Michelle Miles, founder of Sustainable Wedding Alliance

Photo of Michelle Miles

Michelle is the founder of the Sustainable Wedding Alliance, a purpose driven organisation driving sustainable change in the wedding industry. The Alliance works with businesses of all sizes to help them to understand sustainability, what it means for them, and how they can develop long term sustainable strategies, that will benefit people, profit and planet. Businesses that become members are assessed on their sustainability processes and procedures, and receive a personalised action plan to make appropriate changes. Membership also includes accreditation, for those businesses who achieve a minimum standard.

Michelle is passionate about creating a more sustainable wedding industry, through education, support and accreditation.

In addition, Michelle also runs Fusion Events and Weddings, with a focus on organising environmentally conscious events and weddings for clients across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I left school at 16 and went on to work in PR in London, where I worked my way up and had my first experience of events, which I quickly realised was my passion. I moved to Reading a year later and begun my career as an Event Manager. After working client side, I decided I wanted to experience event management from agency side, so moved on to a new position, working my way up. I later became the Head of Events for an agency in north Oxford, but ended up leaving to start my own business and my family.

The first ten years in the career were a struggle due to not having any formal qualifications. I got turned down for some exciting roles at big companies by recruitment agencies because I wasn’t educated to their standard. Being young would also mean they’d reject me regardless of my past experience. Unfortunately, unlike now, I wasn’t given the opportunity to prove myself. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that people started to see me differently. I spent years wanting these big agencies and companies to employee me because of my knowledge and experience, but I later realised working for them wouldn’t have made me happy. I was bought up in a family of business owners and was an entrepreneur at heart.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Sustainable Wedding Alliance Logo

To me, it about freedom; I come from a family of entrepreneurs, I grew up exposed to my family’s own business model. It gave my parents the freedom to spend time with their family.

When I joined the world of work I was shocked by how regimented working routines were, and I struggled because of it. Being at a desk for a certain time and duration just didn’t make sense to me. To really flourish I needed freedom, and it’s one of the factors that helped me to make the jump into starting my own business, working hours that suit me – I’m a night owl and am at my best in the evenings. I truly believe that entrepreneurship is part of our core, if you have it in you, you’ll know, and like me, it might take time to trust that gut feeling but taking the leap is the best thing I’ve ever done. I love running my business but more recently have felt that I wanted to do more. Being successful to me isn’t just about money, it’s about leaving a legacy and driving change, which is exactly what my second business is all about.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Having worked in the weddings and events industry over the last two decades I’ve seen first-hand the volume of waste and throwaway culture we have developed. It was around six years ago that I started working with clients to help them to reduce waste and think more about environmentally friendly options. As years have gone by clients have become much more aware, and now proactively search for conscious businesses to work with. At the same time, I could see parts of the events industry, festivals in particular, making fantastic progress in getting clients, and event attendees really engaged with their environmentally messaging.

It was at the end of 2019, when I’d had one of my busiest years to date that I started playing around with the idea of forming a community of like-minded suppliers specifically for the wedding industry. I knew that businesses wanted to be more sustainable, but the majority just didn’t know where to start. So, after the pandemic arrived in the UK, and wedding and events were shut down, I got to work, developing what is now known as the Sustainable Wedding Alliance.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly – patience. Take time; I’m the kind of person who wants everything now, which was evident to me when I set up my first business. But good things will come and you have to put the work in when something doesn’t. My approach to my new business is quite different – I take time to learn as I go.

Secondly – don’t stop learning. I’ve known people who have carried on running their business as they always have regardless of the ways that the times have changed, and they failed because of it. I’m very conscious that I’m not an expert, and that I don’t know everything, so I set aside time each month to keep learning – reading articles and researching new strategies and idea. I’ve also recently started working towards a qualification in sustainability for both my business and personal development.

