Alexandra Perry, a two-time breast cancer survivor who has undergone 12 surgeries over the past decade, is starting her own bodywear brand, H.E.R Bodywear, specifically designed for post-surgery women to boost their self-esteem.

From being a single parent diagnosed with breast cancer to a mature university student, she has come all the way to establish her own business, winning two grants of £2,000 and £2,500 from Nottingham Trent University and University of Nottingham (Ingenuity Impact) and securing a business loan of £14,500 through First Enterprise – Enterprise Loans.

This article is based on the conversation we had with Alexandra upon her loan being approved.

I am not just a breast cancer survivor, or warrior, – and I don’t want to become just another cancer statistic. I’m a mother, a sister, a daughter, a designer, an entrepreneur. I am a woman who knows how good it feels to be empowered by my underwear.   

I used to feel confident in my lingerie, with countless options to choose from, but now, since surgery, I am limited to just the functional or clinical bras with no personality. I miss the excitement of shopping for something that made me feel confident and empowered.  

I wish I could have all of my old choices back. So here I am, starting to design them myself; I am creating a bodywear brand of my own. 

It all started when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 30, months after I had my first baby. 

I just could not believe it.  

I had so much to live for. So many plans for my future. I felt way too young!  

To be honest, I didn’t really have time to process my thoughts or emotions. I just knew that I wanted to get whatever treatments and procedures that were needed to be done, and get them done quickly.

And that’s exactly what happened. Thankfully I got the all clear in 2013 and could continue with everything happening in my life – simple as that. 

I worked as a product design developer in the sportswear industry for a while, but eventually had to leave due to relocation and low pay, even though I really enjoyed my job. As a single parent, the cost of childcare made it impractical for me to continue working full time. 

I went down to part-time hours, doing my best to make ends meet, but was still struggling. 

Nothing really worked financially, so I decided to go to university instead. I did a three-year degree in fashion management, which perfectly aligned with my past work experiences in the fashion industry. That was a game-changer for me. Not only did it mean free childcare and free school dinners for my kids, but I also got a lot of support as a mature student.  

Unfortunately, just as I was coming to the end of my second year at Uni, and right at the beginning of lockdown, I was hit like a tonne of bricks with my second breast cancer diagnosis.   

After lots of further surgeries and an intensive course of radiotherapy, I continued my final year of university from home.   

Then all of a sudden, everything fell into place. 

I decided to write my dissertation on the post-surgery bra market.  

Besides having lots of my own personal experience of wearing post-surgery bras, I interviewed lots of other breast cancer patients, industry experts, designers, and medical professionals.   

What I found out was astonishing. Only 110 out of almost 64,000 styles of bras sold in the UK were specifically designed for post-surgery or mastectomy, representing only 0.2% of the market, despite 15% of British adult females being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.   

There is such a huge gap in the market. There are so many women with inadequate choices for bras after breast surgery.  

The bras available now are either functional, comfortable or clinical, but not necessarily attractive. And, you know, wearing a bra that makes you feel worse than you did before is not exactly ideal. The recovery process after breast cancer surgery is not just physical, there is an emotional and psychological element as well. And at a time when these ladies are feeling their worst, the lingerie industry is only letting them down even further by not providing the best support possible.   

This is where the idea originated.   

55,000 women in the UK every year are not given a choice when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. The least I can do is provide a few options to help support their self-esteem during their recovery.   

So, I went from there. I developed a business plan and was more than ready to get my own business up and running upon graduation. 

But starting up was not easy, especially when I had limited capital to start with. 

I was caught in a catch-22, trying to either find an investor or apply for funding. Without a prototype product, or proof of sales or traction, it was a real challenge to be faced with.   

I decided to join a business plan competition held by Nottingham Trent University Enterprise and won £2,000. 

I went on to apply for the Ingenuity Impact programme hosted by the University of Nottingham and ended up winning two small awards: a regional award and a People’s Choice award, which gave me an additional £2,500.  

So in total I had £4,500, which was quite a great boost for a humble start, but it wasn’t enough for a production run.  

I discovered the Start Up Loan programme and decided to apply for it through First Enterprise – Enterprise Loans. Being unemployed and having had breast cancer for the past ten years, I was worried that the loan would be out of my reach.  

But to my pleasant surprise, I was approved! I secured a business loan of £14,500, with which I am now able to comfortably start the production process. 

I still think to myself it was Simon’s magic that led to my loan approval. 

Simon was the Investment Manager at First Enterprise – Enterprise Loans that guided me throughout the whole loan application process. It was straightforward and quite simple, as I was supported all the way through it.  

He took the time to delve into my personal circumstances and uncovered all the potential issues that might deter me from getting the loan approved.  

He came up with a thoughtful solution for every obstacle we spotted, which filled me with hope and confidence to go forward with the application. 

He had a thorough understanding of what would make a good loan recipient, including the factors that loan assessors would look for and how the entire process should ideally unfold. 

And last of all, he expressed a firm belief in myself and my business, which was assuring for me as a business owner at her early stages. 

It was not just a loan – I learnt practical lessons about running a business. 

I worked out my survival budget with thorough guidance from Simon, which helped me realise where I could cut back on unnecessary expenses and save more money. Putting it down on paper made me think twice about my spending habits.  

I tried to find affordable suppliers in the UK who could produce my samples and potentially a small production run, and I was successful. So instead of having to outsource from outside the country as previously planned, I found two good companies in the UK to work with. 

I realised that taking out a small business loan was a better option for me than seeking an investor, as I could just get started quicker and figure out my finances later. It was impractical to get an investor without a physical product or sales traction. And seeking investment means giving away a good share of my company. I wish someone had told me this earlier so I didn’t waste a year chasing it.  

My only advice for entrepreneurs like me is do your research. 

Before you jump into pursuing your dream, do plenty of research first. Don’t quit your job or anything until you’ve done your homework. Make sure there’s a viable market for your idea.   

But also, research all of the awesome free resources and opportunities that are open and available to you. There is a lot of free support available out there, such as mentors, courses, and accelerator programs. Don’t hesitate to reach out for any support you need.  

Once you have done your research, and you are confident your idea can work, I’d say, just go for it, pursue your dream, believe in yourself, you will get there. Just do it!