Queen of cakes
Award-winning Hertford baker turning her talents to helping others
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