to grow.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I think, for me, the small wins are definitely the most rewarding – receiving positive feedback from clients; being able to meet and interact with people at talks and demonstrations etc. Building meaningful relationships between you, as the founder, and your clients is central to our business’ ethical incentive. People are at the core of why we’re developing the kind of programmes we are, so it’s nice to see, first-hand, that our work has been well-received. It’s funny really, I guess I mainly talk of ‘small wins’ because we haven’t had any ‘big wins,’ yet. But I’m hopeful for the year ahead, for sure.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
‘Failures’ are still generally seen as negatives or weaknesses. I believe that we should try to reframe this idea of ‘messing up’ and turn it into an opportunity to learn – always. It’s something I’m still grappling with, as a self-professed perfectionist. It can be hard not to punish yourself for slipping up – something I learnt while working as a trainee lawyer. If I were to even so much as send an email with a spelling mistake in it, I’d stress about it for the rest of the day. But we’re only human. It’s a case of normalising mistakes. It all comes back to resilience and adaptability. Admitting and accepting that you could have gone about something differently but using that to improve your future approach. I’m also learning when to step away from work and take time off. That can be a real challenge when you’re working for yourself, but it’s so necessary for your well-being.

How have you funded your ideas?
We have only gone full-time at Levra over the past few months, so before that it was mainly a case of working hard and saving up. Receiving our first grant of £1,000 from an investor, gave us the confidence to do it. We’ve also been fundraising and applying for other grant schemes, particularly orientated towards new start-ups and women entrepreneurs. We’re awaiting a £200,000 grant from the Innovate UK scheme, for example, and other funding has come from Angel Investors etc. It’s really been a case of using the fact that you’re a start-up to your advantage. Make the most of the grant schemes on offer. Embrace the ‘hustle mindset.’ We have applied for a few grants and other investment opportunities for next year, so it really feels like the cogs are starting to turn now.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The Oxford ecosystem is definitely catered towards those looking to start out on their own business venture. The network surrounding you offers the chance to connect to others in a similar field, to seek out advice and find inspiration from one another. The entrepreneurship department at the Saïd Business School, where I completed my Master’s, is incredibly dedicated to helping entrepreneurs who are just starting out. Oxford’s proximity to London is also helpful, as that’s where a large percentage of my clients are based.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
As obvious as it sounds, the internet is a good place to start. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to start your own business twenty/thirty years ago. Nowadays, we’ve got so many resources at our fingertips, so make the most of them, particularly when it comes to looking, specifically, for local grants, grants for start-up businesses, grants for women entrepreneurs etc. I’d also say it just comes back to asking for help. Get in contact with others who have also set up their own companies and ask them for guidance on where to start. Start conversations about your ideas with family, friends, even out and about, and see where it leads. Even if you only learn one thing from each person, that one thing is propelling you a step closer to bringing your idea to life.

Any last words of advice?
I read a great book called: ‘When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want,’ by Mike Lewis. What it taught me was that there will never be ‘the perfect opportunity’ to do something. There is only the hard-work we put in to make it happen and the plans we can put into place to reduce the risk of failure. But this fear that keeps us from going for what we want, this fear of change is inconducive to success. You have to think: ‘If not you, then who? If not now, then when?’