By Emma Symes
This story about how I came to set up the Pomba Girls is one shaped by my desire to follow an unconventional career route, which is often the case for entrepreneurs as we are a headstrong breed determined to do things our way!
The Pomba Girls would not have happened without the past ten years I have spent splitting my life between London and Rio de Janeiro training as a performer and working as an event producer. What began a mere infatuation with Rio after I spent the carnival there age 18, turned into major obsession following 6 months living there age 22, during which time I was swept up by a Carnival inspired street theatre troupe called Tá Na Rua.
When I returned to London I was determined to set up my own performance company inspired by street culture, so being based in South East London – I established Tá Na Deptford. Although as it happened we only did one street performance in Deptford the identity of the group drew heavily on Deptford’s street culture, I sourced all our costumes from its markets and used them to create carnivalesque performances for club-nights, music festivals and experimental performance happenings. Although the group succeeded in generating quite a following and a full page spread in i-D magazine, running the activities bankrupted me, and I was forced to move out of my own flat and couch surf for 6 months in order to sustain rent for our studio. My friends tried to persuade me to look at ways to generate revenue using the group but I felt any such activity would compromise my artistic freedom so instead I stopped running it, sold our entire costume collection and managed to make enough cash to go back to Rio.
This time around I sought help the other side and was awarded a performer training scholarship with Tá Na Rua for one whole year. The training was very physically demanding with rehearsals involving three hours of improvised dancing to music played by a DJ either in our rehearsal space or on the streets of downtown Lapa. I became so consumed by the physical nature of what I was doing that I failed to see the inevitable come down once my visa expired- forcing me back to London with an account balance of £0, no home and no job.
I spent a year trying to apply for arts grants and develop ambitious cultural exchange projects with Brazil in the hope that all my experiences counted for something within the arts world. When nothing proved successful and I was still working as a part-time nanny and a waitress I began to feel on the point of despair. Luckily a work opportunity arose itself back in Brazil translating a book on the rituals of Brazilian religion Umbanda. I took it – got back on a flight to Rio and spend 3 months immersing myself in the world of festival rituals whilst working on the translation. It was during this time that I encountered the “Pomba Gira” a powerful female spirit found within Umbanda- she personifies female transgression, liberation and a love of partying. This time when I got on a flight back to London I was re-energized by Pomba Gira spirit and determined to find a way to “Unleash” it on the London party scene.
To do just that I united a team of London based performers, musicians and event producers to host our own version of the Pomba Gira “ritual” in a local pub – we called it the “Pomba Girl Party” . And so the first ever group of Pomba Girls was initiated. Once videos and photos of our party went viral we began to draw attention beyond our own circuit and out of the blew we were asked by content agency VCCP Kin to assist them in hosting a Carnival themed staff party. The experience of working in a corporate environment was something neither I nor the other Pomba Girls anticipated to be so rewarding – we were well paid, treated like royalty and best of all- able to perform for an audience who genuinely loved what we did and happily involved themselves in the action!
I decided it was time to “get down to business” and work out how I could generate revenue via the Pomba Girls by tapping into the events industry. I signed up for the Princes Trust Enterprise program who helped develop my business model and officially launch the Pomba Girls in Sept 2015 and continuously given me mentoring support. The past 12 months has been a whirlwind operation. My crew of Pomba Girls have now hosted parties in pubs, clubs, music festivals, Royal Palaces and even on board our very own “Pirate Ship!”
To enable us to do all the fun stuff, I have needed to channel my energy in securing investment, building partnerships, closing sales, liaising with clients and dealing with the day to day running of a business. It is this personal journey I have undertaken as an entrepreneur that has been the hardest part – and whilst it has enabled me to keep doing things my way there have been many bleak moments wherein I have felt deeply frustrated and isolated; times when everything that has been achieved seems to amount to nothing because it is so drastically far off from where I want it to be.
It is combating these “lows” – that I imagine are the breaking points for many entrepreneurs that StartUp Kitchen has been a real lifeline. Not only have their ever positive high-energy team been on hand to provide encouragement but more importantly they have been able to supply practical solutions to help me drive my business forward. With everything from hot seat mentoring sessions with industry experts around their “kitchen table” to chances to partake in free workshops in areas such as the all essential financial management. Alongside the activities hosted at Albion HQ – their team has generously devoted time to reaching out to their extensive network of business contacts that can open the kind of doors that needed to take my business to the next level.
The more I continue to grow as an entrepreneur nourished by the support of platforms like Startup Kitchen the more opportunities beckon for the future. We are living in an exciting moment right now – as our world becomes ever more digital and therefore ever more global, business are under pressure to connect with different cultures and think creatively. Since setting up the Pomba Girls I have been amazed by the rise in experimental marketing campaigns and “customer experiences” created by brands which can offer major opportunities for us as culturally engaged performers via business collaborations. This is not only in the events sector- which is becoming ever more elaborate, theatrical and interactive but also via marketing stunts shared across social media which can turn our city landscape into a playground for live performance. Having devoted so much of my life performing on the streets of Rio – seeing these kind of stunts quite literally sets my heart racing and I cannot wait to create something spectacular on the streets of London one day!
With such opportunities for my own creative fulfillment opening up within the world of business I no longer have the fear of compromising my vision by thinking commercially – which is the frank answer I give to those who question me on my right to “sell” the Pomba Girls to the corporate sector. And I still believe wholeheartedly that the Pomba Girls centers around our pursuit for female empowerment. Certainly for me, learning how to conquer a world where “cash is king” (as spoken once at the Startup Kitchen table) and run a businesses successfully will I am sure empower me enough to get what I want from life. After all, the more my business continues to grow and generate a profit the more freedom I will have to do things- my way!