Marking the launch of this year’s awards for female entrepreneurs, the founders share top tips


How to make your millions — by Britain’s savviest business women: Marking the launch of this year’s awards for female entrepreneurs, the inspirational founders share their top tips

  • The Everywoman Awards have celebrated female entrepreneurs with extraordinary stories to tell for the past 20 years
  • Latest figures show that the fastest growing group of millionaires in the UK are self-made female entrepreneurs
  • Max Benson, Kanya King, Melissa Odabash and Karen Gill share their wisdom

Eyes starry, Maxine Benson and Karen Gill are reminiscing about their ­Everywoman Awards, which, for the past 20 years, have celebrated female entrepreneurs with extraordinary stories to tell. 

‘They’re just jaw-dropping,’ Karen exclaims. ‘Every year there are tears in the room as we hear how much these women have overcome. We always think “We’re not going to be able to top this” and then the following year we do.’ Take last year’s Everywoman Woman of the Year, Brie Read, chief executive of hosiery firm Snag Group, who founded her company because she wanted tights that were the right size. Not too much to ask, surely, but as Brie, 40, discovered, ‘Everybody was the same — whatever their shape, tights didn’t fit.’ 

Having raised £130,000 from family and friends, in four years Brie had a turnover of £45million, with two million customers in 90 countries. 

‘And this was during a pandemic,’ adds Maxine (or Max, as she’s always known). The previous year’s winner was Rachel Watkyn, founder of eco-packaging group Tiny Box, who overcame a childhood with abusive and neglectful parents that led to her being put into care; ill health including a brush with breast cancer; a hacked website; floods; and a warehouse fire that saw her lose £10,000 worth of stock. 

Role models (clockwise from top): Max Benson, Kanya King, Melissa Odabash and Karen Gill share their top tips for making it in business

Role models (clockwise from top): Max Benson, Kanya King, Melissa Odabash and Karen Gill share their top tips for making it in business 

Now she employs about 80 people and last year’s turnover was £10million. ‘She’s phenomenal,’ Max says. ‘Her staff adore her. She’s spoken so brilliantly about how the trauma in her personal life prepared her for the struggles of business.’ 

Latest figures show that the fastest-growing group of millionaires in the UK are self-made female entrepreneurs. While women’s wealth is still vastly overshadowed by that of men — just over 11 per cent of millionaires in the UK are female — women are growing richer at a far quicker pace. 

Today, many women honoured by Everywoman — Max and Karen’s networking organisation for female businesswomen (the Mail sponsors its Aphrodite Award for women who have started a business when their children are under 12) — are household names. 

Think Charlotte Tilbury who, in 2020, sold her cosmetics business for £1.3billion, or perfumer Jo Malone who sold her eponymous business to Estee Lauder for ‘undisclosed millions’ before launching her Jo Loves line. Or handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, who has an estimated net worth of £15million. 

Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company 

‘Learn to hire the right people. Your team is vital to creating a curious and can-do mindset. Invest time in a support network of people you trust. When you’re feeling stuck, talking with someone more experienced will help you take the right next steps.’

Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company

Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company

Advertisement

There’s swimwear designer Melissa Odabash, whose bikinis are beloved by celebrities including Beyonce and the Duchess of Cambridge, and hugely influential MOBO Awards founder Kanya King, who built her multi-million-pound fortune starting as a single mother at the age of 16. 

They’re a glamorous bunch, but Karen and Max’s hearts really lie with the less high-profile cases who may not be the next Elon Musks but have still chased an entrepreneurial dream and achieved control of their lives. 

‘Normally, businesses are rated in terms of fast growth and high turnover. Nothing else is deemed important,’ Max says. ‘But we take the view that if going into business gives women financial independence and some flexibility to take care of their families, then their businesses are a success.’ 

Every year, the two friends are awed by what odds their nominees have beaten. ‘There are stories of women starting businesses from safe houses having escaped a violent home; those that have bet — and lost — the farm but managed to get back up on their feet and start again and succeed. ‘ 

‘Vast numbers of entrepreneurs have had to deal with terrible fraud, which is always a real sting. We have heard of deaths of business partners and loved ones. I could go on for ever,’ says Karen. 

It was to showcase these tales of what Karen calls ‘ordinary women doing extraordinary things and being successful’ that the friends, who had founded Everywoman as a networking organisation in 1999, launched the awards three years later. 

‘We’d ask our members to name three female entrepreneurs and they struggled. The first one who came up was [The Body Shop’s] Anita Roddick, maybe [Ultimo lingerie founder] Michelle Mone a bit, but they couldn’t think of anyone else,’ says Karen. ‘We said, “Anita Roddick is wonderful, but she’s a global success story and a bit intimidating to some woman sitting at home in her kitchen.” 

