In Inspiring Buckinghamshire

The Heart of Bucks ‘Inspiring Buckinghamshire’ series gives local people from a range of sectors a chance to share their knowledge and insights to help inspire others.

Here we are speaking with Cynthia Tooley MBE, Founder/Director of Jedidiah UK.

Tell us about yourself and your connection to Buckinghamshire.

I first arrived in Buckingham in 2004 from Nigeria as an MBA student at the University of Buckingham. When I graduated I found a job in Hertfordshire where then I settled for the next 16 years and started businesses and a charity. A couple of years ago, I was invited back to Buckingham as a speaker in the Vice Chancellor series- to talk about being an entrepreneur. I met the Vice chancellor and we got married – it may be wise to add that he was not the vice chancellor or indeed staff when I was here as a student!
I’ve since felt led to open a Buckingham branch of Jedidiah– the charity I founded and we have recently added a training and mentoring school for aspiring entrepreneurs focusing on craft based businesses.

What personal achievements are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the wonderful team of volunteers we have at the charity- an incredibly kind group of people who sacrifice their time, energy and evenings to serve people in need. I am proud of St Peter & St Paul church which has been so welcoming to my family and I. I am proud of the friendly faces who make it very hard to go anywhere in a hurry- because someone always wants a chat. This chattiness was invaluable to me 19 years ago as a homesick student who had left her family behind. For this reason, today, even when the chats make me a few minutes late, I don’t take it for granted. I’m proud of the students at the University who work hard at both studies and to earn a living to pay their way. I’m grateful to be honoured both by the late Queen Elizabeth II with a BEM and King Charles III with an MBE for services to Business, Mentoring and Charity. I’m grateful to be a TV food judge, to have a name in the food industry and for the incredible commissions we have been awarded.

What are some of the challenges you have faced, and how have you overcome them?

I’ll be honest, its pretty tough to be in a new country, away from home, with very little money and terrified you may not make it. Students are often faced with demanding academic work load whilst struggling with homesickness and worries about how to fund their studies. The pressure is very real. As a student I lived on a strict budget of £10 a week for every expense including toiletries and food. This budget continued for a year after I graduated because I saved up to purchase a second hand car for work . I remember the anxiety and panic for days because my newly purchased second hand car developed a fault. Thankfully, it turned out to still within the warranty- but only just! This frugal existence meant that when lockdown happened and my business suffered losses, I knew I would be fine because I had survived on very little before. The pandemic ended up wiping over £100,000 turnover from my business in little over a week as weddings and parties were cancelled.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

The best advice I have ever received is: Trust God, stay focused on your purpose- Everything else will fall in line. Your purpose will always serve other people. But if you keep doing that, you in turn, will be looked after.

I used to think that in order to be looked after, there had to be a direct gain in it for me. The pandemic taught me that it was never really me in control anyway. During all the uncertainty that surrounded the period, a wonderful charity was born, my family and I truly never lacked a single thing and my stress levels all but disappeared when I realised it was all out of my hands anyway. There was a peace about surrendering.

What is your greatest hope for the future for Buckinghamshire?

To create a school for entrepreneurism for young people who may not feel particularly gifted or inspired by academics . I know from experience how you can build a business (and your confidence) from a hands-on craft and turn this into a business that creates employment. In fact most of the young people who trained with me have gone on to start their own thriving businesses. Young people get bad press and whilst it’s certainly true that too much energy and no positive outlet is a bad combination, sometimes all they need is an option they can buy into.

Follow Cynthia on Instagram here.

Read more of our Inspiring Buckinghamshire interviews here.