JENNIFER Cunningham is happy to share the trials she faced as a woman starting a business in Spain and the personal tragedy that fuelled her determination to become a success.
Like many of those who end up living in Spain it was after enjoying a holiday with friends on the Mediterranean coast that Jennifer took the decision to relocate from North London to sunnier climes for a quieter life.
“My late husband was much older than me and he after suffering a cardiac arrest he wasn’t expected to live long, so we took a snap decision to move over to the Costa Blanca where the climate suited him and in fact he thrived and lived another 12 years,” she tells The Olive Press from her home in Javea.
“I was suffering with diabetes but the move gave us both a new lease of life, swimming every day in the sea and the Mediterranean diet really helped me and the Spanish way of living, taking time to enjoy family and friends really gave me a new way of looking at life.”
But Jennifer wasn’t content to quietly live out the rest of her days and over three decades she has forged a reputation as one of the leading expat business owners in Spain running seven offices across the Costa Blanca and one in Lanzarote as a broker offering private insurance designed especially for members of the expat community.
She learnt early on that to get ahead as a woman in a male-dominated business sphere, she had to be fearless.
“I was a widow, surviving on a meagre widow’s pension and so the only way I could start up was to mortgage my home, borrow money and make it work,” she admits.
“I had problems finding a bank who would support me and I remember the first time I presented my business plan to get a loan, the bank manager wouldn’t address me directly but kept looking towards the male friend I had brought with me.
“I had to point out that it was me who was borrowing the money, that I was the business owner and when they didn’t take me seriously, I walked out of there and went somewhere else.”
She eventually found a sympathetic bank manager, a man who has supported her ever since her first venture and who she has stayed with as he moved across different banks.
She then began working with Liberty Insurance and ASSSA Seguros designing special packages for the expat market.
“At the beginning they didn’t want to take me on and they felt sure that I would fail,” she reveals. “My style of selling was completely new to them, the culture here in Spain was so different.”
“As an entrepreneur I had to take risks and convince those who had the financial backing of huge institutions behind them to take a risk on me, but I proved myself and in the end, those very same people looked to me to lead strategy and even asked me to teach them how to do it.”
She recalls now that she can hardly believe the risks she took.
“I realise that I was utterly fearless, when I look back I think to myself “God, did I really do that?”
She readily admits that what drove her determination to succeed was the personal tragedy that saw her lose her son from cancer when he was only 33-years-old.
“When you lose a child, you just want to die. You can’t get over it and I just knew I had to pour all my energy into doing something to stay alive, losing my son made me want to do something to be proud of,” she said, recounting a loss that even now, more than 25 years later, causes her voice to break with sorrow.
After spending the last months with her dying son Paul in a Sue Ryder hospice in Bedfordshire, Jennifer returned to Spain where she lost her husband just over a year later. Finding herself all alone as her other son had moved to Japan, she looked for a new focus.
“The hospice had taken such exceptional care of my son but on my return I looked around to see what would happen if someone was in the same circumstance here in Spain and discovered that there really wasn’t anything similar. People were sent home to die to be cared for by their family, but what if that wasn’t possible?”
The realisation led Jennifer to set up the Paul Cunningham Nurses Charity to offer free hospice care at home for the terminally ill among the expat community on the Costa Blanca.
“The business and the charity have been my reason to get out of bed and do justice to my life and to his,” she admits.
Now in her seventies, does she have any plans to retire?
“No chance!” she laughs. “I love doing what I do, and will continue as a long as I am capable of doing so.”