Hello, I’m Cynthia Nkiruka Stroud.
I run a multi award winning cake shop and have won several entrepreneurial awards myself. I was honoured by the Queen in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list. My company makes 300-400 wedding cakes a year. But it didn’t start like that.
Born the last child of 3 in a failing marriage in Nigeria, I was named Nkiruka (translation: The future will be better), my surname was Egwuatu (translation: Fearless). Cynthia was my name given at Baptism, because.. actually I just realised I don’t know why the name Cynthia was chosen. I’ll ask my mum in a minute.
I was raised by my grandparents for the first 10 years. For the first 10 years of my life, everyone called me Tom’s shadow. Tom was my grandfather. My grandfather was a bleeding heart barrister. As in, he was a brilliant barrister, and he couldn’t turn away a poor person with an honest case. So he spent a lot of his time defending these people who couldn’t afford anyone else who would charge the going rate. And my granddad always won. His clients just paid him with whatever they could afford. So I grew up thinking it was normal for a lawyer to be paid with chickens, goats, yams, plantains or whatever other random farm produce they had.
It wasn’t till my own divorce case in England that I learned that barristers did indeed like money… but that’s another story for another time.
When I was 10 my granddad died and I went to live with my mum in Lagos. Up till then, I’d only spent the odd holiday with mum. That was where I grew up quick. My mum was a single mum trying to raise her kids in a country where being a single mum makes you villain, a whore and a disgrace. Luckily for my mum, my Grandad didn’t take this view, he had studied at Lincoln’s Inn, England and knew there was a world out there that wasn’t so close-minded. He welcomed my mum being brave enough to step out. Unfortunately for my mum, the rest of Nigeria didn’t see it that way. So from her, I learnt to persist, not to ask permission to go for what I wanted, to shrug off those who want to label you.
I was a quick learner, so quick in fact, that I was at university by the age of 15 studying microbiology. I didn’t want to study microbiology. I wanted to study medicine. Well, my family wanted me to study medicine. Whist in England people might ask you what you want to be in future and you have careers advisors who help guide that, in Nigeria, it’s a bit different. Here’s how it goes: In Nigeria, your parents or grandparents start telling you from an early age: you are going to be a doctor/accountant/lawyer. In Africa, those are the only acceptable aspirations and you generally went along with that. So, I was all set to be the doctor I was told to be, because apparently, my family had too many lawyers, but no doctors. But aged 15, when I wrote the general entrance exam for universities (called JAMB if you want to know), I was a few marks short of the cut off for medicine but well above the marks for microbiology. My mum faced with the prospect of a teenager who had just discovered boys, hanging around at home for a whole year with nothing to do, took the sensible option and shoved me straight into Microbiology with the plan being that I’d work extra hard, get good grades and switch over after one year.
My first year of university bypassed any of my senses and went straight to the part of my brain where freedom registered. Wow!!! I could do whatever I wanted?? Well, I could do whatever I wanted till 5:30pm? You see, my mum didn’t believe in that freedom stuff. At 5:30pm promptly, she sent the driver to pick me up. I was the only person at University of Lagos who had a driver turn up to pick them up everyday for a whole year. The shame…
Anyway I digress. After the first year of Microbiology, I decided I didn’t want to switch to Medicine, seeing as that involved cutting up dead people at some point. I researched every option to do medicine without coming in contact with the dead and having found none, aged 16, I decided to stay on the microbiology path. I don’t like dead people and I was still young enough to be scared of dead people and I certainly didn’t want to touch dead people. No thanks.
After 3 more years of microbiology I had to go and do a 2 week work experience course in Microbiology. This is a bad idea people, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Doing the work experience itself is a good idea, absolutely. But waiting till 4 years into a course to get some practical experience of the course, is a shitty thing to do. Because 2 days into my tw0-week work experience in a microbiology lab (which I did at Whipps cross hospital, Leytonstone by the way – more on that later), I realised, I *hated* microbiology. I hated dealing with real actual samples and culturing stuff and growing germs etc. etc. I hated it all. I hated the smells of the place, the dubious looking stuff that grew in the dishes. But I went back to Lagos and finished the last year, I couldn’t exactly jack in the last 4 years of my life… So my degree took nearly 5 years because of a lecturers ‘ strike halfway through and I graduated with a second class upper division degree with honours.
I had the certificate saying I had this decree, and aged 20, I was confused and terrified as I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I sure as anything didn’t want to do the expected and obediently get married and pop out 4/5 kids and be some rich mans wife.
You see, when I was 17, I’d gone on my first ever trip out of Nigeria to visit my aunt in England. And I fell in love instantly. This was a strange country where the sun fell at 4pm (I arrived in winter), everywhere felt permanently air-conditioned (Nigeria is hot and humid and we were too poor to afford constant air-conditioning), women and even young girls wore nice clothes and went to work driving their own cars? And even the rain was nice! It wasn’t the sort of rain we had in Nigeria which threatened to rip your clothes if you stepped down in it, and brought down trees and ruined roads? The rain here felt gentle. I loved England.
After that, I went back every holiday and chance I could. I saved up all my pocket money and after the second trip, I started going to Primark, buying all the cheap and cheerful stuff I could find, filling my suitcase, selling the items upon my return to Nigeria, and keeping the profits to fund the next trip. I was addicted to England.
Once University was over, I stayed at home for a while and came up with a plan that could solve the problem of my future. Someone had mentioned something called an MBA to me. It was a fast track qualification in business. Clearly, I had a knack for selling. Clearly I didn’t want to be a Microbiologist. So I started researching universities to study MBA in England. One small snag: all of them wanted the student to be at least 25 years old. I was 21.
