From radical ideas to 15-minute meetings, seven trailblazing British businesswomen tell us what their heroes do that has inspired them the most.
Last updated: 13 Oct 2019 6 min read
The ethos of Notonthehighstreet.com and Holly & Co founder Holly Tucker MBE has not been lost on Merlie Calvert, founder of legal-tech start-up Farillio.
“Holly’s message about entrepreneurs needing a cause that’s far greater than they are is particularly important to me as it chimes so much with Farillio’s values of bravery and empowerment,” says Calvert, whose venture sets out to make legal help more accessible for small businesses. “I believe passionately that when you’re starting a business it can’t be about your ego; you will ultimately fail if it’s all about you.”
Calvert says she would love to create a lasting legacy like her hero, and says she also admires Tucker’s David and Goliath-style levelling of the playing field (Notonthehighstreet.com began on Tucker’s kitchen table). “Holly’s a true trailblazer and that’s how I’ve set out my approach to both business and life,” says Calvert.
Sophie Devonshire, CEO of strategic consultancy The Caffeine Partnership, who sold her previous business in 2013, admires Karren Brady.
“She’s firm, fair and prepared to help others,” says Devonshire, “Her approach gave me some invaluable perspectives when I was an entrepreneur looking to scale up my business.”
Devonshire says she especially likes the West Ham United vice-chairman’s humour and the way she holds 15-minute meetings that achieve more than most meetings do in two hours. “She’s also excellent at not pretending that it’s easy to manage life, work and everything else,” Devonshire says, “and she’s never afraid to stand up for women in the workplace.”
The attribute of Brady that Devonshire would most like to emulate is her confidence. “As women, we are often conditioned to be self-deprecating, so confidence without arrogance is really important,” she says.
Outdoor clothing company Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard has long been an inspiration to Lucy Jewson, founder of organic baby and children’s clothes brand Frugi.
“Most businesses have a CSR [corporate social responsibility] policy now,” says Jewson, “but Yvon founded Patagonia on these principles back in the 1960s, and his book Let My People Go Surfing was a huge influence on me when starting Frugi.”
Jewson says that one of Chouinard’s ideas that really stuck with her is the notion that it is better for businesses to give back: “It really clicked that if you want green business to thrive in our capitalist world, you really need to prove that giving back can make you more profitable,” she says, adding that she also learned from Chouinard that it pays to make staff feel that they are being invested in for their whole lifetime.
“She marches to the beat of her own drum and is not afraid to be outspoken on issues that impact her industry”Ann Swain, founder, the Association of Professional Staffing Companies
For Ann Swain, on the executive committee of Women in Recruitment and founder of the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo), there’s no more inspiring a figure in business than Dame Helena Morrissey, head of personal investing at insurer Legal & General.
“I once shared a stage with her at a business event and you can’t fail to be impressed by her presence and passion,” says Swain, who feels that her hero – one of only a handful of women to ever have been a CEO of an investment bank – is a true trailblazer. “She marches to the beat of her own drum and is not afraid to be outspoken on issues that impact her industry,” says Swain, “specifically gender equality and wider workplace-inclusion issues.” Dame Morrissey, Swain points out, is the founder of the 30% Club, whose aim is to see more women in the boardroom.
Flora Davidson, co-founder of Supplycompass, a new responsible sourcing platform, hails her hero, Yael Aflalo, who founded sustainable fashion brand, Reformation.
“The Reformation mission was borne out of visiting factories in China and seeing the social and environmental impact of fast fashion manufacturing,” explains Davidson, who was inspired to adopt a similar approach when launching her own business: in order to understand how both brands and manufacturers would use Supplycompass, she spent two years inside factories, getting to grips with the challenges faced by either side. “Yael helped change the perception of what it means to be sustainable and made it more accessible,” says Davidson. “We’re doing the same thing on a business-to-business level. I want to show businesses that going sustainable is easier than they think and also makes great business sense.”
The work of America’s former First Lady has been incredibly motivating to Carolyn Radford, CEO of Mansfield Town football club.
“I think what I find most inspiring about Michelle,” says Radford, “was her Let Girls Learn initiative aimed at helping young women around the word to go to school and stay in school. As a woman in a male-dominated industry such as football, I’m keen to help more young women continue in education while supporting them through different training schemes and work placements, particularly in sport.”
What Radford also likes is that Obama isn’t afraid to admit her mistakes. “She dusts herself off, learns where she went wrong and moves on – despite criticism, she never took her eye off the goal,” she says. “I too juggle bringing up a family with working full-time, I’ve faced criticism during my time at Mansfield Town and of course I make mistakes, but my vision is clear.”
Shazia Mustafa, co-founder of Third Door, a family-friendly co-working space with an on-site Ofsted-registered nursery, is inspired by the tenacity of Thomasina ‘Tommi’ Miers, co-founder of the Wahaca chain of restaurants.
“Wahaca is one of my favourite places to eat,” says Mustafa, “and I had the absolute pleasure to watch Thomasina talk about her journey in 2018. She was so authentic when she spoke – she didn’t hide herself or cover up her emotions as she talked about the hardships she has faced. It was very refreshing to hear the other side of running a business – the one that isn’t perfect.”
Like her hero, Mustafa says she would love to scale her business and expand across multiple venues – “while also remaining true to who I am and continuing to help women in business”.