Rachel Watkyn, Founder of Tiny Box Company (pictured) says that she was told to wear a short skirt when presenting to ensure that she's win

Rachel Watkyn, Founder of Tiny Box Company (pictured) says that she was told to wear a short skirt when presenting to ensure that she’s win

‘We wanted to tell the stories of other, more relatable women, so women had inspiring role models.’ 

It has been quite a ride for Max, 60, and Karen, 62 — a confident, charismatic duo who take no prisoners and are great fun. 

They first met when they were backpacking around Australia in the 1980s. 

 At 24, I was told to wear a short skirt when presenting to ensure I’d win the deal. – RACHEL WATKYN, FOUNDER TINY BOX COMPANY

While Karen climbed the corporate ladder at InterContinental Hotels, Max, who had left school at 17 to work as a waitress, moved to New York to work for a casting director. 

There seemed to be no barriers to success until Karen gave birth to her son Declan, now 24. ‘Back then it was just impossible to be a mum and have a dynamic career that involved travel and long hours, like mine did, unless you had a full-time nanny. 

Poonam Gupta, founder of PG Paper Company (pictured) advises women to be confident in their abilities

Poonam Gupta, founder of PG Paper Company (pictured) advises women to be confident in their abilities 

‘I met many other women who’d had to pause their career to concentrate on their family, and the frustrations we all had around that seeded the idea of Everywoman.’ 

A further seed was sown when the pair went into business together, establishing a television production company. 

Poonam Gupta, founder of PG Paper Company

‘Be confident in your abilities. If you believe in your business, it will inspire others to believe in you.’ 

Advertisement

‘We failed spectacularly,’ says Max, who is married with no children and lives in Poole, Dorset. ‘We were driven by a passion, but we didn’t know anybody in television and when we did some research we found the problems for women starting businesses came because they didn’t have any contacts. That played into how much confidence they had in themselves and that business’s success.’ 

The pair suspected there were thousands of wannabe businesswomen out there for whom — with a little bit of confidence-boosting and mentoring — the sky was the limit. 

‘The moment of magic for us was meeting those other women and finding their stories and our stories had these constant threads — being patronised by business service providers, not having our ideas taken seriously, not getting access to finance, not being particularly well networked,’ says Karen. 

Inspired, they came up with the idea for Everywoman. 

The internet was in its infancy and there were no social networks, so they kicked off by throwing raucous getting-to-know-you events, with up to 250 women gathering to share support and advice. 

‘Right from the start there was an insane buzz around them. ­Everybody was completely amazed at the difference between being in a room in a corporate environment and being in a room with high-energy female entrepreneurs who really had something to say. It was electric,’ says Karen, who lives in Chichester, West Sussex. 

Businesswomen would share their stories. ‘They were so open and honest about their struggles; it really resonated,’ Max recalls. 

Melissa Odabash, swimwear entrepreneur 

‘Women need to listen to their gut instinct. Usually, we know instantly if something is going to work or not but then fear sends us off track. Know who you’re competing with; learn who you’re targeting; and don’t expand until you have a great clientele who come back to you time and again.’ 

Melissa Odabash, swimwear entrepreneur

Melissa Odabash, swimwear entrepreneur

Advertisement

The only women who were less than supportive tended to be those who were already corporate high-fliers. 

‘Senior women didn’t want anything to do with us. They didn’t want to draw any attention to their gender. They’d made it by hard slog and were terrified someone would notice they were women!’ Max laughs. 

Two decades on, Max and Karen, who were awarded MBEs in 2009, have a thriving business, providing tools to help women manage their careers and offering their 30,000 worldwide members the chance to meet both in person and online. 

In those years, the outlook for women in business has become decidedly rosier. In 2016, just 17 per cent of UK business founders were female, compared with 33 per cent in 2020. 

‘TV shows like Dragons’ Den, with dragons such as Deborah Meaden and Sara Davies, have helped raise visibility a lot,’ Max says. But, obviously, we still haven’t reached 50/50 parity. 

‘Things are happening but they’re not moving fast enough,’ Karen agrees. ‘We’ve got to get more girls thinking about enterprise as a career.’ 

After all, it’s not just women who are missing opportunities. Research shows if women started up businesses at the same rate as men it could add £250 billion to the economy. 

On the corporate side, things have definitely evolved: the ‘aggressive and macho’ management style embodied by the likes of disgraced former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Fred Goodwin has now largely vanished. 

‘All that seems very dated,’ says Karen. ‘There’s an emphasis on soft power now; leadership skills that lay the emphasis on empathy and persuasion rather than being authoritative, combative and dictatorial. 

Julie Deane, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company 

‘There are always reasons not to do something, to put it off, but what’s the worst that can happen? Don’t overthink things, just get on with it.’ 

