Inspirational women of East Sussex

We asked many inspirational women to contribute to this article back in 2019, but we feel their words are as vital and important as they were then. For 2021, we have added a few more inspirational women we know are achieving some great things, but we know there are many more! Help us put the spotlight on the businesswomen of East Sussex in 2021. Find out how at the end of the article.

We wanted to recognise some of the incredible women in the county today. From creatives, entrepreneurs, businesswomen, educationalists and charity leaders to influencers and community activists, these are just a few of the incredible people who make our communities such dynamic and interesting places to live, work and study.

There's a long way to go in East Sussex to improve the representation of women, but I hope the celebration this year will inspire a new generation of women.


International Women's Day 2019

Publication Updated
8 March 2021
Adam Jolly et al
First Int. Women's Day
19 March 1911

Amanda Saurin, founder, entrepreneur and distiller, AS Apothecary

I'm Amanda Saurin, an apothecary, plantswoman and herbalist. I have two Sussex-based companies: A.S Apothecary, a skincare company, and Wildeve, a drinks business. Both are staffed entirely by women: we are 15 in total, all living in the county. All our staff, bar a couple, are over 45 years old. Working with older women is fantastic; they are smart, utterly reliable, resilient, endlessly creative and have lived a life. These qualities are ideal for any business but particularly wonderful for mine. It means we work as a close-knit team for the collective benefit of the company. They inspire me every day, and with their enthusiastic support, we are going from strength to strength.

East Sussex is our heartland. We grow 250 roses, hundreds of lavenders and many other plants organically in Plumpton. The landscape, climate and soil are perfect for what we do. Nestled under the Downs, the farm is a haven for nature. We often see foxes, slow worms, badgers, bats and housemartins. It makes the work extra lovely. Lewes is wonderful because it supports small independent shops like ours. Without this support, many small shops wouldn't survive. 


Sarra Hawes, director and co-founder at Hawes Building in Eastbourne and a construction ambassador

I left school with an O level in technical graphics and first thought about working for an architect, then had my eyes opened to other options in building on an OND. In my first applications, I just had put to my initials otherwise I would never get an interview. They all had a surprise when I turned up. ‘Oh, you’re a miss.’ Now it’s completely different. The building trade is tripping over itself to recruit women. I became the first management trainee at Llewellyns working in every department, before becoming their first ever site manager, even if we had no separate toilets!

It’s all changed now. Six years ago, my husband and I thought we could do it just as well ourselves. We were both on the production side, so we’ve hard to learn how to win business. I’ve learnt a lot about marketing, pricing and training. There are now 18 of us with a turnover of £1.2m. We’d like to reach £2m next year and become a main contractor. So far, we’ve worked on hotels, schools and hospitals, as well as some high-spec refurbs for people like the CEO of Dubai airport. I get to bump into women doing just about all 300 of the tasks in the building trade. It’s a great job for life. What you learn on site, you can switch into other roles later, just like me.

You can find out more via Hawkes Building Supplies website



Maddy Dench, research scientist at Surrey Nanosystems and explorer of the world’s blackest materials

I get to work on cutting-edge applications for cameras in space and for self-driving vehicles here at Surrey Nanosystems, which is actually on the East Sussex coast in Newhaven. It’s an exciting place to be, and we’re expanding fast. I’ve been here for a year as a research scientist, and it’s been a better fit with my masters at Imperial than I was expecting when I was applying for jobs. We specialise in ultra-black materials. So when your satellite is taking images of distant galaxies, you can keep out any stray light from the earth or the moon. Or when you are in your autonomous vehicle, you can block any interference with the sensors keeping you on the road.

My job is to follow the latest research and develop ideas for our customers. We’re just about to move into a new facility in Newhaven that is three times the size of where are at the moment. It doesn’t feel if there any limits to what women as scientists can achieve here. No one has any stereotypes. So I can see myself sticking around in East Sussex. It’s got a great mix of tech and culture, as well as a fantastic coast that I see on the bus every day.



Jo Fairley, serial entrepreneur, inspirational speaker and co-founder of Green & Black’s, the ethical chocolate company

I’ve loved East Sussex my whole life – my great-grandparents lived in St. Leonard’s, where my entrepreneurial great-aunt ran a haberdasher’s shop. She was one of my real-life female role models, along with Anita Roddick (another Sussex dynamo!) who I was lucky enough to have as a mentor when building Green & Black’s.

One of the happiest moments in my life was realising that the dawn of the internet meant that my husband and I could relocate from London to Hastings, where we set up new ventures – Judges Bakery (now owned by the Wootton family) and The Wellington Centre. What I’ve learned about business is that ‘things only get done if you do them’ – and rather than talk about what we’re going to do, I believe women are fantastic at rolling up the sleeves, putting one foot in front of the other and making things happen. This isn’t always easy when there are family tugs on time. There’s no way to ‘have it all’, but a few years ago I learned a helpful rephrasing of the idea of ‘juggling’ all that women have to do. Instead, I like to think of ‘integrating’ all my different roles. (Juggling always makes it sound as if we’re about to drop a plate…)

In terms of work-life balance – which is so important for us all – I can’t imagine living or working anywhere better, though. When things get too much (as they do for any entrepreneur), a walk along the seafront always centres, rebalances and reinvigorates me for the inevitable (and never-ending!) challenges ahead.


