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Carina Lepore: 'I saw Lord Sugar's car and it was a sign'

Small Business Snippets

Release Date: 09/16/2021

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In this episode, Anna Jordan meets entrepreneur and The Apprentice 2019 winner, Carina Lepore.

We discuss the law of attraction and starting a business in a field that you're not familiar with.

This episode was brought to you in partnership with UPS and AAT.

You can also visit smallbusiness.co.uk for more on starting your own business

Remember to like us on Facebook @SmallBusinessExperts and follow us on Twitter @smallbusinessuk, all lower case. Don't forget to check out the video version of this episode and subscribe over on our YouTube channel!

Would you prefer to read the podcast interview instead?

Hello and welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk. I’m your host, Anna Jordan.

Today we have Carina Lepore – entrepreneur and the latest winner of The Apprentice back in 2019.

She’s considered the most successful candidate of all time, winning nine out of ten challenges and never appearing in the bottom two.  

Before she went on the show, Carina joined her dad to start a coffee shop business after his previous bakery burned down. Now Dough Artisan Bakehouse has two branches in London and has plans to take on Greggs.

We’ll be talking about the law of attraction and starting a business in an unfamiliar field. 

Anna: Hi Carina

Carina: Hello

Anna: How are you doing?

Carina: Yeah, good.

Anna: Hi, Carina, how you doing?

Carina: Hi, I'm good. You?

Anna: Yeah, I'm doing well. Enjoying this lovely heatwave after the thunderstorms yesterday.

Carina: I got caught in that!

Anna: Me too. Oh, I know. I know. And you think, is it just going to be sun, shower, sun, shower.

Carina: I know. It was awful.

Okay, so the first thing I want to ask you is a bit about before you joined your dad's bakery business. You had your first business when you were 18? Tell us a bit more about that.

Carina: Yes. So, I left school, left sixth form and I had been working for our small High Street shop, I suppose, and I was really just interested in the ways he ran the business. I would start to, at a very young age, say 14-15, I'd start to ask the right questions, just try and get involved with merchandising and his little takings book and where he would get stock from. I started to want to know more about the ways the business worked, really. So, I had that keen interest and drive at such a young age.

It's obviously A-Level result day [at time of recording] and we've been talking and the main thing I've just keep thinking and saying is that when you get them results, you just think, ‘Oh my God. Is this making or breaking my life?’ I remember that as well – and I remember I didn't get great grades, no, but I still had that entrepreneurial drive. So, I was going do something with that. That was more my route.  

I then went and opened up a shop and I did a shop, car-boot sales and a market – Wimbledon Market. What I would do is I would buy my stock. A lot what Lord Sugar says, and now I can say to him, ‘Smell what sells.’ I would pick top sellers and just bung them in my shops or whatever I had. That was me really. It was bold, it was brave. It was different. It was just something I wanted to do. I was just really excited by it. Yeah, I really enjoyed it.

Great stuff. What was your first business then? I believe you had a fashion store.

Carina: Yeah, it was a shop called Faze. And it was – well, it was a phase actually, because it didn't last too long. It was more of an ‘I wanted to do it – this is what I was going to do’. It was a sort of, what you would call now, I suppose, clothes that you see on Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo – just fashion clothes for young people. I also started to sell, this was crazy, I mean, spotting trends is key for any businessperson. I started to notice people would like, I don't know if you know, you're going to be like, ‘What a weirdo’, people used to wear, like, designer gold teeth. I remember the American fashion sites come in. I was like, ‘I'm going to source grills and sell them’. At the time I was so excited. I had this famous rapper come in, I was like, ‘Oh my God’. But that's what is exciting. Now 16 years on, it's the same sort of thing. You know, you smell sales, you spot a trend, you get a few influencers to put your stuff up. That's how the world is working.

