Gemma Foxcroft

gemma foxcroft

It was a privilege speaking with Gemma Foxcroft, an unassuming leader providing service to her community as co-director of Cracking Good Food, a social enterprise with cooking schools, catering services and excellent work providing cooking support and food education and meals to people experiencing food poverty, hunger, hardship and complex problems. A self proclaimed workaholic, Gemma is conscientious and ambitious, helping galvanise volunteers to support much needed services. The more people like her in the world, the better.


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressel. It’s effectively a socialist manifesto and was instrumental for my understanding of the world and interest in social justice. 

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell is my favourite book. I like books that have roots in reality. His experiences of living in the north of England and the poverty he experienced captured me. The first time I read it, it seemed like it was from a time gone by, but now it seems all too real again.

The Witches by Roald Dahl. I give this to my friends who have kids. I loved it as a kid and I hope it brings as much joy to them as it did for me. 


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

My bike. I bought it second hand for £80. I moved to Manchester from the countryside a few years ago, and the bike gives me a feeling of freedom that you can’t get sitting in a car.

Also a microplane. For £20 it’s a grater and zester and it’s great. I spend a lot of time cooking and I swear by it.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

My last business was challenging to make work. I had some personal relationship problems at the same time too and then Covid came along. I had to sell it for less than I originally paid for it, but I’m grateful I managed to sell it for something. Once it was gone I was emotionally free and that is worth more than money. And it created some new opportunities, including this new role. 


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

Remember that it all ends mid-paragraph. It alludes to the idea that you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking there’s a destination in life, just enjoy the journey.


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Spending a lot of time with my Grandad. He taught me a lot, especially in my 20s and 30s. He passed away last year, aged 99. I used to speak to him about three times a week. 

I had a deep connection with him. It’s unusual to feel connected to a Grandparent like that.


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Going to Pomona island in Manchester and sitting on my own watching the world go by.

It’s a piece of scrapland with access from a hole in the fence. My partner came with me once and couldn’t understand why I would want to go there. For me, it is a good place to reflect on the development of urban spaces and how that affects people.


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

In the last five years, I’ve gained a much stronger understanding of myself. I’m much better at avoiding burnout, although I’m still working on that one.

One realisation I’ve come to that has helped me is that my ideas about what makes a person successful or an expert in the field were not necessarily true. I now believe that everyone has imposter syndrome and to some degree, everybody is winging it. Often we get where we are through a combination of luck and privilege. I also believe that those serious people still have a silly inner child. That all makes me feel more confident in myself.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?”

I didn’t take a traditional life journey, so I don’t like to give advice about this. If I was asked, I would say, don’t worry if you don’t fit into a particular job or career or system. Often it’s just tick boxes anyway. You can find your own way in life.


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

It’s not a recommendation as such, but it’s a tacit cultural norm – working at weekends and in the evening. It’s the idea that the more you work yourself the more you are doing for others, but this can lead to burn out. Happily in my organisation they are supportive of a more reasonable work life. I must admit, I do put a lot of pressure on myself.

The other thing is people outside of those organisations that are actually helping, making patronising recommendations to people that don’t have enough to feed themselves, when they don’t understand the problems they face. They are implying it’s the fault of these individuals, and that if they just planned better they’d be fine. It simply isn’t true.


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

Grant funding, for several reasons. 

One is the requirement in grant applications to achieve a certain number of volunteer hours. We do need accountability, but I don’t think we can ask volunteers to do everything. Sometimes we should be paid to do the social work that we do, either funded by local or national government. 

It’s also inherently biassed as a system. There are some great people that could do great things, but because they don’t know how to fill out grant applications, they won’t get the money they need for their projects.

The way funding works can also lead to insecurity. Sometimes we can have a project, providing meals for people that could potentially fail to receive further funding with just a couple of weeks notice, leaving us trying to find other sources of meals for them.


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

I’ve always found it difficult to say no as an entrepreneur. There is financial pressure, so I found it hard to turn away work, even if I didn’t think it was the right fit.

Now I’m more focused on planning and I’m more strategic so I’m better at saying no to things. I’m also better at saying no to things that stress me out or make me mentally anxious, although I recognise that sometimes I need to push my boundaries. It’s about finding the right balance. 


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has a work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

I’m a workaholic by nature, but I understand that I’m better and more productive when I’m balanced. In fact, often it’s in the time away from work that I solve the harder work problems, the solution just comes to me.

For me the balance is about managing time and effort over a longer period of time, rather than on a daily or weekly scale. There are times in an entrepreneurial role where you have to just put a shift in and work like a dog. In these times I understand that it’s a short term thing, and I often take a step back the following week.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I think I may have some symptoms of ADHD. I find myself trying to do several things at once, so I’ve had to think about this.

I have found the Pomodoro Technique really works. You work in focused, 25-minute intervals, and then take a 5 minute break and work on something else. It has really helped me.

If I’m feeling in need of more of a switch off. I go out for a walk, get away from my screen, or even have a nice cup of tea in my yard.


What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is being able to make your voice heard, but it’s not just about being loud. Often the loudest person in the room is seen as a leader and I’m quite reserved. I’m very grateful for my current role as they saw past that at the interview.

Actions of then speak louder. Leadership is about providing support and inspiration for the team, getting involved where needed, never asking someone to do something that you wouldn’t do myself. 

A good leader is also someone who’s prepared to have the difficult conversations,and is humble enough to keep learning.


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why? 

My brother, he’s achieved a lot. He’s a social entrepreneur who gets stuff done. He is very confident, very socially capable, he inspires people and he’s an incredible delegator. He coordinates activity among lots of people and a lot of things are achieved.

I’m also inspired by the people that I work on behalf of, who are able to use their ingenuity to survive with so little.  If I ever feel like my life is tough, that helps me regain perspective. I feel so lucky and grateful. Sometimes I do also have guilt., but I remember, it’s not that I should have less, but that others should have more.


What do the words principles and values mean to you?

Principles and values are something I hold dear and something we state explicitly at Cracking Good Food – we aim to work with other organisations whose principles and values align with ours; namely inclusivity, equity, fairness and sustainability. My principles and values have often stood in the way of opportunities. I often wonder –  am I cutting off my nose to spite my face? It can be challenging to reach compromises which don’t compromise core values.


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

I worry that ‘leadership’ can often attract people whose egos become a problem and that our society is set up to ‘reward’ very specific and a fairly narrow breadth of personality types. I would suggest that everyone involved in leadership does some real, meaningful volunteering in the community and finds out more about the area in which they live and the people in it. I would ask them to check that they really listen when concerns/alternative opinions are presented rather than ‘ticking boxes’. 


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

I’d like to find more time to look after/improve myself both personally and professionally – I harbour dreams of completing my Masters or even a PhD but time and money are – as with most people – too tight. I would also like to find more time within my working life to prioritise strategic and long-term thinking rather than fire-fighting the day-to-day problems as much. 


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

We have been fortunate to receive some pro-bono business mentorship and support which helped my business partner and I to identify some useful goals, However we found finding the time to commit to this extremely challenging  – again, we were forced to prioritise the day-to-day! And as a non-profit, we often struggle to find a budget for paid services.

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