“You only find out what you love by doing it”

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Deborah Meaden has never considered herself the only woman on Dragons’ Den. Even before Hilary Devey’s arrival as the second female investor, she has always first and foremost seen herself as “a dragon”, and a pretty fierce one at that.

“I don’t see myself as a woman in business and I don’t think I’m competing against men. What I think is that I need to be very good at what I do, and if I’m very good at what I do, and I completely ignore my gender, other people will ignore my gender.”

Within fifteen minutes of speaking to a packed room at the Union, Meaden has managed to dismiss all further questions on gender for the proceeding hour in a few sentences. Never mind, despite most of the audience putting away their pre-prepared questions, it turns out that this Dragon has a lot more to tell us. Rightly so, for Meaden is one of the most successful businesswomen in the UK. She
made her millions in the leisure and retail sector, working her way up from working on the shop floor of Weststar Holidays, her family’s business, to becoming Managing Director. One management buyout and one sale later, Meaden eventually sold her remaining stake for £83m in 2007.

The future wasn’t always bright. Leaving school at 16 after her O-Levels, she enrolled to study business at Brighton Technical College, then worked as a sales room model in a fashion house before moving to Italy. Meaden confesses that she always had trouble taking instructions from a young age, and as a result she “fell into business”. She was determined to not have to work for anybody else and to “earn [her] destiny”.

Still, she admits rather forthrightly that her first business was a failure. Her glass and ceramics import company, which supplied upmarket stores like Harvey Nichols, failed within 18 months. She is candid in stating that she simply “wasn’t lucky”. She tells me
after her talk that the experience she learned the most from was running a prize bingo concession in the holiday park Butlins: “it was a microcosm of how business should be run. But the most important thing I learnt, because your customer is there, I’ve never ever lost sight of my customer… if they didn’t like me, they would tell me… they didn’t hold back, and that was a salutary lesson.”

The more you hear Meaden talking of her experiences, the more you start to get a sense that her dragon scales, so glaring on television, might be more for show. There is no doubt that her answers to the questions posed by the audience are slick and controlled, or that she is a force to be reckoned with in a business meeting. But there is a warmth to Meaden that doesn’t just come from fire-breathing.

Her love of business is almost infectious. She repeats often throughout her answers that she simply “loves business”. She doesn’t find balancing her professional and private life a struggle, because she loves her work so much that “it doesn’t feel like juggling”. “Find the life you want to live… then, it doesn’t feel like a conflict”, she states. If we hadn’t got the message loud and clear already, she also tells us that she hopes to be reading her last business plan when she “pops [her] clogs”. While from another it might sound remarkably sad for someone to pass their last few breaths wondering if they were ‘in’ or ‘out’, from Meaden it sounds like quite a good life (or death, in this case) choice.

Such enthusiasm clearly spreads to the show that made her famous. Having joined Dragons’ Den in 2006 at the start of Series 3, Meaden actually said no three times. “I was very aware of the fact that if I got myself into the media spotlight then you kind of lose control, and I’m a bit of a control freak”, she admits. During the screen tests, however, her and the other Dragons “had a ball”, and over the series she has had a great time: “My husband’s delighted because I used to be very prudish and now I’ve learnt rugby jokes.”

She now believes that Dragons’ Den is “as close to real business as you’re going to get on television… [it is] fundamentally a business programme”, especially compared to The Apprentice which she scorns as having gone downhill since its move to BBC One.

The anecdotes roll out throughout her talk. She recalls some of the most stupid inventions of the programme which included a one-handed driving glove and false nails for cats. One of her most memorable moments is Levi Roots’ appearance with Reggae Reggae sauce (“I missed the point… the point was Levi Roots”).

Surprisingly, her first most memorable moment from the programme is her terror at walking up the stairs on her first day. “I don’t get nerves”, she says, and yet the walk up the stairs into the dragons’ den had her muted with fear. The image of Meaden quaking in her boots is made even more incongruous when she discusses her hiring policies. “I’m pretty upfront”, she says, and possibly “too robust” when it comes to both hiring and working with her employees. Yet the scales disappear once again: she confesses that at times she was so “robust” that she lost people, and she’s learnt to tone it down.

Everything seems to be a life lesson to Meaden. She seems to immensely enjoy the question and answer session at the Union, having a whale of a time laughing and joking with the audience (particularly the occasional audience member who acts as if they are on first name terms). The opportunity to speak to young minds – or, as she calls us, “your generation” – clearly delights her, and she offers advice right through her talk: “it’s the do-ers in life that are successful”; in this financial climate all entrepreneurs need to “pay attention to the mood”. Despite being “in for a very difficult time” due to the recession, she says, “I like to think we’ll learn our lesson”.

More lessons abound when asked whether she regrets any of the pitches she turned down. She implies that Tangle Teezer, a brush that removes knots and tangles, was the one that got away. Nonetheless, she says, “there is no point even thinking about that…I’m not the regretting type.” She hates getting things wrong but believes there’s no point in fretting over them, and instead you should just put it right.

Wise words, indeed. After the talk I flag her up on the fact that despite her laudable claims of regretting nothing, she had actually revealed her number one regret in a previous interview. “Oh dear, what do I regret?”, she laughs, as I remind her that she always wished she had taken a gap year after leaving school. Even though we are, for once, not on her favourite topic of business, the enthusiasm still shines through. She tells me how she always wished she had travelled to Central or South America, “interesting” places, “but not good interesting”. “I like the culture, I like the people… there’s still a lot of human rights issues and we don’t really hear it… we just don’t really pay any attention to what goes on in South America”.

When I ask her what her advice would be to those flying the nest after university, she gives more guidance based on her own experiences: “You only find out what you love by doing it, don’t you? Particularly at the moment when there is a scarcity of jobs and
you’re kind of taught to look for your career, and I am critical of that, because I think that experiencing enough different things helps you find the thing that you think ‘Oh, I love that’, because really, up until now, it’s been pretty theoretic.”

She was never very academic, and she believes that the British Educational system makes those who aren’t good at working within the system “preset to believe that they are not very good at anything” and that offering those people apprenticeships is like saying to them that they’ve got “the booby prize”. When asked during her talk whether she laments that many of the brightest minds go into consultancy and banking, she says that she does not, but that business experience is important: “I know stuff I never learnt through a textbook”.

Of course, we shouldn’t go too far in portraying Meaden as some form of modern sage. All careers come with sacrifices – children, in her case, though I never find out whether she sees it this way – and her presence in the Dragons’ Den can be downright terrifying.
What comes out again and again, however, is that Deborah Meaden is actually quite a bubbly person, always trying to give us advice based on the ups and downs of her own life. Walking to her chauffeured car after our interview, a passer-by recognises her and
asks if she can lend a fiver. She bursts into laughter and taps her pockets to show she doesn’t have any cash on her. Still giggling as she climbs into the car, there isn’t any fire in sight.

Photo © The Oxford Union

Photographer: Ethan DormanE. Followwill