As CEO of your own company you learn every day. This is certainly the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur... Another rewarding aspect is that of building long lasting and like-minded connections and partnerships. I see creativity as a social phenomenon where other people's ideas, especially when different, enrich you and help you create.
25 April 2020
What sparked your interest to study Drama at Queen Mary and why did you choose Queen Mary in particular? I grew up in Milan, Italy, and remember the first time I visited London and realised that theatre is a very large industry here compared to Milan. I’ve always liked acting but I knew that as a career, I would have liked to work in administration or production rather than being on stage. London was one of the best places in the world to study theatre. When I applied to Queen Mary, its Drama degree was rated first in the UK. I chose it for its excellence and as Queen Mary is one of the few universities in London with a campus. Moving from living with my family to living on my own in a new country, it felt like a smoother transition.
Besides from your Drama degree, what else did you take away from your Queen Mary experience? Queen Mary was a whole new reality for me. Outside my course, I made many connections through joining and running societies and studying at the library - friendships that really opened up my mind in terms of joining forces with people who have different academic and cultural backgrounds to create together. Queen Mary's internationalism was definitely my favourite aspect of the University. I made friends from all over the world and that together with the cultural studies I was doing, really opened up my horizons. Two great experiences I had were related to running new projects within the university. One of my first arts management experiences was creating the art collective The Naked Astronauts with a group of friends from Aerospace Engineering and Business, people who are still beloved friends of mine. Another empowering and extremely enjoyable part of my university experience was being part of the committee of the first Queen Mary Fashion Society events as Artistic Director - alongside President Kajal Kumar - and being able to coach new students. On a side note I am pleased to say the fashion society is still running!
Can you explain a little bit more about The Naked Astronauts? The Naked Astronauts was a fun creative project that I worked on with Ashley Johnson, Zachariah Micah, Julia and Amalie Moe and other fellow friends from Queen Mary. We created video and photo content that told the story of our world seen from the eyes of an outsider, an astronaut landed on Earth for the first time. We organised whole days of work in different areas of London. The Naked Astronauts was our first professional experience creating content and managing a team of creatives. For me, it was the first experience in arts management and it helped me realise that I wanted to head towards that professional direction.
What advice would you give to students moving from another country to study and live in London? I was very excited to move to London but the first few months were challenging. I couldn’t understand the different accents other students had and I was hoping to find a big supportive set of friends from the very beginning, however, it took a couple of months to surround myself with a lovely bunch of people. In the first few months though, it is normal to feel quite lonely and displaced. I think joining societies is a great way to meet people. During my first few months living in London, I used to jump on the tube and go to central London in my free time, instead of exploring Queen Mary’s neighbourhood, as I didn’t know much about the area I was living in and I was more familiar with some central touristy parts. Instead, I really recommend students explore their local neighbourhoods and read about local cafes, businesses and social activities available. I think getting to know your neighbourhood really helps you feel part of a community. Volunteering is also a great activity for students who have some free time and want to learn a new discipline. I started volunteering at the Little Angel Theatre and I met plenty of like-minded people, most of them locals of different age-groups, Maria - pensioner of Newington Green who came to a puppeteering workshop I volunteered at - and Veronica, at the time mum of one girl, now of three. Knowing people of different ages helped me create a family/community feeling. I am still very good friends with both of them!
Can you describe your career path since graduating, the path that has led you to co-found your creative babysitting start-up, ToddlerTunez? After graduating from Queen Mary I went to King's College to study Arts and Cultural Management. Although it was a full time masters, I was at the same time doing an internship at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, as my interest for the visual arts had been growing during my drama degree doing lots of performance art projects. The internship became a job and that year at King's I was very busy! During my course I had the chance to collaborate with Dash Arts writing my dissertation about their programme Eutopia. At the end of my MA I took the position as Theatre Manager at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, a beautiful fringe theatre in Highgate. There I was doing the admin, digital marketing, box office website and finances. Whilst working at the Gatehouse I also did the accounts for Arts for Dementia. It is while I was at the Gatehouse that Lea suggested I join as co-founder to help her develop and grow ToddlerTunez. I moved to English Touring Opera to learn more about operations working more on finances and office administration. All these jobs have taught me a lot and led me to develop the skills and confidence I have been using at Toddlertunez. Mostly, it was spending the little free time I had working on Toddlertunez that made me realise that I should pursue this full time. Lea and I have been part of the accelerator Strategy Insight Lab at Cass Business School and working towards pitching to investors was probably what encouraged Lea and I to really push ToddlerTunez and make it a viable business rather than a side project. For me specifically, it was working on the finances and business plan that made me visualise the future of the company.
How would you describe your company for those who have never heard of it? Toddlertunez is a creative babysitting company. We offer two services in one - babysitting and creative sessions. All our sitters are creative professionals - we have musicians, actors, mask makers, puppeteers, and so on. We aim to help families find a trusted babysitter who delivers activities that are tailored to the family's requirements, including art forms and languages. Sitters can follow and support children in their music homework or support their preparation towards music and drama exams. For younger children, we use a multidisciplinary approach. With Toddlertunez, families can rest assured that their children's time spent with babysitters is time well spent that will contribute towards the child's development rather than time spent in front of the TV.