So if you think you've got a great idea – and I keep touching on it, and it's my thing today – is I've really learned a lot about different routes coming out of school for A level students really I've learned loads about the qualification that AAT offer. It's an accountancy firm, and they offer this apprenticeship in accountancy. I imagine if I'd had that running alongside me working and wherever it be, whether I was at M&S or Vibe (at the time), but I would have had that in the bag as well. It would have just made me feel even more confident because I would have actually known a bit about real numbers back then. Knowing your numbers in business is just so key, so crucial. I've learned loads from Lord Sugar, he could just whip numbers up like this. Whereas, with someone like me, it takes a lot more. But if I'd had, for example, that qualification with AAT I would have been up on his level.

Yeah, absolutely. And I guess you've been learning as you're going along, and your dad will have had his own experience and his own business savvy. When you decided to pair up to start the Bakehouse, how did you weave your vision with his – and potentially his business partner’s? What kind of challenges did you have there? Especially as a family member, someone who was quite fragile at the time.

Carina: Yeah, it's been like a roller coaster. I'm even talking pre-pandemic, that's a whole different roller coaster. And so I think he just allowed me to run with everything, every element I just would run with and I don't know whether he just found this new confidence in me as a woman, maybe as a grown-up woman when I was 18. He was telling me, ‘Oh, what silly mistake, go and get a job.’ Whereas now, I was taking an even bigger risk, I was leaving a secure job at M&S with a good salary to then risk us having barely any takings, just to do something risky, but also as a passion of his and mine. And that's what I really wanted to do. I saw it as an opportunity. He was going through such a dark time, and I've never seen him go through anything like that in my life. I did take it as an opportunity for me to help him for once in our lives and give back to him.

It's worked very well, because he's got this creative flair. He can't talk, he can't relay information. If he was here now – oh, bless him. He's got this creative flair and anything to do with products and recipes, his personality just comes out in all his products and he's so fun. That's what customers love. But yeah, the business side definitely needed to take a different route, more of a structured route. That's where I think have helped him.

Such a huge part of that route has been appearing on The Apprentice. And I understand that you watched the previous series before you went on. What did it teach you before you went on?

Carina: Oh my God that show. It was between that and MasterChef, but I'm not a chef, so I was going to be one of them. I just loved The Apprentice and everything about it. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's the challenges, the team, Lord Sugar, the scary element, the adrenaline rush – I don't know. I used to always think it was one of them shows where you think, ‘Oh, I could have done that’ or ‘I would have made that’ and it's making the ideas. I just love everything about the show.  

I just did the application one night on my phone and then suddenly got through and then just kept getting through the application process and I thought, ‘Wow, this is for me, this is meant to be.’ That's when I suddenly switched into, ‘Now I need to win the show because this is want.’ I want Lord Sugar to be my business partner. ‘This is for me’ – that's what I kept thinking – ‘This is meant to be.’ That's all I kept thinking and then actually getting on there, getting the call that they want you in the house. It was just this surreal feeling, what an experience. I loved everything about it.

Just out of interest, how many steps are there in the application process?

It's as tough as the show. They set you up from day one. When you turn up [at the audition], there's obviously London, Manchester and one other place somewhere. There’s three application spots, I suppose. I went to the London one. So, it was over three days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I went on the Sunday. I remember I turned up and there was, like, suits everywhere. It was full of ‘Wolf-of-Wall-Street-type people’ as I called them. It was like everyone was boardroom ready with their briefcases and there were a couple of people like me, more down to earth. We were the minority, 100 per cent. I immediately thought, ‘Oh my God – I just rocked up.’

Then what they do is – it's very tough, and you learn straight away from that first task – they give you a number, I can't remember what I was, I’m thinking it was seven. Then you stand up in groups of ten or 20, whatever. You'd stand up on the line. You have to talk for 30 seconds, just talk. ‘Number seven – talk.’

Anna: About anything?

