Penelope Sacorafou is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of guided walks company Fox & Squirrel. While reading about London’s fashion history she stumbled on the Lady’s Guide Association of the 1880s. This group offered employment opportunities for newly educated but unemployed middle class women by training them as professional shoppers and urban guides. These Lady Guides would navigate tourists and shoppers through modern London. Each promised to make the commercial city intelligible and pleasurable.
Inspired by the Lady’s Guide Association and the challenges women faced in the Victorian era, Penelope set up Fox and Squirrel to map London’s creative terrain. Within a year of operation Fox & Squirrel were awarded best guided walks by The Guardian and their clients include Grosvenor Estates, Seven Dials and The Connaught alongside everyone from corporate banks to curious individuals.
We asked Penelope what’s involved in running a business when you’re a cultural entrepreneur.
OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
PS: One of the things I love so much about my work is that I don’t have an average day. Every day is different and full of surprises. My week varies between conducting guided walks and researching new walking routes. These offer two polar opposite work environments. One is incredibly social and rather performative, while the other takes place in solitude.
Every now and then I am invited to write history articles or city guides. I love writing especially about history. I never thought I would be able to do so, even though I completed several history degrees. (Penelope holds degrees in History from The University of Edinburgh, History of Art from the American University of Paris and an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London.) I suppose I created this opportunity by launching Fox & Squirrel.
Getting back to the question, I would say that my days all start roughly the same way- I always check my business bank balance. This is a tip I learned from designer Markus Lupfer, who gave a talk where he advised that one should always be aware of how much he or she has in the bank. Having experienced financial catastrophe himself once in the past he advocated that daily fiscal reality checks are mandatory for any successful business.
OM: Have you always wanted to be a cultural entrepreneur?
PS: I use the term cultural entrepreneur rather fluidly. In effect, I set up a tours company that gives creative walks for the culturally curious. The repertoire of walks include fashion, luxury, art, street photography and food walks. As I work within these subject areas I thought cultural entrepreneur was more fitting than entrepreneur, a term that conjures up images of financial might!
As a cultural entrepreneur I wear many hats. Some days I am a guide, others a history researcher and consultant and others just the owner of a small business dealing with day to day management.
I don’t think I ever envisioned that I would have so many different job responsibilities but I did always know I wanted to be my own boss and be involved with history. I have always been passionate about reading, writing and researching history. So whatever I was going to do it would have to entail those elements
OM: What was the hardest part about becoming a cultural entrepreneur ?
PS: When you are setting up your own business it can be very lonely. I found that hard. So many times I said I was going to pack it in but something kept holding me there. The hardest thing is finding the energy to maintain confidence and determination in what you are doing and belief that it will definitely lead you to where you want to get to.
OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
PS: Being your own boss is definitely a perk. The best thing is that it never ceases to be interesting. I am constantly researching new areas, always exploring new walking routes and meeting new people.
OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
PS: Yes, but not always negatively. I think I have got away with things because I am a woman just as much as I have experienced hindrances due to my gender.
There is a fabulous development in this area and that is women coming together. I have been very lucky in the past years to have surrounded myself with determined, ambitious and motivated women. I have met many others along the way and we have all helped each other. I think women do collaboration and partnership much better than men do, and it is in these instances that I feel I have benefited from being a woman in business.
OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
PS: Love your job, that is where you will spend most of your life. My granddad told me that.
OM: And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become a cultural entrepreneur ?
PS: The best business models are partnerships- find them, make them, foster them.
OM: What qualifications and experience do you need?
PS: None, you just need passion and determination.
When I graduated I had my eyes set on a career in Sotheby’s or any of the other auction houses. The recession came along and all my plans were forcefully torn up… I think that taught me that qualifications mean nothing. It is determination and passion that gets you places.
OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
PS: Talking negatively about someone.
OM: What does success mean to you?
PS: To ensure I always have the space to keep improving- never to stagnate.
OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
PS: That day care, nursery fees etc become tax deductible – as more and more of us enter into a freelance economy child care becomes more and more of an issue.
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Go on a walk with Fox and Squirrel here.
Photo by Duncan Nicholls