Sipra turns playtime into acclaimed business venture

Play Arena, Sipra Deb
Play Arena, Sipra Deb

She started as a molecular biologist, spent five years as a school teacher and made headlines as she campaigned to discover the truth about her father’s murder in India…

Now, aged 40, Dr Sipra Deb has been shortlisted for national honours as founder of one of Sheffield’s most successful new businesses, the Play Arena in Little London Road, Heeley.

Sipra, who lives in Millhouses, is one of six pioneering business leaders shortlisted for next Wednesday’s Entrepreneurial Asian Woman of Achievement Award.

“I’m gobsmacked!” she says. “It’s a real honour to be among such a respected group. I’ve never really thought of myself as an Asian in business, but being nominated for the award gives you renewed vigour. And maybe I can provide the inspiration for other people to think: ‘I can do this’.”

Sipra was born in Ethiopia and lived in Kenya and Nigeria before the family moved to London. Initially a scientist, she moved to Sheffield when she married businessman Andrew Mills and retrained as a teacher, working at High Storrs Secondary until taking a break to have her three sons.

But her life changed dramatically when her father, Protul Deb, was kidnapped during a business trip to his Indian homeland. Although a ransom was paid, Protul failed to return home. Sipra launched a campaign, forcing British and Indian police to investigate, and eventually established his murder.

The case took over her life for a time, attracting considerable media interest, so as things returned to normal, she welcomed the chance to throw herself into the challenge of a new business.

Sipra spent two years planning the Play Arena after spotting a gap in Sheffield’s family entertainment market. She used the internet to research her business plan, producing a document that secured funding from six banks.

It opened in 2011, creating 30 jobs and transforming the old Stokes paint warehouse into the region’s biggest indoor family leisure centre, with slides and soft play areas, a driving track and a zipwire.

Sipra aimed both to inspire city children and their families, and to improve their health and well-being. But she had no idea just how successful the centre would be. In its first year, the Play Arena smashed the projected turnover target of £800,000.

“It has really surpassed my expectations. And it’s going from strength to strength. Despite the recession it’s still showing growth of over 20%”

The business has also won a string of accolades for its founder.

Last year Sipra was a finalist in the national Marie Claire and Everywoman business awards; in February she was named Business Person of the Year in the Sheffield Business Awards. Now comes the latest awards ceremony, in London.

“As much as anything, this is for my family. The last time I was in the media was for all the wrong reasons, so this is a good story that shows life does carry on.”