All of them wanted the student to have a minimum of 2 years work experience. I had absolutely no work experience beyond the disastrous 2 weeks in a lab. I searched and searched and searched and then I stumbled across University of Buckingham whose only criteria were that the student should have a 4.0 GPA in your Bachelors degree and that they could afford to pay the fees. I had 50% of their criteria. I had a 4.2 GPA. Praise the Lord! Undeterred by the fact that tuition for the one-year course was a nose-bleed inducing £12,000, I applied and got accepted. This was both foolish and brave. The average annual Nigerian salary then amounted to £800. I had saved up £2000 from the Primark clothes sales I was doing, and my mum could scrape together another £2,500 of her entire savings so I had enough for the first term but absolutely no idea where the net 2 terms fees would come from.
Undeterred I went to Buckingham anyway and started my course in January 2004. By a series of miracles, calling in every favour possible and some not so pleasant events, I funded my way through the course and graduated with a distinction in the class of 2005.
By then, my mind was made up, I wanted to be in England. I wanted to work in England for at least a year before returning to Nigeria and marrying the suitor who was laid out for me. Some nice young doctor apparently. I’d never met the guy but I knew I wasn’t ready for that yet. My mum, always ready to buck the trend, didn’t force me either. If anything, deep down I think she wanted me to stay in England.
So, after the graduation ceremony in February 2005, armed with a student visa that would expire in 8 months’ time, I started applying for jobs. In the meantime, I worked for the student union, living in subsidised accommodation on campus.
The job applications went like this: I did have a fantastic qualification. I didn’t have a work permit. I didn’t have any work experience. It was a stream of relentless rejections. I got invited to 9 interviews in total and the nice interview man or woman would smile, shake my hand, then sit across from me firing questions at me and it would all be going perceptively well. Then they would ask or I would raise, that I didn’t have a work permit and that the company would have to apply for one on my behalf and then the temperature in the room wold drop several degrees, papers would be shifted around and invariably, the interviewer would appear to run out of questions.
I wrote 113 applications within 3 months before I got my first job offer. It was a company looking for a marketing developer with a science background. It was an application written almost specifically for me. I went to this interview, they didn’t appear phased by the lack of work permit and said they could apply for one for me. They offered me the job 3 days later. The position was in Hertford. So I packed up my things, and moved to a nearby town called Ware.
I worked at my first job for a year, grateful to have a job, I worked hard, but truth be told, my heart wasn’t in it after the first 6 months. I didn’t like the job much after that and because I didn’t know anyone or have any friends in the area, I started getting home and baking just to keep myself company. I would bring these in to work and my colleagues would rave about it. In fact, my first proper order for a fruit cake came from one of my colleagues.
I soon tired of finding ways to make densitometers and rheometers sound sexy. They were big, ugly, important but to a non-scientist, boring machinery. But I stayed on for another 6 months before I handed in my resignation letter to my boss. You see I didn’t like the job anymore, but I loved the people (well they were the only people I knew in the area) and I loved my boss. I learned everything I know about how to be a boss from my boss- Paul Jiggens. He was and still is the most considerate boss I have ever met. He knew how to get the best from people just by treating them like people. Till this date, I try to put myself in my employees’ shoes and treat them the way Paul treated me. Paul still says to this date that he has never known anyone cry as hard as I did when I went in to hand in my resignation letter.
So, I left and went to work for a different company within the marketing department where I was enticed by the prospect of creating exciting marketing campaigns and let’s face it, a bigger salary. But this job was even more depressing than the last. Not only was I spending my time checking whether the pantone colour being used matched the exact specification of our logo, I was now reporting to a chain of commands whilst doing it. In my last job I only reported to Paul. And Paul was cool. This was not cool. Through it all, I baked some more. So again, I left, and went to work for another company, lured by the prospect of being the marketing communications manager sending out information to a company of 18,000 employees. I liked the sound of this… What followed was a lesson in the sort of politics and skulduggery that takes place when several companies are merged or taken over. No one was going to let me write anything till it had been re-written, approved, restructured and censored to within an inch of its life by 7 or 8 different department heads who all wanted to make sure the newsletter showed them off to their advantage till the piece I had submitted bore absolutely no resemblance to the piece that got disseminated in the end.
It was crap. But I was being paid handsomely for it so I shut it and put up. Mainly because at that point I was pregnant with my son William.
You see the year before; I had lost a baby. This was the most harrowing experience of my life; but it led to an amazing relationship with God. So when I was pregnant again, I knew there was no way on earth I’d send this baby off to a day-care after maternity was over.
When I went on maternity leave, I left Premier Foods and armed with my savings, I decided to set up a cake making business. During my first foray into making and selling cakes, I made undecorated Christmas loaf cakes which I sold for £15 each. I made 20 and each one sold out. I was so pleased with myself. But by January I was confused about one fact: I didn’t have any money. I then did the maths and it turned out that each of those loaves I had sold for £15 actually cost me £17 to make. So I had actually lost money on each of those cakes. I learned a lesson there.
Soon, I got asked to make more cakes and I mustered up courage and signed myself up for a wedding fayre. My target was to make 1 wedding cake a month. I was trying to make £500 a month because that is exactly how much I calculated that I would be left with if I went back to work and placed my son in a nursery. My then husband gave me till the end of maternity leave to make it work…
The rest is history.
And one day, I will tell you in full what exactly happened but…