Celebrating Women leading the change

International Women’s Day is an annual event to celebrate women’s achievements and spread the message of female empowerment and gender equality across the world. We chat to two inspiring women leading the change and driving the mindful drinking movement.

Meet Laura Willoughby, Founder of Club Soda

Tell us about your story? Where did the idea for Club Soda come about?

When I gave up nearly 8 years ago, I was struck by the fact that there was very little online to support you if you wanted to change your drinking. Run a marathon, lose weight, stop smoking – they all have a host of tools and forums, but I drew a blank on drinking.

I didn’t want to go to AA as I felt it wasn’t for me and after talking to other people I realised I wasn’t alone. There are lots of us out there who want a bit of extra support, but don’t want to go to meetings every day, or dive into expensive therapy. That’s why I started Club Soda, in an effort to meet other like-minded people. With Club Soda we wanted to create something that was like Weight Watchers for booze. Some of our members are moderating. Some are alcohol free. Some flip-flop between the two, and others are simply taking some time off. Attitudes are changing and we’re more accepting that people may make different choices around their health and wellbeing.

Tell us about your long term goals for Club Soda

We now go beyond just supporting individuals. Our goal is to create a world where nobody feels out of place not drinking. So we are working to make socialising without alcohol more acceptable. So you can find (and nominate) venues that are good for mindful drinkers on clubsodaguide.com. You can even pick up our free pub hack packs to try and nudge venues near you. It’s about making socialising better for everyone, regardless of why you may not be drinking tonight.

What do you think is causing people to stop and think about their relationship with alcohol? 

There is a mixture of cross-generational and demographic trends all going on at once. Younger people are drinking less. Even if they do have some messy night outs, those are less frequent. They are more conscious of their mental health and don’t want a digital footprint of drunken photos to follow them as they enter the world of work.

My generation, ladettes who are over 35, are beginning to realise that alcohol has become a coping mechanism, and if they want to improve their mental health in particular they need to cut down the number of hangovers. That is not to say that people will stop drinking completely. 8.6 million people will be cutting down this year, and people who still drink alcohol are the biggest purchasers of alcohol-free drinks.

What has been your proudest moment with Club Soda so far?

I never thought we would bring a book out, so that has been a bit epic. And I never in a million years thought we would be doing mindful drinking festivals – yet we have just finished our 7th. The last one was an amazing celebration of drinks and inspiring people.

There’s been an influx of lots of fab low/no launches, where do you hope to see this go?

I for one hope this is a trend that sticks, which is why I am so keen to work through Club Soda to break down the barriers for the new brands in this space. We need to see it as more that the drinks alone, it is part of a wider shift that makes our pubs and bars feel more inclusive and the experience of going out being great for everyone, regardless of the strength of the drink in the glass.

What would be your best piece of advice to other women looking to set up their own business or community?

Start something, don’t think you can’t do something, you can. Even if you just start blogging about your idea – start to make it real in some way – it will open up some great conversations.  

Who is your female idol and why?

I tend to be very touched by people who have just died (I think I read the economist obituaries too much). Their stories stay with me and I think about what they achieved. So for me right now Dr Mags Portman who was the exact same age as me when she died last year. She was a campaigner helping people get access to PrEP and then was killed by a disease relating to the presence of asbestos in one of her early work places.  Mel Gifford also died recently, again another contemporary in age, but she defied expectations around ‘career’ and created a world she though we would all enjoy, Giffords Circus, and invited us in to share it with her.

What is a motto you live by?

My background is politics and I am a liberal for a number of reasons, but particularly because I believe that no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity

Meet Millie Gooch, Founder of Sober Girl Society

Tell us about your story?

I gave up drinking alcohol in 2018 and started looking online and on Instagram for groups and communities but there was very little out there. Around 7 months later I founded Sober Girl Society which is an Instagram based community of women who are looking to change their relationship with alcohol, be that either ditching it altogether or reducing the amount they consume.

SGS is all about sisterhood, what made you want to set it up specifically for the female community?

Women and men use alcohol in very different ways. Men tend use alcohol for the social aspect and females use it for an emotional tool and is promoted to us as something to wind down with or to heel heartbreak. A lot of alcohol companies are trying to target girls specifically with ridiculous things such as ‘Fuck Boy Tears’ gin or bright pink sparkly alcohol. It’s seen as the norm as it’s been happening for so long, but people are beginning to wake up to it. I wanted to create a safe space for women to come to events and not be worried that it would turn into a dating event. I am also a real feminist at heart!