Finally, multi-tasking. As an entrepreneur, you have to do a lot of jobs simultaneously. Which I found, coming from an employed situation, a big change. You’re used to doing your job during fixed hours then then leaving to go home. When you have your own business, you’ll be doing ten things at the same time, and you need to be able to have them all in your head at once. Personally, I’m a very visual learner – so I’m a big fan of lists and colours. It helps me to see in front of me what needs to be done and allows me to prioritise.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love working with other small businesses, which I get to do for the Sustainable Wedding Alliance. I find that small businesses have a mutual understanding and respect for each other, and what we do. There is also an aspect of cross-promotion and of maintaining a strong community, I know that amongst my peers I can be vulnerable and open. I think working as part of a strong and active community is really important.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
My parents taught me everything I know. My grandad owned a green grocer’s, my aunt has her own shops, my parents have a hardware store and my sister had her own shoe shop – I was taught from an early age about budgeting, running a business and maintaining the all-important work-family balance.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I spoke a lot to my parents about my new business. They are very different entrepreneurs from me. My business is very purpose-driven and it’s in a sector that they’re not familiar with, so talking about what it is and what it does, and having it be constantly challenged really helped.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Finally launching! After working on it for nearly a year and then not being able to launch due to the pandemic, there were points when I wondered if we’d ever be able to launch. There was so much involved in bringing the Sustainable Wedding Alliance into the mainstream. Which is completely different to my first business which was set up to meet client demand.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

Not listening to my peers, and trying to run before I could walk. I used to find it difficult and felt as though I had failed if I needed to ask for help. In an industry where you’re not sure where your next event is coming from, I would often take on more than I could deliver and ended up regularly working 90-hour weeks in the height of the season, which just isn’t sustainable.

I now work with people and flex as my year expands and contracts. I also work with other small business that can help my business grow, for example I knew that for my new business I needed a PR agency for the launch.

I didn’t lose clients because of my mistakes, but I lost time that I could have spent with my family. I missed some special moments with my children, and I promised myself I will never do that again.

How have you funded your ideas?
When I decided to start my second business I knew that I wanted it to be self-funded, so spent 2020 raising the capital I needed to launch and fund my first full year trading.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
No, not at this stage.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxfordshire is a wonderful place and has a unique feel to it, and although I’m no longer based in Oxford, many of my clients are. I feel privileged to be part of such a vibrant and inclusive entrepreneurial community.

The relationships I have built with local Oxfordshire businesses have been invaluable, meeting whether in person or virtually at least once a month to share ideas and knowledge, and support one another has been even more important throughout 2020, and allowed me to maintain a connection with businesses across the region.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
It would depend on their business and the industry they’re in. I would tell them to go speak to someone who has at least five years of experience in their sector, and to get a mentor or business coach – there are many places that offer them for free. Internship schemes are great, both to be part of, allowing you to grow your skills and knowledge, and also to find people to help develop your business. As a purpose-driven business it’s also really important to us to be able to offer advice and support to new entrepreneurs as well.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Going back over 10 years I worked for an events agency, and one of my largest clients was a luxury car brand. When organising a high-profile car launch, in which the cars could be driven by the invited guests. Member of my freelance team onsite, which was majority male, were also invited to drive the cars, however I received no such invitation, instead they suggested that I could sit in the back. Although it wasn’t a regular occurrence it was certainly something that I saw happen across the industry.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
I would advise them to find a mentor that has gone through the same situations they’re in. Also, if you would like to start a family at some point, find someone who has one. My mentor was a very professional woman, but she never had any children, so her life was completely different from mine. She couldn’t sympathise with a lot of the issues I was facing, and the boundaries that you need to set for yourself when you have a family. It is really important to be able to connect with whomever you choose as a mentor. Startup schemes can also be great – find out what support is available in your area.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Better?! I happen to see the University’s enterprising team from a different light as I have worked with them in the past. I see what they offer and I am blown away by it – for example this project is so very important; from what I’ve seen, they already do a lot and I know that if something needs to happen, they’ll make sure it does.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Nowadays people have the empowerment to shout out about misogyny. I was mentoring a wedding planner who worked with high-end clients and I kept telling her that she has to call it out if it happens to her because if you let it go, they won’t know that what they did was wrong. If it is intentional, call them out. If they don’t know that what they’re saying is hurtful, educate them and they’ll hopefully stop. But women need to feel empowered to say when something is wrong, we need to be confident in what we do. If you call them out and it happens again, walk away – it’s not worth it. You might lose business as a result, but is that business that you really want? You need to have that integrity to walk away. I believe women are getting better at it, but we need to continue to support and educate each other and the younger generations.

Any last words of advice?
Take it slow; make a plan, know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, then build in a contingency. Unexpected stuff will happen and with a plan in place you’ll be able to react in the right way.