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The Short Cut:

A quick fire chat about working life with Emma Airley 

Emma Airley, co founder at Pastéis Lisboa

At the heart of the Nurture Network is the power of sharing experiences. From breakthrough career moments, to best ever advice, how to deal with stress and the women that inspire them.

The Short Cut designed to bring you a snapshot of our members’ working lives. Today we’re speaking to Emma Airley, co founder at Pastéis Lisboa, Scotland’s first specialist Pastelaria.

Tell us about your breakthrough career moment

For me, rather than a specific ‘career’ breakthrough moment, it was when I launched my first business, Glasgow Foot Clinic, after completing a degree in Podiatric Medicine in my late 30s. I’d never felt truly at home working for others and felt that at last I was in control of my working life.

It boosted my self-confidence seeing something I created become successful, and while I’m no longer involved in the clinic, it was the springboard which gave me the confidence to subsequently launch Ciora Scotland and then Pastéis Lisboa with my partner Sebastian.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

“If you don’t know what to do, do nothing” (thanks Mum!). Sound advice which has stood me in good stead over the years both personally and in business.

In a world where instant responses seem to have become the expected norm, this one has stopped me from making plenty of hurried but poor decisions.

It’s also amazing how many seemingly – in the moment insurmountable problems can very often resolve themselves naturally if you just step back and give things a little time to unfold.

If there’s room for another, this one from my Dad, Alex: “Don’t ask anyone to do a job you’re not prepare to do yourself first.” All our employees know – and more importantly can see – that we’re the first to get down on hands and knees to do the dirtiest or most unpleasant of jobs first.

I was brought up hearing and seeing this in action myself, and it wouldn’t occur to us to behave any differently in our own businesses – what surprises us is when people on our team say they’ve never had a boss before who’d scrub floors or clean toilets! You may not be able to do it all the time, but it sends a powerful message that we’re all in it together and shows respect and good manners towards your staff and their contribution to your business. I’m not able to be in the bakery every day, but when I am the first question I ask is, ‘What can I do to help?’.

Have you ever felt held back as a women?

I’d say that throughout my 20s and 30s I was pretty lucky to work in the main for businesses which put more store in experience and ability rather than gender, although when working in corporate events management in my 20s I did – like most women – constantly come up against the ingrained, casual misogyny of some male-dominated sectors of industry, commerce and academia.

My worst experience sadly in a job I really enjoyed – was down more to nepotism than anything else, when the close relative of an employer was parachuted into a position he was patently neither experienced nor qualified for.

Unfortunately, as my line manager! The impact he had on my client relationships, work outcomes and my own job satisfaction and mental health was so detrimental, and it was clear that there was no will higher up to address the issue, that ultimately I felt I had no choice but to leave. It was a horrible, demoralising situation, but I’ve never regretted the decision.

How do you protect your mental health in moments of pressure?

Good question – though the moments of pressure are quite often hours, days or weeks long! Joking aside, taking a moment to breathe and think, ‘can I re-prioritise anything’ can help, but in most cases talking and walking works for me. I have a tendency to think that I personally have to be able to do or fix everything, when that’s never going to be possible! Talking things out with others invariably brings things back into perspective and takes away that fear of having to cope alone, and two or more heads are always better than one.

Sebastian and I also find that if we need to work through business problems or are struggling with decisions, getting out for a brisk walk to talk things through is always more productive. Don’t ask me why, it just seems to work better than sitting round a table does!

At really challenging times, we’ll jump in the car and head to my parents. They ran their own businesses for their entire working lives, so there’s nothing we’ve come up against yet which they haven’t been through themselves, and their perspective and experience has never let us down yet. They’ve been an inspiration and constant support throughout my working life.

Lastly, spending time with my young nephews and niece never fails – there’s nothing like a good carry-on and a laugh-load of kiddie nonsense to do your mental health good!

Do you have any hobbies to keep you busy in your spare time?

Since launching Pastéis Lisboa 6 months ago, we don’t seem to have very much spare time, but I do try to have a good walk or swim at least a couple of times a week. I also have to knit every day, even if just a few rows of a sock! It’s meditative and calming, and I find it stills my mind when a million things are churning around in there – with family businesses, you don’t just walk out the door at 5pm and put work away until the next morning, so I do need that conscious break from thinking about it before bed. I can even watch something with subtitles now without dropping a stitch (very often) – yay!

I always have to have a couple of books on the go too, usually a mix of fiction and history or geopolitics/current affairs, and when time allows the sewing machine comes out for a spin – sadly not so often lately.

Travel, art and food are also big passions (the first usually has to have elements of the other two included when we plan breaks) – we’re both food-obsessed, so cooking, eating and finding new places for inspiration are a constant in our lives!

I feel empowered when… 

…ever anyone says how much they love our products or service! It’s difficult sometimes to lose sight of our basic mission – giving people amazing products and the best service possible – amid all the other noise, stress and outstanding tasks, so every time we receive great feedback it reminds us that the foundation is strong and we’re on the right track!

Being asked by the British Business Bank to represent their Start Up Loans programme as Scottish Ambassadors was a really big moment for us though. Without the funding we obtained through SUL, Pastéis Lisboa wouldn’t exist, and after the months of self-doubt and worry about whether we could make the business happen, to not just receive the funding but then also be invited to represent the programme gave a massive boost to our confidence and was hugely empowering.

The world would be a better place when…

…women are in charge!

The woman everyone should know about is…

…Noooo! That’s too difficult. We’re all amazing, how could you choose?!

The woman who empowers me the most is…

…I’m afraid it’s two answers again! My mother, Cecilia, for her wisdom, strength, resilience and her unwavering, unconditional support and encouragement to all four of her children that we could achieve anything we put our minds to – but that failing was ok too, in fact a positive learning experience.

Oh, and for teaching us all to cook and instilling a love of reading in us! And her sister, my late aunt Joan. At the time of her premature death in 1991 aged 41, she was the most senior female executive in BT, and openly acknowledged as one of the most effective and inspirational leaders in the organisation. A vocal and active champion of women’s rights in general, and gender parity in business, she considered no man her equal and stood up to misogyny in the classiest (and often most hilarious!) of ways.

As she climbed the corporate ladder, she was shameless in using her platform and connections to push for positive change in women’s rights and opportunities in all walks of life, both in the UK and abroad. Shortly before her death she was interviewed for a BBC Radio Scotland series called ‘The Glass Ceiling’, ending with the hope that next time she was invited it would no longer exist. How furious she would be at the pace of progress since. An amazing and inspiring role model, she has been a huge influence on me all my life. Even now, several years older than she was when we lost her, I still always ask myself, ‘What would Joan have done?’ in difficult situations.

Where is your favourite place in the world?… 

Donostia/San Sebastian in the Basque Country. In fact probably anywhere in the Basque Country – our favourite getaway, stunningly beautiful, inspiring people, and….the food! Oh my Lord, heaven on earth. It’s impossible to eat badly there, from the most basic, humble, hole in the wall joint up to Michelin star level. If you love food and haven’t been, get it on your list!


One of Emma's favourite places in the world, Donostia/San Sebastian in the Basque Country, photo credit Ultrash Ricco