What can people expect if they attend one of your Sober Girl Society events?

A lot of people who attend the events stay in touch, if you don’t leave with a friend that would be very rare. Most people leave swapping numbers or exchanging Instagram. You will absolutely make one if not many more friends. A lot of people attend on their own, everyone is so friendly, and you wouldn’t get someone attending one of our events who is a bit of an arsehole.

What has been your proudest moment for SGS so far?

In terms of SGS, every event is such a high and brings me so much joy. To see people make a real connection and to see them leave with friends, there is just no better feeling! Especially as SGS is quite Instagram focused, being able to get out from behind a screen and connecting with the people that follow you and understanding more about them. There are not many people who get to go out and get to speak with the people they interact with online, so I feel very lucky to be able to do so.

As I personal achievement, for Sober for October, I took over the stories at ‘I Weigh’ which is Jameela Jamil’s Diversity Inclusivity platform. I got to spread awareness of sobriety through the platform so that was a personal highlight for me.

You’ve become a bit of a celebrity in the sober community, did you expect it would turn out like this?

NO! I still don’t, and will never get used to when people who come to my meetings come up to me and tell me how excited they are to meet me, I get embarrassed and I’m like “OMG please stop!” I’m very lucky I’ve got such great family and friends around me that keep me very grounded and if I talk about sobriety, they say can we just not talk about it for once! I never really wanted to position myself as an influencer because I have seen the negative impact it can have on people and I would really struggle to share every part of my life. I always position myself as the Founder rather than a page about me. I don’t think I’m thick skinned enough to write about my journey and put pictures up of myself every single day, so I much prefer that it’s a community. I don’t really get any negative comments or trolls and if I do, they are really nicely worded and more like suggestions. For me, it’s such a lovely joyous thing to run and if I want to take 3 weeks off and not post a single thing about myself, I can do. At the end of the day, I am still going through my own sobriety journey so as well as helping other people, I’m still only 2 years sober so it’s still quite early in my journey and I still need to look out for me. I don’t want to just be the girl that doesn’t drink, I just want to be me and be with my friends and family and I like that I don’t have to put every aspect of myself out into the world. I like to keep an element of my life, my life and one that I don’t share with the world.

What are your long-term goals for SGS?

I want us to run brunches all across the UK, I’d love to be able to hold one in each major city, so that everyone can at least be able to come to one of them conveniently. We have got a very big US presence so it would be amazing to be able to take it overseas. Overall, I just want to expand the meetups, do them more regularly and hopefully get to a point where people will be able to run and host their own SGS meet-ups. I want to get into a position where we can hire people to do this, however, at the moment, it’s just going to be me running up and down the country.

80K followers and counting on Instagram. What is the secret?

Genuinely there is no secret, I don’t push it out majorly, it just climbed. I think it’s just a testament to how many more people daily are questioning their relationship with alcohol. A lot more people are actually asking the question, why are we drinking and doing this to ourselves? For so many years it’s been ingrained in our society so they have not even questioned it and then you’re like ‘should I not be drinking!? Actually….I think I’d feel really great if I didn’t really drink. The tide is definitely turning. One of the major turning points, is that people are actually discussing how alcohol is affecting their mental health. I think for a long time we’ve concentrated on things like heart disease and cancer whereas now we are like OMG this could really be affecting my mental health.

Who is your female idol and why?

I think Gina Martin is really great, she was the activist that got the upskirting rule. She took a situation that was really traumatic and could have really impacted her for the rest of her life and made it into a really positive thing for other women and that’s what I want to do with SGS. I had this really crappy phase with alcohol in my life and I did some really stupid stuff and I could have let all those things fester with me or I could use them and actually tell my story and do it in a positive way. I would say she is a big icon of mine.

What advice would you give to those wanting to set up their own community or their own business?

I would just say just start it and don’t be afraid to start small. I think a lot of people go into it thinking I’m going to create something that people want but I went into it thinking ‘what would I want? And what am I missing. So really, I created SGS for my own selfish needs and chances are if you feel like you need something there will be someone else out there who feels like they need it too. That has been really helpful and because of that I am so passionate about it. SGS is my demographic with the people I am speaking to rather than trying to find a gap in the market. Also don’t go into it if it’s money you are looking for, I still have a job and it isn’t a money maker, you have to do it as you really care about the cause.

What is a motto you live by?

It’s Instagram’s favourite quote but my nan used to say it to myself all the time which is This too shall pass. Don’t always worry too much about the bad times as they won’t always be that way but also enjoy the good times and appreciate the moment.