Queen of cakes

Award-win­ning Hertford baker turn­ing her tal­ents to help­ing oth­ers

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: Julie Lu­cas

Sit­ting round a ta­ble in her Ben­geo kitchen eat­ing mouth-wa­ter­ing cakes and talk­ing about the wide range of is­sues fac­ing modern women, it’s easy to un­der­stand why Cyn­thia Stroud’s YouTube se­ries is prov­ing a hit. It al­ready has al­most 1,000 sub­scribers and the Cyn­thia Stroud Meets show has dis­cussed is­sues as di­verse as IVF, breast can­cer and kid­ney do­na­tion. The day I tune in they are dis­cussing vagi­nas – and to much hi­lar­ity Cyn­thia has made cup­cakes topped with lit­tle pink... well you can guess, es­pe­cially for the show.

The 35-year-old’s mantra is ‘ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble’ – a phi­los­o­phy that has helped her on her jour­ney from a child­hood in Africa to set­ting up an award-win­ning cake busi­ness in Hert­ford­shire, be­ing recog­nised by the Queen and now turn­ing her hand to her own chat show.

Born in Onit­sha, Nige­ria, Cyn­thia spent her early child­hood in La­gos with her grand­par­ents af­ter her par­ents sep­a­rated, be­fore liv­ing with her mother again from the age of 10. De­spite the up­heaval she de­scribes her child­hood as per­fect. ‘There was no child more loved,’ she says. As a young­ster she dis­cov­ered a love of bak­ing but in­gre­di­ents were scarce.

Her first visit to the UK was to visit an aunt – a phys­i­cal shock to

‘What you start out do­ing is al­most guar­an­teed not to be what you end up do­ing’

the sys­tem. ‘Land­ing at Heathrow at 5pm it was pitch black and so cold. I still re­mem­ber step­ping off the plane think­ing okay, no­body seems freaked out by this.’ She also had a cul­ture shock. ‘Girls seemed so confident and in­de­pen­dent. They were bold in their opin­ions. I thought wow, it’s not just in the movies.’

She found her en­tre­pre­neur­ial skills kicked in when she vis­ited Pri­mark and bought enough clothes to fill a suit­case to sell to school­mates back in Nige­ria. ‘I couldn’t be­lieve the price of ev­ery­thing. We just don’t have H&M or things like that. I would open up my suit­case in the mid­dle of the car park of the girls’ dorm and ev­ery­thing would be gone within two days.’

Af­ter tak­ing a de­gree in mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of La­gos, Cyn­thia quickly re­alised she didn’t want to pur­sue this as a ca­reer and took the big de­ci­sion to ap­ply for an MBA in mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of Buck­ing­ham. Ac­cepted, she ar­rived in 2004, aged 21, with enough money for the first term. Home­sick but de­ter­mined, she found the town a gen­tle in­tro­duc­tion to Eng­land and her love af­fair with the coun­try be­gan.

‘I love the fact that ev­ery­thing seems pos­si­ble. You can lit­er­ally wake up here and say “I’m go­ing to try to be X,Y or Z” and if you ap­ply enough ded­i­ca­tion and skills to it, it can hap­pen. That doesn’t hap­pen where I come from be­cause there is so much red tape – it’s a lot more of a strug­gle.’

Armed only with a stu­dent visa but set on cre­at­ing a new life in the UK, she drew on her sci­ence de­gree and mar­ket­ing MBA to con­vince Hert­ford­based lab­o­ra­tory in­stru­ment man­u­fac­turer An­ton Parr to take her on as a mar­ket­ing devel­oper. Fast-for­ward to 2009 and with a six-month-old, Wil­liam, she de­cided she needed to find a way of be­ing her own boss. She re­turned to her first love, bak­ing. Her first project was sell­ing Christ­mas loaf cakes at fairs.

‘I made 20 and each one sold out,’ she re­mem­bers. ‘I was so pleased with my­self. But by Jan­uary I didn’t have any money. I then did the maths and it turned out that each of those loaves I had sold for £15 ac­tu­ally cost me £17 to make.’

