Rebecca Herbert: Getting around South London as a wheelchair user

Women have broken through the glass ceiling in business, so now it is time for the disabled. Last month The Disability Power 100 list was released, celebrating the most influential disabled Britons.

Rebecca Herbert

Presenter Alex Brooker topped the list for positively educating the British public on disability.

Nominees were recognised in different categories to celebrate the positive change and influence they have had in their respective sectors.

The Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs is run by the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation and the charity Leonard Cheshire.

It begun 12 years ago and recognises the achievements of disabled entrepreneurs in the UK. A record amount of 82 candidates applied this year with applications from a diverse mix of sectors, including fashion, retail, sport and leisure and tourism.

The overall winner, to be announced this month, will win £30,000 and an additional four shortlisted applicants have already won £10,000.

Finalist, Samona Williams, is based in Canary Wharf, and started the Cocoa To Thrill à-la-mode chocolate boutique in February. She creates bespoke chocolate art for luxury events and personalised gifts for weddings and special occasions.

I spoke to Samona, who uses crutches for shorter distances and a powered chair for longer distances, about the event.

Q: Why did you enter the competition?

A: “I had got to a point where making chocolate shoes had become much more than a hobby. “There was a real demand for these products and an opportunity to scale Cocoa To Thrill into a huge business, “But I needed start-up capital to kick-start this growth, moving Cocoa To Thrill from something I did in my kitchen for family and friends to a wide scale business.”

Q: What did you have to do?

A: I had to fill in an application form for the Stelios Awards but it is not as daunting as it sounds. “The fantastic team at Leonard Cheshire are on hand to answer any questions or concerns you may have. “The deadline has a long lead time which means you can pace yourself to fill in the application and work within your own requirements. “The Stelios application really helps you to focus on your business plan and helps you to work out if it’s something you can do. “All in all, it’s a really positive and painless process and definitely worth doing.”

One of Samona’s creations, main picture Samona Williams of Cocoa To Thrill

Q: Did your disability cause any problems along the way?

A: Disability was a sink or swim situation for me, I was either going to find a way to be valued again or accept the fate being forced upon me. “I chose the former, that decision in itself was the hardest I ever made, how was I going to do something in this life, when I couldn’t even dress myself.

“But I reminded myself, physical capabilities aside, I had a mind that was buzzing with ideas and the physical challenges I was being presented with did not define me, but they shaped my determination.

“In business it’s the determined ones that get back on their feet when they are knocked down that are successful. “I could do this. Like many things that are worthwhile, the path to Cocoa to Thrill was a difficult one, but everyday I reminded myself that I was doing it.

“I built an iron cast mind in a weak body. Cocoa to Thrill was not going to be some idea that I wish I could do if I wasn’t sick, it was going to be a thriving business that defied the odds like a pair of towering stilettos.

“Today, I stand tall, with a business that has found its feet and thanks to the amazing help from the  Stelios award it’s set to strut through the business world. “The Stelios award means that all those ideas which seemed unrealistic from the confines of my bed, now have me striding into the boardroom.”

Q: What are your future plans?

A: “The future is exciting for Cocoa To Thrill, we are now in a position to supply chocolately gifts all over the UK and have plans to sell internationally. “We are about to launch a unique marketing campaign and we are designing new and innovative chocolate creations perfect for that extraordinary person who means the world to you.”

Q: Do you have any advice for disabled entrepreneurs?

A: “Don’t listen to people who say you can’t. You are more capable than most people out there because your struggles have shaped your determination and you have had to overcome the most colossal odds.

“There is no business challenge that can compete with that experience. One in five women and girls worldwide have some form of disability so Her Abilities, a new global award celebrating the achievements of women with disabilities in the areas of health and education rights, arts, culture and sports, have been created.

“Among the international jury members are outstanding women, including disability rights activists, advocates, artists, and academics.

“The winners  will be announced on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3.

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Finding a wheelchair accessible restaurant with an accessible toilet and step-free entrance often seems like an impossible task, but I will make the process easier:

Fiddler on the Roof,  Menier Chocolate Factory,
November 23-March 9.
The musical is set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia in 1905.
It is based on Tevye and his Daughters and other tales by Sholem Aleichem.
For access call 020 7378 1713. 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU.

Alleyn’s Head, Park Hall Road, West Dulwich SE21 8BW.
The pub is fully accessible with a disabled toilet and step free access.
There is a large car park.

 

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