Leah Johansson
Leah Johansson of Azalea Academy

Hi Leah, tell us a bit about your business
Azalea Academy is a business and IT training provider with a unique difference. We provide training for disabled and disadvantaged women in the North East to help them overcome barriers to employment. We work with women from a range of backgrounds including homelessness, domestic abuse and unemployment as well as ex-offenders.

Our unique approach combines quality training with hands-on support to help learners overcome anything that’s standing in their way to fulfilling their potential. This includes childcare support, flexible work placements, mentorships and career advice. We offer 180 online courses, training in-person, via seminars and at workshops in community venues and at our premises at the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC) in Sunderland.

What problems does your business solve?
Eight out of ten of the most in-demand jobs in the UK are in IT. Yet women are massively under-represented in this area. This is a huge shame because IT is a perfect field for women as it provides flexibility as well as incredible opportunities for career growth.

I spent almost a decade working in corporate IT in London and I was often the only woman in my team. I became really passionate about encouraging equality and diversity in the sector. I looked into the real reasons that are preventing many women from working in IT and realised that the barriers are similar for women in all walks of life. Lack of confidence and direction, caring responsibilities and financial concerns are among the common issues facing many women who would otherwise be interested in training for work in the sector.

I realised that if I could combine quality, flexible training with practical support to overcome these real-life issues I could make a real difference to the lives of women and their families. I designed programmes to train women with no technical experience to launch a professional career in IT, as well as to help women already in the sector to gain additional skills and qualifications through e-learning.

How has the Coronavirus crisis impacted on your work?
Right now, we are focused on supporting people to get online safely. The impact of not being able to use the internet at the moment cannot be underestimated. Even before the Coronavirus hit, people without access to the internet were at risk of being socially excluded. Now, it’s more important than ever so people can access services and have the knowledge they need to avoid falling foul of online criminals and data scams.

Grant funding we received from BT is being channelled into providing crucial basic digital training in shelters. We want to make sure as many people as possible have the knowledge and confidence to use the internet to access vital health, financial and Government services. Our aim is to help vulnerable and isolated people to connect with family and friends at this really challenging time. The scheme is also helping train women who are fleeing domestic violence – often with their children – to ensure schooling and vital support is provided at this especially challenging and complicated time. In response to ongoing efforts to support our community during COVID-19.

Why did you become an entrepreneur? What was your drive?
A few years ago, I became terribly ill with an autoimmune disease and I spent a long time in hospital. I had serious issues with mobility and pain and when I eventually started feeling well again, I found I had a new perspective on life. Being free from pain felt like heaven and I valued everything differently. The experience made me want to do more with my life and to make sure it had meaning. I had a new compassion for people who were going through tough things.

When I was made redundant suddenly during my pregnancy with my third child, it was like being shaken awake. I realised this was my opportunity to really make a change to my family’s life and to my career. I had been struggling with a terrible work/life balance, working like a donkey to deliver training globally and working across time zones was really wearing me down. I dreamed of leaving behind London to live by the sea and wanted to help more women get into careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and this was my chance. My partner agreed to follow my dream with me and after doing some research on locations we came across the beautiful beaches of South Shields so we packed our bags!

Why have you chosen to set up Azalea Academy as a social enterprise and how is this different from a ‘normal’ business?  
This business is about much more to me than just making a living. It’s about changing lives and achieving personal fulfilment. The social enterprise model is the perfect fit for that because it values purpose over profit. It means I can attract different kinds of funding from organisations that support my objectives and means I don’t have to compromise on what I deliver.

Who has helped you to get where you are today?
Kevin Marquis, who is a specialist in social enterprise at the North East BIC, supported me from day one. He actually visited me at home as I did not have childcare and helped me to register and set up as a Community Interest Company. This was amazing and really encouraging.

This is exactly the kind of flexible support parents need to overcome the practical issues that often needlessly hold them back. I’ve now joined a social innovation programme at the BIC called Innovate for Good, which is designed to accelerate the success of businesses that are set up to make positive changes in the community. This programme has helped me focus my energies and allowed me to meet amazing friends who can support and inspire each other. This has been such a success, one of them is now a director of my business!

My coach Lilla Preston and the team have all been so helpful in different ways  – helping me with my strategy to launch the business successfully. And I can’t forget to mention my family and friends who have really believed in me and cheered me on. This support has helped me push on when times are tough.

What’s your mantra for business? What guides your decisions?
My mantra is to never ever, ever give up! When tired, rest, don’t quit! When I see the people I am helping and their success it gives me motivation and fulfilment to push on. My decisions are guided by staying true to myself and really focusing on the bigger picture.

At these early stages it is so crucial to focus on the why and I try my best to not stress over things. When I get carried away and start working on overdrive, I try to refocus and take a breather. I concentrate on just being a mam – which is a big task on its own! My family always comes first and that is another reason why I love self employment. I can really be there for my family without long hours and days on end away from my three children and partner. I do end up working either super early or super late but it is definitely worth it.

How can we find out more about you?
Take a look at our website for more information and ways to get in touch. We’re always open to new ideas and opportunities.

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