The former fintech specialist on her art initiative MasterPeace, life after the city and appearing on Dragons’ Den
Tell us about your company MasterPeace and what inspired you to found it.
We launched MasterPeace in the autumn of 2019 as London’s first dedicated mindful art experience, as well as a curated art gallery. Our team of instructors are professional artists in their own right, with backgrounds in mindfulness, meditation, art therapy and more.
The inspiration for MasterPeace came from personal burnout, love of art and recognition of the wellbeing benefits that come from creativity. At the time, I was leading a busy corporate life, as well as caring for my mum who had advanced cancer, which left little time to focus on me. The defining moment was when my husband bought me a canvas to try and reignite my childhood love of art, and I began painting again. It was the first thing I did that totally tuned me out of my own busy head and made it effortless to focus on just being.
The timing coincided with the publication of UCL research showing that even a small amount of creativity can help you cope with stress, anxiety, and even the management of depression. The research found that the greatest opportunity to benefit is among novice creatives, particularly when the exploration of their new creative pursuit is done through face-to-face interaction and on a routine basis.
I spotted a gap in the market after realising there were few art studios in the capital that focussed on art as a form of self-care. Most studios offered only formal short courses that were intimidating and required more commitment than I could dedicate, or were more like ‘painting parties’ where the focus perhaps was more on the ‘party’.
My goal was to make routine, creative-restoration as easy, accessible and mainstream as booking a yoga class. I wanted a place that I could book into as effortlessly as I book a yoga or fitness class: a regular weekly drop-in schedule, pay-as-you-go, a beautiful clean inspiring place full of inspiring people. By making art more accessible, it was my hope that more people could benefit from art’s restorative potential. So, after a few months, I left my job to start MasterPeace.
We are so happy to have reopened our studio doors and are welcoming more people into the studio to tap into the transformative powers of creativity to revitalise and boost mental wellness. We’ve also just launched our new alfresco classes that take place in our lovely courtyard in Eccleston Yards.
Alfresco MasterPeace classes in the courtyard at Eccleston Yards
What were you doing before?
I worked for a bank designing and launching new mobile banking app concepts – the sort of ideas that would help make a mainstream bank feel a bit more like Monzo or Revolut. It was a creative job in a not-so-traditionally-creative industry.
How hard or easy was it for you to make the decision to leave your City job?
It was difficult to leave the security, and I actually loved what I used to do, but I felt completely connected to the vision I had for MasterPeace and I felt like I couldn’t not do it. My friends and family thought I was mad, some of them still do.
How different is your lifestyle and working day as an entrepreneur and business owner, compared to when you were working in the City?
Ironically, I gave up my corporate life to create a mindful business with the hope of carving out more time and flexibility in my life, but I’m probably busier now than I’ve ever been. What feels different is where my energy comes from. I used to struggle to get out of bed in the morning to go to work and now my eyes are open before the alarm goes off, my brain whirring with new ideas and hilarious memories from class the night before. The stories I hear from our guests on the impact our classes and kits have had on them keeps me motivated every day, whether that’s hearing about how they’re sleeping better at night or simply rebuilding the confidence to get creative again after years of being too afraid to.
Zena El Farra in the MasterPeace studio
Has your former career and experiences of working in the City aided you in launching your own business?
For sure. I learnt a lot about pitching ideas, which has helped me secure the investors we now have onboard. I have a good understanding of the finances, the legal side of things, pricing – the more technical sides of running a business.
What do you miss the most and least about your former career and lifestyle?
I miss the financial security that comes with working for a big company. Now I do feel the pressure of being personally responsible for paying about 30 different people each month. Some months, especially during lockdown, it kept me awake at night. It’s a challenge at the age of 28. But it’s only because I care so much about every person in my team – they’re what makes MasterPeace special.
I don’t miss being disconnected from my customer. I absolutely adore our guests, I love being with them, it’s the best bit of the job. Before, I only saw customers in focus groups and behind glass screens, now I know their kids names, I hear their stories, I really feel part of a community.
As a new business owner, what was your initial reaction when we went into lockdown for the first time?
Lockdown started when MasterPeace was just six months old, when the business was only just finding its feet and starting to race. I definitely went into survival mode. As a team of freelancers, myself included, we didn’t qualify for furlough or anything like that so it was down to me to adapt the business fast so we could continue to do what we do best.
How did you navigate this challenge to your business model?
I wanted to bring the studio experience into our community’s homes, to help them cope with the anxiety around Covid-19, and the negative effects of self-isolation.
Within three days, I launched a series of At Home Art Kits, so people could learn how to paint from their living rooms. You can choose from a range of contemporary designs to paint, including a colourful landscape of London by professional artist Anne-Louise Felstead.