Lessons learned, she did a wed­ding fair, de­spite hav­ing made only one wed­ding cake for a work col­league, learn­ing the skills needed from YouTube. Her skills were ev­i­dent how­ever and busi­ness took off. A decade on, this self-taught baker has built up the award-win­ning Pretty Gor­geous Cakes Com­pany de­sign­ing hun­dreds of cakes from her much-loved Hertford shop, ap­peared on the BBC2 se­ries The Sweet Mak­ers, pro­vided cakes for the last eight BRIT Awards and last year pub­lished a recipe book.

She says the key to run­ning a suc­cess­ful busi­ness is in the plan­ning. But some­times no amount of plan­ning can help, such as when a six-tier wed­ding cake col­lapsed.

‘This thing was beau­ti­ful, it had nearly 500 roses on it, hand­made and cov­ered in white glit­ter. It was so gor­geous. Ev­ery­one was keen to see it, so when I opened the van I had an au­di­ence. It was a scene of ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion. The worse thing was it had red vel­vet on the in­side, so it looked like the cake was bleed­ing! For what seemed min­utes no one spoke.’ She quickly set to work re­build­ing the cake us­ing a polystyrene top, luck­ily, it looked as good as new.

Af­ter run­ning her shop in Hertford, where she has lived for 11 years, she has now moved the busi­ness to a new stu­dio in Ben­geo, and launched her chat show this year as a fo­rum for women’s is­sues. She says the com­bi­na­tion of sit­ting in her kitchen munch­ing cakes with guests and dis­cussing top­ics is a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion, be­cause as much as she loves to bake, she loves a chat.

‘I talk to my friends about any­thing and ev­ery­thing and we are very an­i­mated. I know from be­ing in an un­happy mar­riage, and not ever be­ing open with friends, how dam­ag­ing that was.’

‘You can wake up here and say I’m go­ing to be X, Y or Z’

Cyn­thia’s pri­or­ity with the show is to make women feel they are not alone and there are oth­ers they can re­late to. ‘I want peo­ple to feel that they have some­one. I was re­ally lonely when I first came over. It’s ac­tu­ally quite hard to go out and make friends.’

Last year, in recog­ni­tion of her ser­vices to busi­ness and the com­mu­nity she was awarded a Bri­tish Em­pire Medal in the Queen’s New Year’s Hon­ours. But the of­fi­cial let­ter ini­tially had her pan­icked – re­veal­ing a deep set fear many im­mi­grants feel. ‘I re­ceived a let­ter from the Home Of­fice – if you are an im­mi­grant and you get a let­ter from the Home Of­fice it’s quite ter­ri­fy­ing. Although I was a Bri­tish cit­i­zen at this point, you don’t for­get be­ing an im­mi­grant. It was writ­ten in such a con­vo­luted way, I only be­lieved it when the lo­cal pa­per called!’

This one-woman dy­namo is passionate about giv­ing young peo­ple a help­ing hand and now men­tors stu­dents at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity, help­ing them to take their first steps in busi­ness. She also men­tors in Hert­ford­shire schools, tak­ing the bot­tom 10 per­form­ing girls in the year and work­ing with them towards their GCSEs. She has also em­ployed young ap­pren­tices with no bak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and helped them grow into pro­fes­sion­als. Her ad­vice to young en­trepreneurs is to be ready to work hard, be brave and be flex­i­ble.

‘It amuses me when peo­ple set tar­gets,’ she says. ‘I be­lieve gen­uinely that what you start out do­ing is al­most guar­an­teed not to be what you end up do­ing be­cause it is not nec­es­sar­ily the most suc­cess­ful. It’s hard work, but if you are passionate about it, it won’t feel like work. I have loved ev­ery­thing I’ve done.’

BE­LOW LEFT :Grow­ing up in Nige­ria with her grand­par­ents and mother. Cyn­thia is in the mid­dle

BE­LOW:In her Ben­geo stu­dio kitchen with guests for her on­line talk show Cyn­thia Stroud Meets

Cyn­thia won Best Wed­ding Cake Provider at this year’s Bri­tish Wed­ding Awards

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