Dragon's Den star and mum-of-four Sarah Willingham decided in 2016 to take her family on a round-the-world trip – because she never took maternity leave. The multimillionaire businesswoman, her husband Michael, and their children – Minnie, 10, Monti, eight, Nelly, six and five-year-old Marly – set off on the year-long, once-in-a-lifetime adventure which took them to the furthest corners of the earth.
"For me, as a mum, this is such a precious time with the kids," Sarah, 42, told HELLO! in an exclusive shoot and interview in Canada, the first leg of their journey, in September 2016. "They still think we're cool, they still choose us over their mates and I feel I'm bottling a period of our life that we'll never forget."
Sarah Willingham and her family went on a round-the-world adventure
Sarah, who made her fortune with the Bombay Bicycle Club chain of Indian restaurants, hasn’t always got the work/life balance right. Having had four children in quick succession, she didn’t take any time off for maternity leave; she has breastfed all her children in business meetings. "I asked if anyone had a problem, and they never did. In order for me to continue running the businesses, the babies needed to come with me wherever I went. So I always needed to work," she said.
Travel had always been a big part of her life – "Minnie had been to ten countries by the time she was 11 weeks old" – and the idea of packing up and going off around the world for a year had always been a plan. Two years ago, they thought: "‘What’s a dream if you don’t make it come true? We’ve got to make this happen,’" she said.
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The Canadian leg of the trip exceeded all expectations, with an exhausting schedule of kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, diving, fishing, hiking and cycling. Their first week was spent in a 200-acre forest in a cabin that only had electricity and water for an hour a day. "So properly back to nature," said Sarah. She and Michael got up early every morning and deal with work emails before 9am. As part of their education, the kids were in charge of the daily budget. Their schools were "unbelievably supportive" about them being taken out of formal education for a year, but as Sarah pointed out: "What they’re seeing of the world and their understanding of life is something you wouldn’t get from a year at school."
The children joined various schools along the way, including a circus school in Byron Bay in Australia, as well as being home-schooled. “Minnie’s geography subject this year is volcanoes and we’ll be living at the bottom of one for six weeks in Guatemala,” she said.
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Sarah, who grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, initially made her name – and fortune – by turning the small, loss-making Bombay Bicycle Club into the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the UK. Her profile was further raised by regular TV appearances – she was a judge on the hit BBC2 show The Restaurant and joined the Dragons’ Den panel last year. As a self-made multimillionaire and mother of young children, she appears to be one of those elusive women to have mastered the art of having it all. But for Sarah, the secret is to always make her children the priority. “I need to be a mum. I need to nurture, I need to cook and feed my kids, I need to cuddle them – that’s just who I am. You have to find your natural balance and I have learnt by making mistakes. For example, you absolutely can’t work and try to be a mum at the same time, as you’ll end up doing neither well. So I’ve become really strict at separating that time."
The mum-of-four took her children out of school for a year in 2016
She regularly turns things down for the kids if it’s something that takes up too much time and she sold the Bombay Bicycle Club for them. "When I just had Minnie it was fine because she came in a papoose and off we went," she says. “She didn’t leave my side for six months. But when I had Monti I had to leave Minnie, who was 15 months, at home. "I remember going to a board meeting when Monti was five months old and sitting there thinking, 'What on earth am I doing? This is daft, I can’t do it.' So I came home and said to Michael, 'I have to sell the business.'
"I sold it years before I should have done," she says of the chain she’d developed into a network of 17 restaurants. " had my team, I had it nailed. But that was 100 per cent a decision for the kids and for me as a mum and I’ve never regretted it." After selling she moved from London to Oxfordshire, had two more children and started making investments with Michael. They had worked together before – co-founding a business shortly after meeting in 2004 – and work well together, with strict parameters – such as no work talk first thing in the morning or at night. Do they argue much? "We have healthy disagreements," she laughs. "But we both forgive and forget pretty quickly."
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