Carina: Yeah, anything. Some people tried to be funny, some people would go with the whole, ‘This is what I do.’ Then it was a bit X Factor style. They'd call your number – half of you would go one way, half the other. That's how the process was – you kept moving up levels. The more I started to move up, I was like, ‘Oh, I must be doing something right. I'm not going down the list, I'm going up.’ So you keep going up. Then I remember sneaking off. It got to 10pm and it's exactly how the show is, the days are long. They are so vigorous and they want to literally hone out the best people for this show that they keep you there. I’m ringing my sister going, ‘It's a school night you're going to have to put Lucas [Carina’s son] to bed because I'm still here.’ I didn't know what was happening. They could have kept me the whole night. Then you get to the next set of practice tasks and it's just so hard. I had to write a manifesto. I didn't know what that was. I was like, ‘What is this?’

Yeah, it’s a very challenging application process. But they obviously just want the best candidates. That's why they make it so hard. They need to set you up for how hard the show actually is. It's so hard. It's not for the weak. It’s so tough.

Anna: Yeah, it’s a tough 12 weeks.

I've read that you're a big believer in the law of attraction, and that it did play a part in you applying for The Apprentice in the first place. First of all, could you give us a bit of an explanation as to what the law of attraction is?

Carina: Yes. I'm a massive believer. I started, when I suddenly just had something clicking, I can't remember the day. But I remember doing my vision board. The vision board obviously plays a massive part. If you need any books, definitely start with The Secret. It gives you everything you need.

If you want to change your mindset – I used to struggle with anxiety and massively I still do. Try to breathe and think that everything is written and everything is for a reason and that it's about manifesting what you want and believing in what you want and achieving and getting your results, really.

I remember this one example. I think I told This Morning or something I was on with Ruth and Eamon. And I remember saying, I sat in my shop – August is always quiet. We're going through the same thing now. So, I remember it was an August month, and it must have been 2018, just before I applied for the show. I sat there and I saw the AMS 1 (Lord Sugar’s car). It was that car. It was like an entourage of three cars, I was like, ‘It’s Lord Sugar.’ I knew the car from the show. And I immediately saw it as a sign. This is meant to be my business partner. So that was all good. I then applied for the show in January and got on. It all happened quite quickly.

If you believe and if you really think this is [meant to be]. I remember, that was a sign. I'm now going to either meet Lord Sugar, or I had Karren Brady on my vision board. Again, pre-Apprentice, she was up there, just as I didn't know…

This is a thing with the law of attraction – you can put it out there, but you just you don't know where it's going to come in. You can't force it. It might just happen. Then it just happens that everything I have on that board was ticked off. It's crazy. I talk to my friends about it who are big believers. One of them is a big artist. He's really known in the world of music. He is just so successful with it. He has this vision board, he shows people what he puts on, he then takes it off a year later. It could take years, months, I don't know. But you'll slowly start to think that I'm actually getting everything I want out of life. That's what's so important. I could talk about it all day, I get so passionate about it. And I'm finding other people that really understand it and believe in that way of life.

I appreciate that a lot of it is based on positive psychology – visualisations, gratitude, that kind of thing. What would you say to people who are more sceptical and think it's a bit victim blaming in some ways? Maybe there's a sense that if somebody in a business example, say you're struggling with their business, they're maybe not manifesting in the right way. Perhaps it devalues the work that the individual does and says it's more from the universe rather than the actions that the individual has put towards achieving their goals? What kind of things would you say to them?

Carina: Yeah, people think differently to me, which is fine. But ultimately, you get the results that you are willing to put in. I'm not saying you’ve got to go and say this is the thing. This is what the books teach you. I might want a mansion, I haven't got a mansion yet, but as long as I keep believing that I'm going to have a mansion, then maybe hopefully one day, we'll just put it out there, just give it away and then stop thinking about it.

But with regards to running a successful business, if my mindset was like, ‘That's it. What a bad month’ or looking at takings for that month or, ‘We hit a pandemic, we can't trade anymore.’ If you just say that to yourself all day, you're going to eventually get into a lull where negativity is just eating you up and you won't be able to see a way out. Anytime I'm having a bad week, of course, you have to then really think about your thoughts because they play such a big part. But it's very easy to get wrapped up in those negative thoughts. I even still struggle with it.

