Female-founded British businesses taking on the Gulf

There are more women entrepreneurs today then ever before — and many are looking to expand operations in the GCC

Tracy Kemp of Vintage Playing Cards. Photo: Vintage Playing Cards
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Tracy Kemp has visited the UAE twice to expand sales of her vintage playing card upcycling business overseas, part of a growing band of female entrepreneurs hoping to capitalise on opportunities in the region.

And what is more, all the buyers she dealt with there were also women.

She is one of a number of female businesswomen in the UK who hope to expand their sales to the Middle East, buoyed by ongoing trade talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Cambridge Satchel Company, Creative Nature Superfoods and Ms Kemp's Vintage Playing Cards are among the women-driven companies already exporting their products to the UAE and beyond.

They are among a growing number of British companies not just run, but founded, by women.

Last year, there were 145,200 new female-founded businesses, up 37 per cent from 56,200 in 2018, according to data from the Rose Review Progress Report 2022 on female entrepreneurship.

Many of these businesses are based in the UK, exporting their products abroad to destinations like the Gulf region with the help of the British government.

A second round of trade talks between the UK and Gulf Co-operation Council nations took place recently.

A UK-GCC trade deal is expected to add at least £1.6 billion ($1.94 billion) a year to the UK economy and contribute £600 million or more to UK workers’ annual wages.

Westminster says a deal will bring “substantial economic opportunity” for the UK and mark “a significant moment” in the country’s relationship with the GCC.

The UK’s trading relationship with the six GCC nations is currently worth about £45bn a year. The region is the largest trading partner for the UK after the US, EU and China.

Trade focuses heavily on fossil fuels and weapons.

But there are other sectors also hoping to make the most of any new deal.

Vintage Playing Cards. Photo: Vintage Playing Cards

From kitchen businesses to international exporters

Founded in 2008 in Cambridge by Julie Deane and her mother Freda Thomas, Cambridge Satchel Company has been exporting its British-made leather satchels, bags and accessories to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE for more than a decade.

The Department for International Trade said it worked with the company to help it attend the 2022 annual Retail Summit, “a global event for executives across retail to come together and make new connections, and has also supported the company with increasing brand awareness and building their wholesale opportunities in markets in the UAE.”

Creative Nature Superfoods is another British female-owned business receiving support to expand its sales to the GCC. Owner and chief executive Julianne Ponan took over Creative Nature in 2012 at the age of 22, and led the company from heavy losses to profits in just three years, winning a wide range of awards along the way.

It already exports to Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and has a contract with the largest supermarket chain in the Middle East — Carrefour — as well as its products featured in Grandiose, Lulus, Spinneys and Waitrose shops in the region, too. It will exhibit at Gulfood 2023 in Dubai, the largest annual food and beverage trade show in the world, in a bid to attract more customers in the region.

Creative Nature Superfoods has received varied support from the Department for International Trade, including match-funding grants — which help businesses mitigate risks when entering new overseas markets.

Vintage Playing Cards, which upcycles retro playing cards to make frames, greeting cards and gifts, is already selling its products in the UAE and is in talks with other companies there through its links with the Department for International Trade.

The department also issued it with a match-funded grant from the Internationalisation Fund — which aims to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK to grow in new international markets.

“We first started across Europe and I started talking to Virgin Megastore in the UAE,” founder Tracy Kemp said.

“I went to the retail summit with the Department of Trade earlier this year and I met quite a few people there. I am in talks with quite a few people about getting vintage playing cards out in the UAE.

“We are in talks with Liwa Trading, which has a variety of shops across the UAE. I have been talking to Spinneys as well. But this is very early stages.

“It’s only the UAE so far and I think the people I am speaking to have retail outlets across the whole of the area.”

Total UK-GCC trade was worth £44.1 billion in the year to March. The bloc’s demand for international products and services is expected to grow rapidly to £800bn per year by 2035, a 35 per cent increase, representing important new opportunities for UK businesses.

Vintage Playing Cards: the UK upcycling company taking on the Gulf

Ms Kemp had no intention of starting a business when she found a pack of vintage playing cards at a car boot sale that sparked the idea for her enterprise.

They were unusual and beautiful, with a deco design on the back.

But one of the cards was missing, rendering the pack seemingly useless.

“I was thinking about what you could do with these beautiful designs, because it seemed such a waste to throw them away,” said Ms Kemp, who was working in marketing at the time.

“I ended up making some greeting cards with them and started selling them. I went round to a few local shops and they seemed to like them.”

It turned out to be the start of her company Vintage Playing Cards, which upcycles retro playing cards to make frames, greeting cards and gifts.

In addition to a strong UK customer base, the company now also exports its products abroad, including to the UAE, thanks to support from the Department for International Trade’s Internationalisation Fund.

“I got a few orders in and I bit the bullet and did a trade fair. That was amazing. We got orders in from Selfridges, from Liberty, Fortnum & Mason,” said Ms Kemp, who lives in Walthamstow in north-east London.

She soon realised she could buy playing cards in volume, which opened up other product options.

“That’s when it really took off. You need to sell quite a lot of greeting cards [to make money] but if you’re doing home-wear products it makes everything a lot more viable.

“We do a lot of personalised phrases for people, which is actually really nice.

All products are original, handmade and use genuine vintage playing cards. Photo: Vintage Playing Cards

“Recently someone’s nan had passed away and she had a certain phrase. They had done a big frame for the family. So you have a lot of nice stories like that. But also we have our stock items we sell across the world. Things like 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious', which is probably our bestseller.”

The business, which she founded in Suffolk in 2010, became such a success, and she left her full-time position to concentrate on the company full time.

All of the products the company makes are original, handmade and use genuine vintage playing cards.

Sourcing them takes time. She started out buying them on sites such as eBay. But people who do house clearances now come directly to her.

“Because basically if a card is missing no one else is going to buy it,” she said.

Updated: December 21, 2022, 3:01 PM