To me it felt like an exciting creative project as starting a business is something I had always wanted to do. Both lea and I had been babysitting during university and had been using our creativity throughout and realised we could make Toddlertunez the first company to offer a structured and smart service, drawing on an underemployed talent pool - creative professionals. It quickly became clear that similar services were lacking and I became very motivated to fill the gap in the market and spread the word about a service we believe solves two problems in one. That of parents finding the best babysitter for their children at a convenient price but with a creative aspect to it, and that of unemployed creative professionals, always looking for new jobs.
You have said elsewhere (SED blog) that “ToddlerTunez holds sustainability and diversity close to its heart” – how do you embed these values into your company and your work? This is one of the most exciting parts of building your own company, you can really shape it to follow your own principles. By diversity we mean diversity of culture, art forms and approaches. Although we have our own method for training our sitters, ToddlerTunez aims at understanding families’ requirements and embarking on a journey that is enriching for families, sitters and ourselves as we can all learn from different approaches and interests. We encourage our sitters to use all their creative skills rather than be too rigid. As far as sustainability is concerned, I am personally trying to live a zero-waste life and encourage our sitters to use their creativity in the most sustainable way as possible. This means using kitchen pantry items as materials, so that children can for example eat homemade playdough by mistake as it is only made of flour, water, salt and food colouring. We also believe that we don’t need expensive equipment when starting a child’s creative journey. In order to waste less and encourage creativity, we like re-purposing materials found at home and in nature and giving them new life.
Can you touch on the rewards and challenges of your role as an entrepreneur and joint CEO of your own company? As CEO of your own company you learn every day. This is certainly the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur: being able to learn anything and apply it to your own business. Another very rewarding aspect is that of building long lasting and like-minded connections and partnerships. I see creativity as a social phenomenon where other people's ideas, especially when different, enrich you and help you create. The funny thing is that usually the meetings or deadlines you worry about, are actually quite easy to deal with as you will have obviously prepared for them. Problem and issue pop up all the time, it is how we deal with them that makes this journey interesting. Having a co-founder makes all situations that little bit better. Lea and I work really well together and usually when one of us is stuck in a situation, the other will help brainstorm a way out.
At the heart of ToddlerTunez is creativity, what do you think the link is between creativity and development? Research shows that arts and creativity help develop fine motor, speech and communication skills to name only a few, and are fundamental in the development of every child. Other skills like mindfulness, concentration and emotional intelligence also develop when a child is exposed to creativity from an early age. Children and especially the younger ones are blank canvases that can internalise any practice as their own. Creativity and play are often associated with children. Encouraging this tendency in children rather than suppressing it when school time comes, can help the child in his/her development of the previously described skills, that will turn out incredibly useful for the whole duration of his or her life. Concentration, communication and emotional intelligence for example are skills valued in the workplace as well. Instead of opposing school and work with play and creativity, at Toddlertunez we believe that they complement each other.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? My Drama degree gave me a wide cultural education and exposed me to the contemporary cultural discourse, rather than solely giving me a specific training in theatre. At the same time, it really encouraged my creativity, especially with two practical projects every year. Queen Mary gave me confidence in my learning and understanding capabilities, mostly as my course had a very strong academic side and because I also attended lectures on different courses and found them accessible. This combined with work experience is probably what made me understand that in the career world everything is possible. For Toddlertunez, Lea and I had to learn and are still learning everything about taxes, hiring, insurance and all sorts of policies and contracts. Queen Mary gave me a solid foundation in research and understanding of complex texts and cultural issues that turn out useful in everyday practice.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Pursue what you like. It's never too late to study something like business, but after you have started a career, it's much harder to turn to something that is only a passion and pursue it seriously. When leaving university the best thing I did for myself was follow my passions and although many people tell you it's hard to find a job in certain sectors, if you work hard and put passion in what you do, you will find your way through. This doesn't mean it's an effortless process, but I doubt any career start is, so everything is more bearable when you like it!
Do you have a favourite spot on campus? If so, where is it and why? It has to be Library Square. I spent most days at the library - not only to study but also to meet friends. A little anecdote is that on my first year at Queen Mary I lived on campus and I did not have a sofa in Creed Court. I realised that my favourite way to read books was sitting on a sofa, so I used to go to the library to read in the evenings, as it was so close to my halls... You can call me nerd!
What are your plans for the future? At the moment I am going to fully focus on Toddlertunez for a while. This is an exciting time for Lea and I as we are growing as a company and I want to work hard for its best possible development. Having said that, my mind is always racing and I am already thinking of some art and sustainability related projects for the future.
Last question! Complete the sentence, If I wasn’t a CEO of my own start-up company, I would be… An astronaut! As that's always been a dream of mine, probably as much as being an entrepreneur and definitely from a younger age!
*In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, at ToddlerTunez we have moved all of our services online: in-person creative babysitting now comprises one-to-one digital sessions tailored entirely to the child and parent’s needs and preferences. We have also taken the decision to lower our prices in support of all families, whilst ensuring continued employment for our amazing creative professionals.