For example, last month was a tough month, and I remember thinking ‘Ugh’, but then I put a plan in place. That's all – you just got to spin it back to, ‘We're going to go again, team. Come on, let's go again, let's strive for more.’ So, I have a bad day and then I'm suddenly back with a notepad and loads of notes. We go again and we push harder. But yeah, getting into a lull is hard, you've just got to find something that can find a way that can get you out, whether it's taking yourself away for a bit, self-love or self-care which is so important. Again, something I struggle with. I really have to force myself to switch off, but you have to because otherwise you'll be eaten up with all the bad thoughts. You just have to think, ‘Right, let's go again.’ You know?

With anxiety and having to keep your mental health and your thoughts and your mindset in check. In the last meeting that you had with Scarlett and Lord Sugar, and she said that you weren't an established business, you're a newbie and you didn't really know a lot about the industry. How did that make you feel at the time? How did you cope in such a high-pressure situation?

Carina: Yeah, you do. You do want to just react instantly when there's something said about your business or yourself or your character or anything like that. It heightens the tension in the room – it's already really as high as it can be.

I can't remember my answer. You might have it but I'm sure I was just more of the guidance. And I'd show I would just talk to Lord Sugar and say, ‘Well, I do know my business and I can tell you what I know about my business’ and I would then just relay everything. I didn't understand her business. I would sit there. I think Claude said to me once, like, ‘You can you can take a nap now.’ So maybe she didn't understand what I was trying to relay and that I didn't know my business. But yeah, even if you're a newbie and a start-up, like I've been touching upon, if you can get a great qualification, and if you can understand the importance of spotting trends, and run with it, take risks.

Actually, that is exactly what I was just about to ask you. We do sometimes come across entrepreneurs or want-to-be entrepreneurs who are wanting to go into a field that they're not so familiar with. As someone who has been there, what advice might you have for them?

Carina: I didn't know. And I still get dinged up on about being the baker who doesn't bake. That was the whole tagline I ended up getting from the show, but I didn't let it deter me or let it put me off. In them interviews that we do with Claude and the scary interviewers, it was so scary. They were just picking me up on the fact that, ‘How can you know your business if you don't know your business?’ My argument was that you can be a club owner, you could be a restaurant owner or hotelier, it doesn't mean that I'm going to be the chef of the restaurant or the barman and I'm going know every cocktail, every recipe.

It's more about your leadership skills, I think, and your passion for that business and that drive. I love everything about the bakery – I love bread, I love seeing them make it. It doesn't mean I'm suddenly going to muck in and make it, but I love the process. I love everything about it. That's where my passion shines through in customer care, the customer service piece. I tried to relay that in the show that that is actually more important. Knowing your customers and knowing what they want rather than me actually knowing how to knead a loaf. You employ people to do certain skills, you don't have to have everything. So that was my argument for the show. Any young people out there who have a passion for something, obviously learn about it and know your business, because that is very important. But you don't actually have to be the chef or whatever.

Looping right back to the start. For people who have got their A levels today and they maybe didn't get the grades that they expected and they maybe want to go down the entrepreneurial route. What would you say to them? 

Carina: I've learned a lot myself from the qualification that AAT are offering. I'm just going to throw out the link. Basically, it's an accountancy firm, and it's an accountancy apprenticeship. The link to that is aat.org.uk/123. The 123 spheres on the fact that knowing your numbers is so key. If you didn't get the grades you want and you know in your heart that university isn't for you, then definitely explore other routes, explore this route from AAT. See if it's for you.

If you've got ideas about business, just make sure you've got a notepad, keep everything jotted down with what you want to do. Keep learning, keep networking. Get all the knowledge you need, reach out to people – some people will get back to you and give you tips and advice in the field you want to go into.

Anna: Great. Well, that seems like a very good place to end. Thank you for coming on the podcast, Carina.

Carina: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

You can find out more about Dough Artisan Bakehouse at doughbakehouse.co.uk. You can also visit SmallBusiness.co.uk for more on starting your own business. Remember to like us on Facebook @SmallBusinessExperts and on Twitter @smallbusinessuk (all lower case) and subscribe to our YouTube channel, linked in the description. Until next time, thank you for listening.