Rossana Leal, Community Engagement and Events Organise, founder of the Hastings Refugee Buddy Project

Rossana Leal has won Woman of the Year Award at the Woman on the Move Awards 2019, for her work setting up the Hastings Refugee Buddy Project

Inspired by her own experience as a refugee child who arrived in the UK from Chile in the 1970s, Rossana recently founded The Hastings Refugee Buddy Project for the Syrian families arriving in Hastings through the Government’s Syrian Resettlement Project (SRP), pairing East Sussex locals with refugees of all ages, sharing activities, meals, visit local sites and festivals, and driving lessons. Rossana’s volunteer work has created a community of more than a hundred people who are forming new friendships and providing hope, as refugees build a new life in the UK. A team of Buddies is now working closely with the council SRP caseworker.

As well as running her own successful events company, Mercadito Productions and Owner at The Festival of Heat London’s Chilli Festival, Rossana works with government agencies, arts and charity organisations in community engagement and consultation. Her work with Heart of Hastings in Ore Valley, a community-led initiative, is planning to build low carbon footprint housing, affordable for local people on low incomes, and to create up to 100 long term jobs for local residents.

Known by friends and colleagues for her generous spirit, Rossana works tirelessly for local community causes. She’s an unsung hero who deserves the recognition.

Tamara Roberts, chief executive at Ridgeview and pioneer of English sparkling wine

Our vision at Ridgeview was classically entrepreneurial. Let’s sell up the family IT business and create an English sparkling wine as rich and complex as any champagne. That was 20 years ago when it didn’t really seem possible. We are now regularly being put in that top French bracket and selling 300,000 bottles a year with plans for 500,000.

I was originally the general manager and, since 2014, I have had a more strategic role as chief executive. We’re in our next growth phase putting £1.8m into our facility here in Ditchling. My dad always told me that anything was possible whether you’re in business or out sailing. For women, it helps if you have the right supportive environment around you and realize when you are in it – and when you’re not. We just all need to keep chipping away at the male working practices we’ve inherited and make ourselves as flexible as we can.

At this stage, you’d have to force me out of East Sussex. We’ve beautiful countryside and can be in the centre of London in under an hour. For our sparkling wines, we have the right climate, the right chalky soil and lots of buyers close by. So it’s no wonder Tattinger and Pommeroy are now coming to this part of the world. They realize we’re really onto something.


Professor Debra Humphris, vice-chancellor at the University of Brighton and champion for equality rights

I am extremely proud of the work that our staff and students are doing across the University of Brighton to promote gender equality including through their research, teaching, community engagement and wider strategic work in the region.

We have won national awards for this work and many of our staff/students have received individual recognition for their extraordinary talent in this area. We are proud to part of the community to celebrate International Women’s Day. The University has an institutional Athena SWAN bronze award, which exists to advance gender equality in representation, progression and success for staff and students in higher education. Two of our academic schools have achieved silver Athena SWAN awards and two schools have achieved bronze awards.


Claire Cordell, founder and chief executive at Little Gate Farm, an innovative charity for those with learning disabilities

When I was at school at Bexhill, I never expected to find myself as the chief executive of Little Gate Farm, a charity employing 40 people. It was just that I saw a social problem to fix. Far too few people with learning disabilities get the chance to work. So six years ago, I asked my mother-in-law whether I could have a go at running a small project from the farm. We are now getting 12 people into a work a year and have just started a £500,000 scheme for apprentices across East Sussex. I’d learnt a lot as a nurse on how to run projects and I’ve been part of the school for social entrepreneurs for many years. I now encourage all the women around me here, as well as my 16-year-old daughter, to believe they can stretch themselves. Here in East Sussex, they are living in a phenomenal place to build their lives and their careers. The main thing I’ve learnt is to remember to be the first to give yourself the oxygen. If I’m not okay, I can’t keep all the balls in the air. You have to be well enough and resilient enough for all of those who depend on you … even if the sock drawer isn’t as tidy as you’d like it to be at home.


Liz Gilmore, director of Hastings Contemporary, and trailblazer for visual arts in the community

I’ve always felt a strong connection to East Sussex. My mother was born in Hove and my 105-year-old grandmother can still recall in vivid detail the time the family spent being ‘purveyors of exotic goods’ on Brighton pier! They weren’t easy times and I’m proud of their incredible resilience.

My eyes were opened to art quite early and unexpectedly.  A neighbour introduced my mother to an eccentric artist and philosopher who needed help preparing his writings for publication. My brother and I spent many Saturdays having free run of his Gothic priory home. I’m sure the freedoms of his life and his spirit of generosity inspired my later choice to study art history and enter a world that otherwise I may not have considered possible.

