WHEN Russian teenager Anya Gunkova moved to the UK with her mother to start a new life, it was a time of hope, aspiration – and brand new beginnings.
Twenty-three years later – and a successful entrepreneur, she is making her mark on the business world and has just unveiled her latest in a series of passion projects.
Anya is the creative and business mind behind the award-winning Sofya and I brand – an online clothes boutique, magazine and, now, radio station, all with ‘real women’ at their heart.
But it’s not been a smooth journey for the career mum who has also had to overcome a series of personal challenges, including, herself, becoming a single parent.
The three generations are the inspiration behind the success of the brand, which is a real family affair. Indeed daughter Sofya has put her name to it.
And it’s her mum Elena that’s credited with the valuable life lessons that still drive Anya today.
She said: “She worked so hard after my dad died when I was 12. It was just the two of us and she had about four jobs at a time. That’s where my hard-working attitude comes from. It set me an example of how you do what you have to do to provide for your family.
“I’ve created a job for myself that I’m good at and I want to carry on doing it and growing it. Now, the big driving factor for me is that I want Sofya to see it as well, to see that I’m finally doing something for me. How many people can say ‘I’m doing what I love?’
But it’s not a familiar feeling for the girl who had for so long dared to dream of ambitions that seemed beyond her reach.
Elena gave up her career as an English teacher in Siberia when she relocated with her daughter to start a new life in Bedford.
“For me it was hard leaving everything behind, including my friends. I had to start a new school because to prepare for the GCSEs I had to repeat some of my education,” said Anya.
“We had no family here, no friends and I had to try and adapt quickly. The language was a barrier. I was picked on for the first couple of years because I was different because of my language and my upbringing.
“It was a challenge making friends and finding people you could trust again. The lifestyles in the two countries, especially 20 years ago, were just so different and it took some time to adapt.”
She added: “I considered university but decided not to because I didn’t want to put that financial pressure on my mum and I was keen to go out and earn my own. I always had this hunger for making my own money and being independent.”
It wasn’t until two years ago that Anya’s creative ambitions were realised – and only after emerging from a series of unfulfilling office jobs – and a broken marriage – which left her suffering low self-esteem. Now a single mum, but with her daughter of school age, she instinctively knew it was finally her time to shine.
She said: “I was slowly just losing myself and my self-identity over the years and was at my lowest when Sofya was five. I felt like I was becoming that empty cup that you can’t pour out of. I was aware of what was happening to me and needed to find something to dig me out of it.
“It was when I was at my lowest point that I had this idea about creating something new. I used to start thinking, I’m no good at anything and was self-critical about being a bad mum. I felt like I was failing at everything. The 9-5 work wasn’t going well and I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t getting any support and felt unfulfilled. I needed something that was mine that I could develop.
“I used to write a fashion article for a monthly local magazine and enjoyed it and started to learn the process. I thought, how hard can it be? so I researched the softwares and trained myself – while still also juggling a full-time job and all the parenting duties.”
In January 2018 the first edition of Sofya Style rolled off the presses. The A5 bi-monthly magazine and website is something Anya proudly describes as, ‘for real women with real stories.’
“It is not your typical beauty magazine discussing products that no one can afford, but it was home-made stuff and body positivity – content suitable for real women and not just so-called ‘beautiful women.’ And all my front covers feature real women with photos they send me. I don’t use fashion images.
“I work hard to make sure the content is happy, informative, inspiring and something you can relax with, a purely enjoyable read as magazines were intended to be, without all the ads. I went back to the basics of why the magazines were created in the first place.”
Sofya Style has grown and earlier this year, became monthly. Now, in a sentimental nod to her roots, Anya and her mum are planning to translate the next edition for the 300,000-strong UK Russian community.
It was later in this year that Anya also opened her shop, in Warwick, selling new and pre-loved clothing and accessories.
She said: “I had finally found something I was good at and enjoy. This was when I started reinventing myself. It gave me a focus at a time when I was going through a frustrating separation and my self-esteem was very low.”
But the seven-day-a-week demands of the business resulted in her taking the shop online-only at the end of last year – a decision that unwittingly saved her untold financial heartache.
She said: “As it turns out with the COVID-19 situation, it was perfect timing. Now I’m so relieved I closed when I did because that wouldn’t have worked out at all well for me financially.”
Not content with two creative enterprises, lockdown inspired yet another venture for the hungry entrepreneur who was ready to build on the success of her media business.
And at the heart of it, again, were the three generations that continue to drive the brand.
“During lockdown I was thinking of other ways to take this forward. I started to get involved with a lot of local radio stations and getting an insight to the processes involved. I decided it would be great if I could interview the people in the magazine in a more interactive way and bring to life.”
A test show soon followed and, just a few weeks ago, Sofya Style Radio sprang into life. And in true Anya style, ambitions to grow the offering are already gathering pace.
“Mum and I recorded our back story and chatted about our mother and daughter relationship and the change in dynamic once Sofya came along and about our three-generations. I built the show around it and it went down well,” she said.
“More and more people came forward wanting to contribute and interest is growing. Eventually I want other co-hosts to have their own shows on my platform.”
“I don’t want to create a playlist like most other radio stations with the usual chart music, I prefer to give airtime to unknown and sometimes unsigned female music artists.”
It’s now onwards and upwards for the career mum who has a Ladies First national business award to her name – and a new spring in her step.
But her life journey has also taught her to not take anything for granted.
She said: “I’m more grateful than probably most people born here because I know I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if I’d stayed in Russia.
“What I’d say to other people with ambitions is, keep following your gut. Being fulfilled in your work is where strength and creativity and self-belief comes from.”
Further information about the Sofya Style brands can be found at: www.sofyaandi.co.uk