Julie Deane, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company

Julie Deane, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company

Advertisement

‘[The White Company founder] Chrissie Rucker, who has been one of the ­Everywoman award judges, is a committed and determined business leader and she still owns 100 per cent of the business, but she’s very softly spoken and feminine, and a master at bringing people on side rather than saying, “This is the way it is”.’ 

What Karen calls ‘a tipping point’ came with the #MeToo movement, which went viral in 2017 when women in the film industry, followed by thousands from other work environments, began speaking out about harassment and assault in the workplace. 

Max, who worked for ten years for a New York casting director, had often heard stories of terrible behaviour from movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, but was still horrified to hear the numerous allegations that surfaced of actual assaults. (Weinstein is now serving a 23-year sentence for rape and a criminal sex act.) 

‘Everybody knew Harvey was a bully, that he had the loudest voice and was a complete and utter maniac and a nightmare to work with. 

‘But I didn’t understand what the nightmare was. I thought it was just he was loud and obnoxious, I never heard the other stuff,’ she says. 

‘It was all kept very quiet. I was working for a woman, so I didn’t experience sexism, but everyone knew the Harveys of this world were these larger-than-life characters. 

‘It was insane how they operated; we’d be at the end of the phone with them and suddenly the line would go dead because they had thrown their phone out of the car window.’ 

Marcia Kilgore, Bliss Spa, Soap & Glory, FitFlop and Beauty Pie founder 

‘Find your niche. Make sure it’s something people care about. Run your idea by strangers, not supportive friends. Let them poke holes in it. Life is short: you don’t want to waste three years building a business with obvious flaws. Better to refine your idea before you hit “Go”.’ 

Marcia Kilgore, Bliss Spa, Soap & Glory, FitFlop and Beauty Pie founder

Marcia Kilgore, Bliss Spa, Soap & Glory, FitFlop and Beauty Pie founder

Advertisement

Today, men are much more respectful of female employees. Gone are the days when women were expected to suck up comments on their appearance or put up with the office flirt. 

More than two decades ago, for example, when Everywoman Award winner Rachel Watkyn of Tiny Box was 24, she was ‘told to wear a short skirt when presenting to ensure [she’d] win the deal’. ‘Of course you wouldn’t dream of asking a woman that now,’ she tells me. 

‘Men are very aware of their behaviour now, but they still have ways of being dominant,’ Karen admits. 

‘Their physical presence means they’re much more commanding from the get-go, in the way they talk or do things such as strategically placing themselves at the table next to the power player.’ 

Men certainly need to improve their appreciation of women’s ideas. Despite the rise in female-owned businesses, statistics show women still often struggle to woo investors who are mainly male (at the last count 70 per cent of venture capitalists are men) — with 91 per cent of funds going to businesses founded solely by men. 

Men also hang on to a larger stake of their equity, with the latest research showing that, on average, women retain 57 per cent of their company’s initial ownership, compared to men’s 67 per cent. 

If men need to stop underestimating women’s capabilities, then women need to get tougher about delegating domestic duties. 

For many, like Karen, this can be about children, but even for those who aren’t mothers, like Max, caring responsibilities still loom when it comes to ageing parents. 

‘Women still do the lion’s share of family care, whether that’s kids, elderly care, cats, dogs, whatever,’ says Karen, who has been married for 30 years. 

Kanya King, founder of the MOBO Awards 

‘Find advisers who are aligned with your mission, who are genuinely supportive of the business you’re trying to establish. Getting that right is as important as the right employees. Choose people who have already achieved what you are trying to achieve so you can learn from their successes and mistakes.’ 

Kanya King, founder of the MOBO Awards

Kanya King, founder of the MOBO Awards

Advertisement

‘We’re nurtured to respond that way, and if we stepped back I’m not sure anyone would get looked after. 

‘We hear time and time again that women are so busy running other people’s lives, they simply don’t have time to focus on building networks and getting the right people around them.’ 

So how do they find that time? ‘You’ve got to make time,’ Karen says firmly. ‘Realise how supportive other women will be and how much they will want to help you,’ Max adds. ‘Women are generous to a fault.’ 

After more than two decades, are Max and Karen in the female millionaires’ club too? ‘No, I wish!’ Max wails. ‘We know a lot of female millionaires — does that count? But even if we’re not rich, we’ve had lots of other rewards, because helping other women gives you such a sense of purpose.’ 

‘You hear it in the other women’s stories as well,’ she adds. ‘Most women start businesses not to get rich but because they’ve spotted a gap in the market and want to improve things. 

‘Everywoman’s patron Dame Mary Perkins founded Specsavers and became Britain’s first female self-made billionaire. 

‘But her motivation wasn’t just to make loads of money, it was to level the playing field and to make glasses fashion items, because before that, unless you had lots of money, you had to wear horrible NHS specs. 

‘You want to change the landscape for others so they don’t go through what you went through — and that’s very rewarding.’

Source

Related posts