This is a case study featured in our From inmates to entrepreneurs report. Click here for the full report page
When Gina Moffatt was sentenced to six years in Holloway prison for importing class A drugs worth over £200,000, she was convinced her life was over. “I had no qualifications and a criminal record – how on earth was I ever going to get a job?” But as she sees it now, “I began a new life from that moment: I was reborn”.
Gina grew up in Tottenham, but was brought up by her parents in the “strict but loving Ghanaian way”. Both Gina’s father and stepmother – her biological mother left when she was three – worked multiple jobs to make sure she was well provided for, meaning that, as an only child, Gina spent quite a lot of time unsupervised. As for school, Gina says she was a “joker” and “liked by everybody”, but unfortunately this popularity did not translate into academic success, and she left education with only three GCSEs.
“I was jumping between retail jobs, feeling that everyone but me was moving ahead, when I met a man who promised me the world. Instead, he gave me two twin girls and left me to raise them alone, at which point I fell into a deep depression.” Things went from bad to worse when Gina met another man – “he spoiled me rotten, and didn’t want anything physical from me” – who asked her to bring back a few of his possessions on her next trip to Ghana. “I said yes, of course – and next thing I knew I was being arrested in Heathrow for transporting drugs.” Gina’s retired father was forced to fly over from Ghana to look after her kids, which along with the stress of her conviction she believes caused him to suffer a stroke. Gina found prison life a shock at first. “I thought I was tough, but prison taught me I wasn’t. I was scared of my own shadow, and kept imagining I could hear my little girls crying.” After a chance conversation with an officer who told her “to make the most of her sentence”, Gina pulled herself together and progressed through a series of jobs – first as a wing cleaner and then as a receptionist in the visiting hall – that eventually landed her a post in the governor’s office.“The prison staff were surprised at how polite I was, but then they didn’t know how I was raised.” The governor at the time was impressed with Gina, and took it upon himself to prepare her for life after prison.
Gina credits a Prince’s Trust talk in Holloway on entrepreneurship for planting the seed that would become Blooming Scent. “At first I didn’t have high expectations; most of these courses are a waste of time. But then Dave Doughty (Prince’s Trust business mentor) asked me for my business idea, and – I still don’t really know why I said it – I told him I wanted to be a florist, because there weren’t any black florists in Tottenham.” Doughty saw potential in Gina’s idea and, with one thing leading to another, the governor enrolled her for a floristry NVQ at a London college via Release On Temporary Licence (ROTL). Gina passed the degree with flying colours, in no small part thanks to the prisoners who helped her with assignments – “some of the girls were very good at drawing, others helped me with my Latin” – and the enthusiasm of the prison officers who monitored her progress and made exceptions to the rules when necessary.
“At that point, I was so full of confidence that I asked the governor if he would let me have a flower shop in prison.” At first he was reluctant, citing Home Office resistance and lack of precedent, but later that day he called Gina into his office to tell her she could go ahead with her idea. “I was terrified I had overstepped the mark, so I couldn’t believe my ears when he said I could do it”, Gina recalls. After sending out letters to florists telling her story and asking for donations – there were no funds for the business – Gina received a large donation of equipment worth several thousand pounds to get her started. She set up her stall outside the prison gates – again on temporary release – and, employing four other prisoners, began selling flowers to prisoners, staff and visitors. “Every wing had a Blooming Scent representative, and prisoners were able to buy them at the canteen. Wholesalers knew my story and gave me special deals, which helped keep them affordable”, she recounts with a smile.
Gina remembers feeling apprehensive as she got closer to being eligible for parole. “I was enjoying my life in prison, and I was scared of change. Some of the girls even told me to steal a sandwich so I could come straight back.” But as soon as she was released, The Prince’s Trust got back in touch with her. She successfully pitched her idea to a panel of business experts, and was offered a £4000 low-interest loan and a mentor (James Caan of Dragon’s Den) to help her set up her company. The Trust also referred her to the London Youth Support Trust, who set Gina up with a small unit free of charge at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. “At first, I thought the help I was getting was part of some undercover mission to get me arrested again, it was just too good to be true”, she explains with a laugh. “But then I understood that all these people really believed in me and wanted me to succeed, and that filled me with optimism.”
Gina struggled initially to make ends meet, and earned extra money on the side cleaning the cafe in the Arts Centre. “The cafe wasn’t doing very well – the food was way too posh for Tottenham – so James urged me to ask the Centre if I could run it. I did, and they ended up giving it to me after being impressed with how well I had been taking care of it. They really liked that I was an ex-offender; they said it was for people like me that they had built the Centre.” A few years later Gina was offered another opportunity to expand her portfolio; the London riots had shaken up Tottenham, and London Youth Support Trust asked Gina to open another cafe at the nearby 639 Centre. Now well established, both cafes serve unfussy Afro-Caribbean food, are hubs for the local community, and employ several ex-offenders, many of whom Gina met at Holloway.
Gina gives back to the community in other ways, including running floristry courses for housing association residents and acting as an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust. Her strong sense of principle is encapsulated in her decision to stick by the original name [Blooming Scent] for her business: “People wanted me to change it to ‘Gina’s’, because it sounded more personal. But my business got its name from a competition I held at Holloway, and I promised everyone there I would never change it, no matter how rich I got.”