Each kit costs £28, contains all the materials you need to complete the work and is delivered by first-class post. The kit also comes with a 45-minute pre-recorded video masterclass tutorial in our home-made mobile App, or live on Zoom. We are adding new kits all the time.
I thought we’d be shut for a few weeks, not months, and so the kits were just intended to tide us over for a little while. I had no idea what was really to come.
Zena appearing on Dragon’s Den
Any advice you would share, about approaching challenging and unexpected situations, based on your own experiences of the past year?
The words that were ringing through my head throughout the crises were Charles Darwin’s ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.’ If you’re willing and able to adapt, you’re unstoppable.
What was it like appearing on Dragon’s Den?
It was surreal, full of highs and lows, but ultimately a very happy ending. With Deborah’s support we’ve been able to totally relaunch our Art Kits into gorgeous sustainable packaging, and we’ve gone from making each kit to order from my spare room to having a proper production house in Sloane Square where we can now make them in their thousands, shipping all over the world.
Are the Dragon’s as brutal as they come across on TV?
What viewers don’t always realise (I certainly didn’t!) is that the negotiation with the Dragons goes on for hours in real life, and they edit the footage down to the seven most savage minutes they can find. In ‘real life’ they were actually really very lovely, but it’s amazing what some sharp editing can do. When I watched it along with the British public I have to say I was a little startled by how different it felt to what happened in reality, but… it did make for much more exciting viewing.
What is it like working with Deborah Meaden? How would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?
Deborah is both ferociously smart and incredibly kind in equal measure. She feels to me like the business’s guardian angel. We speak very regularly and our values are so aligned on everything – from business, to politics, to the environment, to the role we can play in doing good at every opportunity. She doesn’t hold back with her challenging views, but she’s always spot on, and with her help I feel we now have a business in a totally different league to where we were before.
What has she brought to your business that you hadn’t, or may not have, thought of yourself?
One example is Deborah’s commitment to making business as ethical and environmentally friendly as possible. She helped us transform our Art Kits to being nearly 100 per cent recyclable and/or reusable.
She has also helped us launch our brand-new product, ‘IlluminArty’, which is an Artist’s Projector for home, doubling up as a time-lapsing device, easel and even a desk lamp. And lastly, she’s helped us gear up to relaunch the studio post-lockdown, with a view to opening up many more around the country soon.
MasterPeace At Home Art Kit
What have you learned about securing and working with investors?
Be honest about everything – no skeletons in any closets, and no hot air – you’ll get found out eventually so don’t even bother (we certainly didn’t).
Only take on investors who you can really see yourself working with, you’ll make some BIG decisions with these people, so be sure you actually share common values.
Sincerely be open to guidance, be coachable. Many angel investors aren’t really doing it for the money per-se, they’re doing it to give back to someone promising. So take with open-arms and show you’re listening. If you’re stubborn and closed-minded, get a loan not an investor.
What are the benefits of taking time out to pursue creative hobbies?
We are inspired by research, such as that from UCL in collaboration with the BBC, which quantified the impact of painting and other forms of creativity for managing anxiety and depression. It concluded that creativity can reduce stress and anxiety in three main ways: as a ‘distraction tool’ to block out stress (76% of participants); as a ‘self-development tool’ to build up self-esteem and inner strength (69%); and as a ‘contemplation tool’, to get the headspace to reflect on problems and emotions (53%). These benefits are enhanced when the creative activity is new to you, engaged in regularly, and involves face-to-face social interaction (rather than virtual).
In general, art experiences as an adult are very formal, but mindful art focuses on the journey and the experience rather than the output. I think that mindful art can be a really great alternative to something like journaling as a form of meditation or mindfulness. Not everyone finds writing a meaningful or easy way to reflect so painting can be a great processing tool for some people. It allows time to be introspective and to physically experience one’s emotions without judgement or fear. In this way, it can be a super restorative experience.
How would you describe your own relationship with art?
Art to me is a route to a place, and that place is happy, at ease, without a worry in the world. When I paint, I don’t think about anything at all, I’m just there in the ‘now’. Time passes effortlessly in that place of ‘flow’. I don’t get attached to what I’ve actually painted, it sort of doesn’t ‘matter’ per se, I’m not a professional artist – my work isn’t for ‘sale’ and it doesn’t need to impress anyone. It’s just the physical outcome of an entirely psychological and emotional process, which brings me a quiet joy that nothing else quite compares to.
Zena El Farra is the founder of MasterPeace, a mindful art experience offering mindful painting experiences, at home art kits and virtual workshops that encourage participants to experience art as a way to manage stress, anxiety, depression and – or simply to boost the mood and relax. Prior to launching MasterPeace Zena was a Venture Developer at Barclays, creating fintech app concepts for millennial customers. masterpeace.studio