Lopa Patel has been an entrepreneur for over three decades, yet she is, in her words, holding her breath.
She explains: “It seems I have been holding my breath all the while, waiting for something to go wrong, waiting for failure, waiting for opportunities, waiting for recognition, and sometimes just waiting for no reason.” But Patel has done far more than wait; she has pushed forward, perhaps holding her breath only to execute a few more strokes as she swims against the currents of prejudice and a status quo that has not always been ready for a female, south Asian entrepreneur.
While Patel is now a well-known voice for entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, she had to crawl before she walked into boardrooms, classrooms, and hallowed halls. The titles she has held include distinguished trustee, chair, council member, and ambassador.
When 11, her day started at 5 am, where she would rub the sleep from her eyes then deliver newspapers before going to school. This was followed by a job at the library and then working during the school holidays.
Now, instead of delivering newspapers, she’s featured in them. She earned an MBE for services to the creative industries in 2009, the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in 2015, and an honorary doctorate from The Open University in 2017 for her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in science and technology.
Foregoing a comfortable life, and working her way through school earned her financial, intellectual and personal capital, not to mention business savvy.
Patel says, “I still think that a degree is the best investment one can make in oneself, irrespective of whether you’ve studied full time, part-time or via distance learning. The confidence it gives you is unrivaled, but the early financial hardships, doing without luxuries growing up, was really good training for entrepreneurship. It helped me focus on cash flow and profitability rather than just business plans and forecasts.”
Powering Past Prejudice
Patel was born in Kenya before moving to the UK. Until Kenya gained independence in 1963, many black and Asians were forced to sit in different seats than white people and weren’t allowed into many hotels and cafes. Patel saw something similar in England, at least at first.
“Although we were British citizens, the locals saw us as foreigners and my siblings and I experienced racism that we never had in Nairobi,” Patel says. “In Kenya, we had gone to the local school and it never occurred to us that it was predominantly a school for black Kenyans and Asians.”
The prejudice impacted her family as well.
“My mother also experienced racism when we first bought the shop, many deserting it for other nearby shops and some even asking her if she spoke English,” Patel says. “One nearest neighbor never visited the shop throughout the time we owned it.”
Hope in Changing Times
Despite the injustice, Patel and her family persisted. As the years passed and the others jumped into the waters, the current shifted.
Because “more Asians came to settle in the UK, pockets of communities grew and the British (and all other races) got used to the multicultural environment of North London,” she says. “Indian grocery stores sprung up alongside West Indian restaurants, Halal butchers and Turkish pastry shops. It was heavenly!”
Increasing diversity benefited the city – and Patel herself.
“I think the progressive stance of the city rubbed off on me and perhaps explains some of the campaigning work I have done on diversity and inclusion,” she says. As a result, she has campaigned against apartheid and done research into women working in the direct marketing industry.
Three Pillars of Success
Patel does not hesitate to help other young women as they navigate the choppy waters of modern success. She offers three key tenets:
- Clearly define what success means to you: “Everyone’s definition of success is different. For some it is monetary, for others it is about social purpose, and for others still it is about mission.”
- Embrace growth and change: “The perspective of 30 years in business has shown me that directions do and will change. For me, the desire to change my life occurs roughly every decade. Allow yourself to think about personal growth and well-being in that way.”
- Invest in yourself: “You need to keep up with your passions, interests and add to your knowledge set. You need to develop your career. You need to find mentors. You need to build a network. You need to learn skills. Waiting for others to offer you opportunities may take a very long time.”
Despite the accomplishments and accolades, Patel still feels like she is holding her breath, waiting for the next challenge. But after over 30 years of successes and life lessons, both painful and pleasant, she continues to swim against the current. Further, whether it is encouraging her daughter, who just got her master’s degree from Cambridge, or 22 girls in the Young Enterprise UK program, Patel is using her experience to fill the lungs of others with fresh air.
To read about more about excellence in entrepreneurship on SEEMA, check out South Asian Entrepreneurs Post-COVID: Where Are They Now?