Leah Totton: Operating Successfully

The cosmetic treatment innovator and winner of The Apprentice on being a top businesswoman and sharing her experiences

Sir Richard Branson once noted that for business to work, it had to be evolving, to be fun and to 'exercise your creative instinct'. Dr. Leah Totton (29), who is one of three keynote speakers at the Inaugural Female Entrepreneur Conference taking place on March 9 in Limavady, has a slightly different take on what defines business success.

'I’m more an innovator than a creative,' says the woman still remembered as the 2013 Derry-born winner of The Apprentice. 'Although I think every entrepreneur to some extent has an element (of creativity), it is more about being visionary.' She adds that she employs other people to be creative and now has 18 staff working in her two Dr. Leah cosmetic skin clinics, in London and Loughton, Essex.

Totton’s vision was to see the need for an ethical service in what remains a completely unregulated industry. 'It wasn’t a light bulb moment but a gradual process. I was working as a junior doctor in A&E and doing aesthetic work on the side as I was always interested in beauty. One of my mother’s friends had quite a poor result after receiving fillers, with quite significant scarring on her lower face. This alerted me to the dangers of lack of regulation.' She is now evangelical about her clinics, which provide areas where clients can feel safe and trust the cosmetic treatments and procedures on offer. 'We’ve just received the MyFaceMyBody awards and are the youngest ever clinic to do so. It’s a testament to what we’ve achieved.'

Totton reveals that the most popular treatment is Botox, which costs from £199, followed by threadless facelifts at £1600. Soon however clients will be able to opt for a radical new Dr Leah eye lift treatment which removes skin from the upper eyelid without surgery. 'It’s called Plasma IQ and is a 20 minute procedure. We embrace technology and I spend a lot of time abroad looking at new treatments.'

She is also unsurprised at the apparent need for all-female networking in the 21st century. 'There is still a need to encourage women in business and it’s a great time to be a woman in business. My success is one example but we are making great headway and over the four years I have been in business. We’re getting to a point where there is a greater female presence in the city and on boards of directors.'

When appearing on The Apprentice, Totton was impressive from the start. She reveals that Lord Sugar, now her business partner, is as forthright in real life as on the TV show. 'He’s a realist, very grounded and tells it how it is. There’s no acting up for the camera and there is something to be respected about that. That’s helpful at board level as he wastes no time. We get on very well, Lord Sugar is a great mentor and has provided me with fantastic insights. We opened the business when I was 26 and had little business experience.' As anybody who has watched the programme knows, Lord Sugar believes in the importance of the brand and it was he who suggested the Dr Leah name.

When it comes to the upsides and downsides of being a female enterpreneur, Totton has never felt victimised because of gender. 'I’ve never felt that in my medical work or in business,' she says. 'My mentor is male, all my board members are male and the majority of my employees are female but for me it hasn’t been a help or hindrance.'

Upon her Apprentice win however, the media weren't quite as equitable. 'It was a hostile welcome to the industry. The press were quite damning at the time. It wasn’t just my age, but they went on about this "very young doctor, young, young, young", although I’d completed all my medical training.' She adds that industry competitors were probably not keen to share the market. 'There was an element of protectionism.'

Totton will be drawing on her own experience when addressing the 250 women at the conference. 'I don’t think there is a business formula – show me a successful business and I’ll show you a good director – but it’s helpful when you share your experience. My advice is ‘Do not start a business you don’t feel passionate about or have expertise in. It’s tough enough to start a new business and you couldn’t do without a genuine interest. There were times in that first year I felt overwhelmed, inundated.'

But now she is reaping the rewards and planning a third clinic, probably in London, an 'economic bubble' in Totton's words. For this reason she is glad to reside in the city, even if 'it means your overheads are higher'. Future plans include an emphasis on skin health problems with solutions for conditions such as advanced acne.

FEC Keynotes

Petra Wetzel (left) and Tina McKenzie (right) complete the line-up of keynote speakers

The conference, which is sold out (with a reserve list), has been jointly organised by the Causeway Enterprise Agency and the charity Women in Business (WiB). The two other keynote speakers are Petra Wetzel, founder of WEST brewery in Glasgow and Tina McKenzie, Director of Staffline Group Ireland employment agency. WiB, which has 2,500 members, wanted to offer something specific to female entrepreneurs. 'We held a conference last year where the tweeting goddess Samantha Kelly spoke, and they went wild,' says Chief Executive Roseann Kelly. 'It’s about finding role models for them so these women can be inspired and motivated.'

There is still work to do in terms of equality in Northern Ireland as, according to Ulster University research, only a fifth of senior managers in the civil service are female, and as evidenced by most recent figures, under ten of the top 100 companies have women chief executives.

'Creativity is very important in business,' adds Kelly. 'You have to be innovative on a daily basis in what is a competitive market whether you’re a designer or work in social media or marketing.' She also believes that a productive workforce involves both men and women. 'I think men and women bring different things to the table and I believe in diversity. It leads to better problem-solving and decision making and ultimately increases profits and productivity.'

Jane Taggart, Chief Executive of the Causeway Enterprise Agency and ambassador for women in business on the North Coast, reports that around 20% of the businesses her organisation supports are creative. 'We have a long history of working with the craft sector.' The impetus for the event, she explains, came from a desire to mark International Women’s Day. 'We’ve done something for the past 15 years but wanted to up the game this year and run a conference. It’s about inspiring, motivating women to think bigger and grow their businesses. When women share their journey, others feel ‘I can do that too’.'

Places for the Inaugural Female Enterpreneurs Conference are fully booked, but you can add your name to the reserve list by emailing aaron@womeninbusinessni.com. See what other events Causeway Enterprise Agency and Women in Business have lined up by visiting their websites, plus other highlights from the Creativity Month programme here.