Interview with Jo Fairley, Co-Founder of Green and Blacks

This month we speak to Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green and Blacks.  See what MNC Director, Sara Guiel found out when she interviewed one of the UK’s most respected business women.

Jo was an ambassador for the Vistaprint Night School event which took place at the Winchester Guildhall on Wednesday 11th June for more information please visit www.mybizhub.co.uk.

Jo Fairley

1.  What inspired you to start Green & Blacks?  I found a sample bar of chocolate on my husband Craig Sams's desk - he had a natural food company called Whole Earth Foods, and was buying a lot of commodities for his range, including peanuts; a peanut supplier also had cocoa beans and Craig had a sample made of the world's first organic chocolate. I ate a couple of squares and had a 'lightbulb' moment;  although I was a journalist and more used to writing about things than doing them myself, I remembered a postcard I bought in Carnaby Street at 16 of a man on a diving board which said, 'If you don't do it, you'll never know what  would have happened if you had done it' - and so I dived off, using the £20,000 savings from selling my flat before I moved in with Craig, to buy the first consignment. And we co-founded the brand.

 2. How did you choose the name Green & Blacks?  We were 'green' because we were organic, 'black' because we had the darkest chocolate on the market at the time, and putting an ampersand (&) in the middle made us sound instantly like we'd been around since 1876. There was a subliminal message there.  (And it sure beat some of the earlier names in our brainstorming session, like 'Eco Choc' or 'Bio Choc'!)

 3. You successfully combined the day job while building Green & Blacks what advice do you have for those juggling similar responsibilities while trying to build their own brand?  Necessity was the mother of invention;  all our money was tied up in stock so I had to keep working, with two phones on my desk: one for Green & Black's, one for my journalism (so I'd be on the phone to the Editor of YOU Magazine and have to say, 'hold on, Dee', and then go, 'Hello, Green & Black's...', to deal with a customer.) Very often one partner in a new business has to NOT 'give up the day job', so that at least there's one secure income coming in.  Ideally that should be the person whose job is most flexible (I was a freelance journalist with my own office). When you're juggling different things, it can be hard to keep track of what you're working on, though, when there are interruptions - so I always keep a pad and pen handy and when I'm interrupted to get on with something in one of the  'other' roles I still juggle, I write down what I was last doing, so I can go back to it.  Otherwise the working day becomes like a game of 'tennis-elbow-foot', going off on complete tangents and leaving projects/e-mails half-completed.

4.  Whats been the hardest aspect of being married to your business partner? And the most rewarding?  The hardest was ensuring that we had a life outside the business, but I laid down some boundaries very early on and we would go for a walk after work, at around 7 (before going home to feed teenagers), for an hour, around Notting Hill.  During that hour we were able to brainstorm, come up with ideas, share what had happened in the day and talk about what was coming up, for Green & Black's.  Then when we got home we were banned from talking about it again till the next working day (although we worked in separate but adjacent buildings!) Otherwise we'd only have had a business, not a marriage.  However, it's been incredible to create this together.  Sometimes something amazing happens, like another award for Green & Black's, or Peter Blake creating an art installation using Green & Black's in Shoreditch, or seeing an ad. on the Underground when we're travelling together, and we reach for other's hand and give a good, proud squeeze.  It's been incredibly bonding.

5.  If you were starting out again what would you do differently?  Actually, nothing.  We didn't know we were getting it right at the time - we were often too busy fire-fighting - but there's very little I'd have changed.

6.  What advice would you give Mumpreneurs when their business begins to grow faster than the company expertise or cashflow?  I think it always helps to have a partner, from the word go, with complementary skills (it's no good if you both want to do the same thing;  you'll just end up fighting).  When once of you is feeling wobbly, the other can be supportive, and vice versa.  That means that when the business grows, you're not suddenly scrabbling around thinking, 'H-E-L-P!' and trying to enlist 'the perfect person' at short notice. I'm not a great one for employing consultants, so I seriously lament the demise of Business Link's one-to-one service, but happily companies like Vistaprint are taking up the slack with initiatives like Vistaprint Night School, where entrepreneurs can hear from people like me who've been there, done that, ironed the entrepreneurial t-shirt, tap into advice, get help with design and branding, etc.  I'm a great believer in networking at events like this, as you just never know when the person who handed you that business card might turn out to be the perfect person to turn to when your business faces a challenge.

