Hema Stewart, the CEO who went from ‘worrier’ to ‘warrior’

Hema Stewart is passionate about making a difference on the planet. That’s why she founded Curlicue, a business offering holistically sustainable gift wrap

Meet Hema Stewart, the founder of Curlicue, a sustainable gift wrapping company. Frustrated by the sight of plastic-infused wrapping paper and glittery bin liners piling up in landfills after the holiday season, Hema set out to create a solution that wouldn't compromise on design, quality, or price. Unable to find beautiful, eco-friendly gift wrap anywhere, she decided to create it herself.

We spoke to Hema to discover how she became a successful CEO, moving from a self-professes child ‘worrier’ to an inspirational ‘warrior’. 

Hi Hema, please tell us a little about yourself and your career journey so far.

My spirit animal is a platypus. Is it a duck? A beaver? An otter? Or perhaps a hodgepodge, evolved to be everything it needs to be. Just like a platypus, I’m made up of a hodgepodge of careers, abilities and passions. After university (where I did a joint honours degree that was indeed a hodgepodge of classes; from Shakespeare and Chaucer to Gender Studies and International Business Communication), I went into the marketing industry, but in a round-about way. 

After working for one of the most famous central London department stores in Internal Communications, I realised that the type of company I work for really mattered to me. So I left and joined a boutique executive search agency that specialised in the Marketing industry as their Office and Marketing Manager. I did this to get a better understanding of the marketing world because I hadn’t been able to break through into the old boys club – and this role helped me grow so much! 

After that I did long stints at two different marketing agencies, building up my knowledge and expertise as a generalist marketer. After 10 years in Marketing, I launched Curlicue (after a lot of research and almost two years in the making!) and also set up a marketing consultancy called Kumari Consulting, aiming to help businesses and brands of all shapes and sizes.

What inspired you to found Curlicue?

A lot of frustration with gift wrap! I hated seeing bags of bin liners filled with all the plastic-infused wrapping paper, with glitter and foiling piled up on Christmas Day, going straight into landfill. It ruined the whole gift-giving experience for me (which I love!). I believe we shouldn’t have to compromise on design, quality and price, to be sustainable. 

Brown packaging paper will never appeal to the masses as a desired gift wrap product. But I couldn’t find holistically environmentally friendly gift wraps with superb designs anywhere. After a few years of searching and failing to find a beautiful sustainable gift wrap, I decided to create a solution to the problem myself.

Why was it important to you to launch a sustainable business?

It was important because the only way we can have a meaningful impact on climate change is by changing the behaviour of the masses. We need to create sustainable solutions that people really want to use. In the UK alone, we put 100 million rolls of wrapping paper into landfill each year, but by making a simple eco-friendly swap to Curlicue wrapping paper, we can have a big impact collectively. 

For me, the following elements for holistically sustainable gift wrap were crucial: plastic-free, made from 100% recycled paper, recyclable in household recycling, printed with vegetable ink, and made in the UK, plus beautiful bespoke designs. I set out on my research, not expecting to find a way to make this happen, but I did! After that, there were no excuses, even though it took a lot of hard work and determination to create Curlicue.

What challenges have you faced as a female founder?

While I have the skills to create a trusted brand and market a product authentically, I don’t have a background in sustainability. Unfortunately, the manufacturing industry is male-dominated and greenwashing is rife, so I had to ask difficult questions and have difficult conversations to ascertain whether the processes were legitimately eco and sustainable. 

I used my perceived lack of knowledge to my advantage, to ask all the questions I wanted in a direct manner, so there was nowhere to hide. Lucky for me, I found superb suppliers that are open, transparent and have all the credentials I was looking for – but sourcing sustainable suppliers is a minefield in an industry where more often than not there are no clear accreditations.

What have been your most significant career accomplishments?

Creating Curlicue! An immense learning curve, spiced up by high pressure and a lot of stress. But I’ve learnt more since launching Curlicue than ever before. Stepping into the known unknown, taking a measured risk and working on something I am truly passionate about has been incredible.

What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

I would tell my 15 year-old-self to stop worrying so much. As a child, I was a worrier, but as an adult, I like to think I became a warrior. Life isn’t easy but anything can be achieved with hard work, determination and a balance between logic and passion. Worrying is only helpful when it prepares us for what might be and how to handle those outcomes, but worrying for the sake of it isn’t helpful or productive.

What would you say has been the secret to your success?

I believe success is subjective, so I wouldn’t say a secret to success really exists. For me, the fire to be better and do more is what keeps me going. A dogged determination in combination with hard work and tenacity for betterment and improvement – of myself, the world and for our collective futures.


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