Susan Gafsen studied Law at Queen Mary College in London and then went on to practice corporate law at firms including Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May. After a brief stint in consultancy, Gafsen undertook an MBA and, 15 months later, decided to start Pep & Lekker.
Taking inspiration from her son, Gafsen wanted to produce healthy vegan snacks that support good gut health. The first part of the company name, Pep, is taken from the popular saying ‘pep in your step’ and represents the energy the snacks provide through fibre, protein, and nutrients. Lekker is South African slang for tasty, which Gafsen believes is lacking in many healthy snacks currently on the market.
You were a lawyer before you decided to change careers. Do you feel that your previous profession prepared you for food entrepreneurship?
“The answer to that question is yes and no. Many of the skills have been transferable, such as professionalism, hard work, responsiveness [and] also, technical skills such as contract drafting and negotiation skills. Every discussion with a supplier or manufacturer involves some degree of negotiation.
“However, I cannot underestimate the challenge of going into a completely different sector for the first time and the level of risk. This is something that [wasn’t] natural to me and doesn't feel comfortable to me with my legal background. My MBA after I left the [legal world] helped me to plug the gap with business skills, and it also helped me to think more like a businessperson. It has definitely been a complete change to my way of thinking.”
Your son is the inspiration behind your company Pep & Lekker. What led you to create healthy vegan snacks specifically?
“I found that when searching for vegan foods, many […] that you buy are processed and full of sugar, fat, and artificial ingredients and it's difficult to get the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and proteins in a healthy way. It's not difficult if you love cooking and are creative, but if you're looking for convenience it’s much more challenging.
“When I wanted to come up with a business idea, that was the obvious problem that I was facing. I started to read [the] back of packs and was really shocked that there was egg and milk in so many products where I just didn't expect there to be. I [also] didn't understand half of the ingredients, so that was really the motivation behind it. There's no point in producing a product that nobody wants to buy because they think it just tastes awful. The challenge is to create something healthy that isn't loaded with sugar and salt, that is the inspiration behind [the business].”
What advice would you give to women who want to start a business but are unsure of how to successfully balance home and work life?
“My advice would be to start with a co-founder but, if you can't, then you should ensure that you've got a mentor or somebody that can support you. It's a difficult, lonely road and you do need support. If you don't have good help at home for your kids, then you've got to be realistic about what can be achieved.
“Yes, some businesses do succeed in a very short time and there can be pressure to do this because people can steal your ideas, but that requires a lot of money, time, and even a spot of good luck. It’s very important to carve out time for you. It's going to be stressful, so do whatever you need to manage that, whether it's meditation, mindfulness, yoga, walking, something that allows you just to switch off.
“Finally, whatever you expect it to cost, it will cost you a lot more, so make sure you can afford it and don't put yourself under too much financial pressure because this can add stress and make home life very challenging.”
What challenges have you faced as a female founder and how have you overcome them?
“Well, it's a shocking fact that women-built businesses represent a tiny percentage of VC-backed businesses [and] 80% of 11 to 18 year-olds can't name a single female founder. There are 30% fewer female entrepreneurs in the UK compared to the US, and only 3% of British businesses are female funded now. I suspect the reasons for that [are] a combination of the challenges that I've previously mentioned and, for me, I didn't have the courage until my 50s to give up my well-paid job in the city. I can understand that it's a very hard thing just to give up work to start your own business.
“For me, the challenges that I have faced are being an older woman. It's difficult for me to be super cool on Instagram and Tik Tok and to be authentic. I’ve overcome the challenges that I've had by resilience. I think that one of the benefits about being older is that you develop an inner strength that you don't have when you're younger and you learn not to sweat the small stuff.
“I have built my story about one of female empowerment, which many women can relate to as women are starting businesses as they get older. I'm also tapping into the menopause market as, having experienced the menopause myself, I have eaten my snacks throughout that journey. I can authentically speak about the values they've had for me. I also support other female-led businesses and have joined Buy Women Built to support that movement.”