“Being a “soft” female founder supercharged my 8 figure startup.”

The multi-award winning female founder of bamboo brand The Cheeky Panda on why being soft in the business world is the way to achieve success.

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March marks a celebration of female power, with International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day, and B Corp Month, offering a fitting opportunity to reflect on my journey as a female leader.

In the competitive business landscape, the archetype of a strong leader often evokes images of assertiveness, decisiveness, and unwavering toughness. However, within the realm of female leadership, there is often a lack of recognition that softness can indeed be a formidable strength.

From spare room to boardroom

Having nurtured The Cheeky Panda from my spare room into an 8-figure turnover business, leading a diverse team through various challenges, I have come to appreciate how embracing softness has propelled our company’s success and empowered our team. 

From the outset, I was determined to build a business that not only excelled financially but also prioritised sustainability and social responsibility. Our certified B Corp status underscores our commitment to valuing people, demonstrated through initiatives such as providing private healthcare coverage, supporting flexible working arrangements, and ensuring fair compensation as a living wage employer. 

Culture of kindness

Over the years, I’ve made ‘soft’ decisions including actively recruiting talent from diverse nationalities and cultural backgrounds, as well as accommodating team members who wish to spend the Christmas period working in their home countries. Additionally, offering extra compassionate leave and providing support to team members in times of need have been crucial elements of my leadership approach. The outcome of these decisions has been a team characterised by hard work, dedication, and unwavering loyalty.

Embracing differences

Softness in leadership isn’t a sign of weakness; instead, it reflects strength through vulnerability and authenticity. Coming from a diverse cultural background, humility was instilled in me, leading me to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. This openness to learning has been pivotal in navigating the challenges of a rapidly expanding business. Participation in programmes like Goldman Sachs’s 10KSB program has provided invaluable tools and strategies for growth, while mentorship from industry veterans like Giles Brook and Simon Duffy has offered guidance and support. Recognising that knowledge is power, I’ve led by example and fostered a culture of continuous learning and development within our team.

Supercharged soft skills

Furthermore, embracing softness in leadership equips us with the resilience and grace to navigate challenges effectively. Rather than resorting to aggression or confrontation in times of adversity, I’ve adopted an approach rooted in empathy and understanding. By actively seeking common ground and fostering constructive dialogue, our team has successfully overcome obstacles, emerging stronger and more cohesive than before.

It’s good to talk (and listen)

This approach becomes particularly crucial when managing talents with strong personalities. Instead of allowing conflicting opinions to spiral out of control, I’ve learned to facilitate discussions by encouraging individuals to express their viewpoints while also ensuring that executive decisions are made after carefully considering everyone’s input. Regular 360 feedback sessions are conducted on a quarterly basis to support everyone in our team in improving our collaboration skills and working effectively with others.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the journey of female leadership is about embracing the unique qualities and perspectives that women bring to the table. At The Cheeky Panda, we’ve seen first-hand how softness can drive positive change and sustainable success. I encourage fellow female leaders to embrace their softness and leverage it as a source of strength in their journey towards greater impact and empowerment.

Cheeky Panada Julie Chen
Julie Chen - Cofounder and CEO of The Cheeky Panda

Over the course of seven years, Chen and her husband/co-founder have created a B Corp certified brand worth £85 million. In 2021 Chen was awarded the MSDUK Businesswoman of The Year. Following that, in 2022 she became one of the Financial Times 30 UK Female Entrepreneurs to watch, and one of the 10 most powerful women in food, drink and grocery voted by The Grocer.

The Cheeky Panda
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