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Claire Menzies, Istoria Group

Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Claire Menzies, Istoria Group

Claire Menzies is Chairwoman and Founder of Bristol-based creative collective Istoria Group, which encompasses three creative companies: exhibitions, events and symposia designers Ignition; experiential digital innovators Tiny Spark and hospitality and retail designers Phoenix Wharf. Claire has a career-long passion for sustainability and entrepreneurship and has worked in the creative sector, up to board level, for 30 years. She is a non-exec director of circular economy experts International Synergies, a Fellow of the RSA, a Design Insider Ambassador and a mentor to a diverse range of entrepreneurs. Claire is also a sought-after speaker and writer on the circular economy and sustainability best practice.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I had a rather circular journey to founding Istoria Group – including at one point sailing round the world. I was very much a non-conformist, which means my career route has been far from linear. A slightly random, rebellious streak in me somehow brought me to the world of events and exhibitions when I got back to the UK from my travels, though I didn’t initially see a future for myself. There were no women on the board of the company I was employed by and I found myself sceptical about many of the ‘considered wisdoms’ being imparted to me. It was formative, however, in that I then set out to do something different – and in a different way.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

The values came first, perhaps unusually. I was so sure how I didn’t want to run a business. I was tired of the ‘build and burn’ mentality of the exhibition industry and I knew that there had to be a different way to create creative businesses with a truly sustainable agenda and which were based on respect for your people and a long-term view on decisions regarding culture and financial, behavioural and environmental responsibility.

How did you achieve awareness?

By being different and completely transparent, so that clients knew exactly what they were getting. If everyone else zigged, we zagged! Our differentiated USP allowed a quiet growth with a strong pull factor – we became a group of companies like-minded clients actively wanted to work with – and of course we made sure our key messages in the media focused on that. We also targeted – and won and achieved – leading industry standards and awards so that our reputation began to speak for itself.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

We modelled a growth plan based on the concept of continual improvement, working with clients on a partnership model, which allowed us to negotiate non-traditional contracts of three years and more. This has been a key platform for growth. We have never needed outside funding and are very proud of having remained an independent, women-owned business with the original shareholders all still involved.

What are the key successes?

Within our industry, these include our largest company, Ignition, being the first of its kind in the world to achieve industry standard ISO 2021 for sustainable event accreditation. In 2020, Ignition also became the only exhibition and events company ever to win The Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development.

I am also proud of our continuing independence, the awards we have also won for good practice in people management – and the fact that we have remained headquartered in Bristol. Not everyone has to have a base in London!

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

We started up just before the financial collapse of 2008 and have now also survived the Covid pandemic, where many others didn’t. We stay resilient and lean and, once lockdown started, we pivoted very quickly to adapt to a digital events offer to service clients who could no longer hold in-person events, trade fairs or symposia.

What are your plans now/for the future?

To get more involved in helping real change in the circular economy. Things are really building now and there’s a much greater demand for information. Naturally, there’s some greenwashing going on too, but there’s much more that’s genuine and that’s very encouraging.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

I would say to find a mentor in the early stages and then take that first step. Tell all your most trusted friends and capable colleagues about your plan and be sure to keep an open door and listen to feedback. Take especial note of well-considered and research-based advice. After that, know your value and don’t let anyone cast doubt on your ability to be successful.

Can you share you top tips for entrepreneurial success?

1.         Know what you’re aiming for and why

Your north star/big vision must be in constant sight, no matter if you’re thrown off course when things go wrong (which they will). Your north star is your foundation, compass and guiding light and will help guide you through times of real uncertainty and onward to success.

2.         Stay determined

You must be determined if you want to keep moving forwards. There will be challenges and you will experience uncertainty and fear. Always remain determined.

3.         Expect change

No matter how carefully you plan, something may go wrong, so be prepared to adapt. And don’t try to be all things for all aspects of your business – embrace your value and expertise then surround yourself with the experts you need to be truly successful.

4.         Don’t burn out

Research your competition and don’t waste time trying to reinvent proven results in any area of your business. Be savvy, stay lean and resilient and stay on top of your personal energy too, so you won’t burn out. Best business practice and personal wellbeing are directly linked to sustainable success.

5.         Remember to stay sane

Work with clients and people you respect and enjoy – life is precious! Wherever possible, try hard and discipline yourself to stress a little less. Laughter and positivity strengthen your emotional and mental wellbeing and when you feel good it helps to keep tricky characters from getting to you.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

Katherine Hepburn

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Nemonte Nenquimo

Silvia Vasquez Lavado

Frances Haugen

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Virginia Woolf

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?


Twitter – @istoriagroup
Instagram – @istoriagroup @claireemenzies