I’ve performed a range of roles over the past 18 years: as an educationalist and lecturer at The National Gallery; headed the development of visual arts and funding programmes in the South East for Arts Council England, and most recently, led the evolution of Hastings Contemporary as its founding director. 
I’m still moved by my early career experiences at The National Gallery, particularly the incredible openness and strength of young people I encountered. It was profoundly moving to see how engagement in a creative process can transform young people’s sightlines and ambitions. 
East Sussex has been my home for 13 years now, first Brighton, and, for the last seven years, in the countryside between Hastings and Rye. The proximity of the sea and countryside combined with a vibrant cultural scene, all within easy reach of London, makes it an amazing place to be. 


Kate Adams is an artist, advocate and parental activist, who is chief executive at Project Art Works

I am inspired by people who have diverse and unique ways of experiencing the world, who are without guile or malice, and who use forms of communication that are not reliant on language.
Also wild and remote places motivate and thrill me. I like tackling mountains and walking routes that force a reliance on stamina whilst freeing the mind – to be in the moment and creative.
Over the years I have met many extraordinarily resilient and dedicated women. Women who as carers face enormous challenges in their daily lives and artists who manage to continue to work creatively, achieving critical success, whilst managing the complexities of multiple roles and relationships. It remains a struggle for many women, but slowly the cultural word is opening up to more diverse voices and practices.
I have huge respect and admiration for women who survive and drive changes in restrictive cultural attitudes and women who become leaders by inspiring others, making real change for current and future generations.

In East Sussex, we have an inspirational woman as chief executive of the county council, which provides a brilliant model for balanced and fair leadership in difficult times. We have an extraordinary mix of urban and natural environments as well. I have walked every inch of the South Downs over more than 30 years and I cannot imagine living away from the sea. We also have good universities, interesting coastal towns and an extraordinarily high proportion of high-quality cultural venues.

Visit Project Art Works to find out more about her work.


Jessica Steele OBE, leading change in the Hastings community

Jess launched Jericho Road Solutions in 2013, a business based in Hastings to provide coaching to community businesses whilst working with government, funders, the private sector and academics on initiatives to make neighbourhoods work better. Building on her experience of rescuing Hastings Pier, Jess specialises in supporting ambitious local and national projects to rescue the most challenging of precious buildings. She is also a community business panel member for the Power to Change Trust.

Jess has 25 years’ experience as a local community activist and entrepreneur both in Hastings and Deptford in London. She has also been recognised on a national level with an OBE for her work with communities.

Working with Meanwhile Space, Jess Steele is director of White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures Ltd, a locally-rooted social enterprise developer to transform difficult and derelict buildings into capped-rent homes and workspace, having redeveloped Rock House and is now in the process of transforming the 35-years derelict Observer Building into a beacon of community-led regeneration.

We have supported many women in business, here are a few highlights:

Alie Mackintosh - creating sustainable and fashionable clothing as founder of AYM

Founding a successful sustainable fashion brand AYM, Alie Mackintosh has been named one of Drapers 30 under 30. Founded by Central Saint Martins' graduate, Alie created a globally recognised brand that allowed her Lewes operation to grow and ship across the world. Creating pieces that allow women to feel confident, vivacious and contemporary, she leads a local team that reacts to the latest trends. The quality of her products and her vision has led the brand to gain notoriety for being featured on Keeping Up With The Kardashians and worn by the rich and famous, with signature bodycon designs.

We asked her in 2019 about Lewes: ‘Creatively, we have a great urban vibe here. There is always something happening.’ ‘Because we are only one of a few, we are well placed to compete for creative talent in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we were in London. From here we can recruit from a pool that stretches from Brighton to Hastings.’


Lisa Driver -  launching Booyah Kombucha and putting health on the agenda

Seeing an opportunity in a growing trend, Lisa Driver’s passion for kombucha began with her attempts at keeping her and her family healthy as a naturopathic nutritional therapist. Now launching a family business, she has been able to lead the company to national distribution and become a leader within a burgeoning industry. 


Lucy Atabey and Dawn Bew - innovating the funeral industry with a new, thoughtful vision

Innovating a male-led industry, White Feather Funerals is a funeral director that is a part of a female-led movement that is making the sector more accessible and less austere, providing much more choice to families and offering transparency. Lucy and Dawn recently launched the business as a part of their belief and ambition to make a positive change throughout the sector, making it less commoditised and more tailored to the wishes of family and the deceased.


Diana Uprichard - Using her skills and her company Dolly Clothing to create a positive difference for the NHS

 An experienced designer and seamstress and teacher, Diana ran sewing courses for adults and creating her own clothing collection from her base in Lewes, using only materials made from sustainable sources. Seeing that there was an issue in creating and delivering vital scrubs for NHS during the coronavirus pandemic, her vision of a 'wealth of power in a tiny needle and thread' inspired her to create the Dolly Scrub Hub, responding to the shortage of suitable protective equipment to healthcare professionals by creating a community of sewers who work together at DOLLY Clothing in Lewes. 


Know any inspirational businesswomen? Get in touch.

If you are in need of business support or funding to grow your enterprise, we can help.

For support and advice on how to progress with your business goals get in touch and one of our team will contact you to discuss you needs.