Maggie Chen, co-founder of Girls in Charge

Photo of Maggie Chen

Maggie is a serial entrepreneur who graduated from Oxford University in summer 2019 from her Master’s degree in French Literature. She runs two companies – one in dancewear/fashion (Shut Up & Dance) and one in education (OxICE), and is visiting lecturer and lead programme developer at the business school of the University of Chester. She has discussed the issues facing female entrepreneurs at parliament and is a strong advocate for getting more women into entrepreneurship. She co-founded the Girls in Charge Initiative which aims to encourage young women to ‘try out’ entrepreneurship through games. Her work with the initiative received several awards whilst at Oxford, and has been featured in the latest national entrepreneurship report – ‘Future Founder’ (2019).

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A combination of opportunity, circumstance and curiosity propelled me into the world of entrepreneurship.

I had just started my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester in languages. My journey into entrepreneurship was quite accidental. Like all freshers, I joined 30 different societies, and one of them was Ballroom & Latin Dancing. I wanted to buy a pair of dance shoes for the class. Turns out, dance shoes were expensive in the UK – around £80 per pair. Where could I find some more affordable dance shoes? Well, in China. So I searched through Chinese manufacturers online and found a pair of shoes for £40 (including international shipping). Problem solved. But that wasn’t enough for me. What if I wanted a second pair? £40 is still quite expensive. So I made friends with the seller, in case I wanted to buy more and get a discount. Two months later, she became my business partner and we set up Shut Up & Dance.

The most important deciding factor, however, was the simple phrase: ‘hmm I wonder…’. I wondered how far I could take a business, what my capabilities were, and just to push the project to the limit and see where I got to. To be fair, I never thought I’d have 2 businesses and a non-profit by the time I finished university though.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Girls in Charge Logo

Chasing curiosities, and maybe making some money along the way. Entrepreneurship has to be first and foremost about curiosity, wanting to find out ‘what happens if…’

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I didn’t. I just thought my ideas would be fun things to try out, so I did. The early stage is mostly just talking to people, if they start pushing you for more details, beyond polite conversation, then it’s probably worth giving it a go.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Flexibility – because things will go wrong, so you need to be able to adapt and think on your feet.

Effective communication – because how else will you sell your vision to clients and manage your team well?

Spotting opportunities – ideas and products are constantly evolving, you need to be able to spot new opportunities and to do something about them. Otherwise you and your ideas will get left behind.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The flexibility and freedom – I can switch roles everyday, I can choose not to work, I can pursue the craziest of ideas just to see what happens. It’s great fun! Also, owning a shoe company, I have a great collection of shoes now.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Debbie Moore. She was the first woman to take her company, Pineapple, public. It’s a dance/fashion company as well!

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Her book was published in 1989, but so much has happened since then, so I would love to find out about her journey since then.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Trusting people too much and not being firm enough. One of my mentors used to tell me that I was too nice. This resulted in many delays in operations which cost time and money. That said, being nice to others did pay off and they helped me greatly. So the lesson learned here is to be firm when you have to be, but stay nice most of the time.

How have you funded your ideas?
I’m happy to say that Shut Up & Dance has stayed zero-investment since day one. We employ a made-to-order system where customers pay us first and then we make the item. This system allows us to cut the cost to the customer by over 50%, most of our shoes are £30 and under. Moreover, we are then able to offer a lot more choice than other brands, 2000 styles more to be exact.

OxICE is a more serious project and needed money up front to launch our first summer programme. That was self-funded. But the company now has investors.

Girls in Charge has been an interesting journey. We tried to partner up with an existing female business club to launch our initiative, but after passing me around to different people for 2 months, they refused. Out of frustration, my co-founder and I decided to self-fund, to see what happens if we put £100 into it. We launched in December 2018, and that £100 covered us for more than half a year, during which time we launched in 7 universities, our online cohort group consists of members from 12 universities, we were invited and paid to run our first corporate workshop and won 2 awards, so it all worked out in the end! Since then, the University of Chester has kindly funded various activities. We are now working towards raising more funding through corporate workshops and grants.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Yes, many. For Shut Up & Dance, pitching competitions and accelerator programmes have been really helpful. OxICE never needed to go through that process. For Girls in Charge, awards such as the Vice-Chancellor’s Social Impact Awards at Oxford have been great for boosting our reputation. But there are so many business-related competitions and awards out there, definitely take full advantage!

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
A lot of competitions, grants, and support are offered in Oxfordshire, but heavily tech and science focussed. I guess that’s good for the scientists out there, but not so good for French Literature students. Of course, there is still support available, you just have to look harder and talk to more people.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
Girls in Charge, of course! Our free student workshops will take you through the concepts of Body Language, Personal Branding, Business Branding, Pitching/Public Speaking, and Business Brainstorming. But in game format! So come along, have some fun, and pick up some entrepreneurial skills! We also have lots of online support in our Facebook cohort group (@girlsinchargeinitiative). But aside from that, there are so many resources in Oxford from student societies such as Oxford Entrepreneurs to university centres like Enterprising Oxford, Oxford University Innovation Centre, and the Foundry.

Any last words of advice?
Just keep an open mind and give things a go.