Feb 28, 2016

Mellon shows how brutal it is at the top

My Oscar favourite this year is a movie called Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence. 

It is based on the true story of a single mother, Joy Mangano, who invents the Miracle Mop and becomes an overnight success on shopping TV. She copes with a dysfunctional family and defeats crooked partners to achieve her breakthrough. She says, “I don’t need a prince”, and vows to “make wonderful things”. I took my wife, daughter and niece to see the film and they loved it. I think it is a marvellous tale because to me Joy is a glorious, gritty role model for aspiring female entrepreneurs.

And I believe role models matter most if people are to take a chance and start a business. There are many high-profile men to inspire male entrepreneurs, but too few shining examples for women.

In fiction there are virtually no such heroines. Almost the only one I know is Mildred Pierce, the protagonist of James M Cain’s eponymous novel, published in 1941. Mildred is a single mother who builds a restaurant and pie empire in California during the Great Depression. The story has been made into a film and a recent TV series starring Kate Winslet. I recommend the book and show to any would-be female restaurateur.

Of course there are growing numbers of successful female entrepreneurs, but many avoid publicity — perhaps for understandable reasons. Last year I was the only man at a breakfast for business founders and venture capitalists. A TV editor explained that her news channel found it hard to persuade female captains of industry to appear on air, because they felt they would be judged partly on irrelevant issues such as their appearance. And because there are few women at the top in business, those who are receive disproportionate attention — not all of it favourable.

I am also one of the few male judges of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award. We try to choose a compelling figure who can act as an outstanding role model. Some try to put forward women who run charities or social enterprises — to me, this is confusing the issue. To spur them on, ambitious women need case studies of self-made women who have scaled the heights in the commercial, for-profit world.

One of the best-known British female entrepreneurs is Tamara Mellon. Apparently when she sold her Jimmy Choo shoe company in 2011 she was one of only two self-made women in this newspaper’s Rich List. She was appointed an OBE, is a government-appointed business ambassador, and has written a racy autobiography called In My Shoes. Undoubtedly, Mellon’s example could inspire other women to start a business, but she also serves as a reminder of why few women seek the very top: it’s brutal up there.

In common with many entrepreneurs, she has fallen out with lots of people, including her former partner Jimmy Choo, her mother, her ex-husband, and three wealthy backers of her second business, Tamara Mellon Brand. They said her “waste and abuse” had driven the company into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, an American judge let her buy it back. She isn’t the perfect role model, but her career does reflect the rough and tumble that accompanies the ascent of so many tycoons.

Meanwhile, a recent article in Businessweek magazine was scathing about the surfeit of empowerment and networking events for women. From Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit to Inc’s Women’s Summit, Women’s Entrepreneurship Day and the Women in the World conference, there is almost a continuous sequence of them. But women argue that every other business conference of any kind is so dominated by men that the system needs female-biased occasions as balance. I’ve spoken at a couple of such events; there is an argument that they involve too much talk and not enough action — but everything helps, I suppose.

One of my favourite female entrepreneur role models is Heather McGregor — aka Mrs Moneypenny — because she writes about her experiences. She and I were columnists on the Financial Times for many years. She owns and runs Taylor Bennett, a headhunting firm, and she wrote a book entitled Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, which is full of wisdom and good sense.

Two widely discussed books on the subject of women and work are Lean In, by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, by Anne-Marie Slaughter. The latter was written after an intense reaction to a magazine article she wrote entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. As the author put it: “I had a job that revolved around what was happening in the world, and those events weren’t going to stop so I could go home and see my family.”

Understandably, some women do not want to make sacrifices over their children’s upbringing. The huge effort required to develop a business leads to trade-offs in family life — making the journey harder for female entrepreneurs.