7.  Have you got one stand out moment from your career to date?  Yes, at the retirement dinner for the outgoing CEO of Cadbury's, Todd Stitzer, when Cadbury's (who bought Green & Black's) was sold to Kraft.  He turned to Craig's and my table and said, 'And I'd like to thank Craig Sams and Jo Fairley for showing us the way with Fairtrade', which was his acknowledgment that our brand had helped to show Cadbury's that Fairtrade was good for business, and inspired them to put the mark on Dairy Milk. Then KitKat went Fairtrade, and then Maltesers (she writes, having guiltlessly just consumed a pack of Maltesers on Sheffield station, in the absence of a 4 p.m. bar of G&B's!)

8.  What inspired you to start a retreat?  Retreat's a slightly grand word, but The Wellington Centre (www.thewellingtoncentre.com) in our home town of Hastings is a beautiful nine-room wellbeing centre with a Pilates and Yoga studio; basically, this was the sort of facility which Londoners have at their fingertips and I realised when we moved that there was nothing for people like us who'd moved down and who might like access to a beautiful place for high-quality treatments and therapies. Whatever I do starts from the point of being a customer first and foremost;  I reckon if I need something and it's not being fulfilled, chances are plenty of other people feel the same way. 

9.  What more would you like to achieve?  I'm actually not that ambitious!  I love not knowing quite what life has in store, and being flexible enough to rise to challenges and grasp opportunities.  I guess what I'd really like to achieve is reading all the books on my bookshelf before I expire - but it's unlikely to happen!

10. What are you working on at the moment?  I am incredibly excited just to have launched the world's first appreciation society for fragrance-lovers, The Perfume Society (www.perfumesociety.org), which is a website but also an actual organisation people can sign up to for 'discovery boxes', events, and a beautiful eight-times-a-year newsletter, The Scented Letter.  As with Green & Black's it was born out of a passion - for perfume, not chocolate, this time - and I realised that there was nothing that offered all those dimensions, and helped women find their next fragrance. (We don't sell fragrances, though we do offer beautiful sample boxes so you can try before you buy.)  We've been blown away by the response, so it was clearly needed!  And very importantly for me I spend quite a lot of my time sharing my business experiences with other entrepreneurs - including the Vistaprint Night School which is happened in Winchester in June and was in Winchester in June was  open to all (contact vistaprintnightschool@  I used to find it incredibly inspiring to go and listen to other people on their entrepreneurial journey, and I'm just glad if my (rollercoaster!) experiences can help other people to keep their passion blazing, now.

11. Finally, have you ever dropped a massive clanger, one that you can share with us?  I'm actually quite careful to think before I speak!  Though as someone who does a lot of public speaking, nowadays, I do have a lot of anxiety dreams about walking on stage with my skirt tucked into my knickers!







Jo Fairley is the pioneering co-founder of organic chocolate company Green & Black’s. She and her husband set out to market the world's first organic chocolate. Since 1991 Green & Black’s has gone on to be ‘bigger than Marmite’ (in sales terms) and ‘cooler than Prada.’

Ever at the forefront Jo was among the first to highlight the social responsibility of food producers and Green & Black's immediately picked up awards for its entrepreneurial and ethical achievements. In 2005, the brand was sold to Cadbury’s and Jo remains now in an ambassadorial role.

Jo now runs Judges Bakery - an organic one-stop shop - and The Wellington Centre, an 11-room ‘boutique’ wellbeing centre, in her home town of Hastings. She continues to juggle this with her writing career which she started aged 16, when she left school with six ‘O’ Levels and by the age of 23 Jo was the youngest-ever magazine editor in the UK, editing first Look Now and then Honey Magazine. She is a Contributing Editor to the Mail on Sunday’s YOU Magazine, as well as to a very wide range of publications including the new National Geographic Green.

She is the co-author (with Sarah Stacey) of the bestselling Beauty Bible series of books, the world’s bestselling beauty books. Jo and Sarah’s website, www.beautybible.com, is among the most successful independent non-retail beauty websites in the UK, with 65,000 subscribers.  She is a ‘matron’ of the Women’s Environmental Network, runs makeover workshops for young women at Centrepoint and sits on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival committee.


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