In the business world a rich background is not the only way to the top. Elite Business editor Hannah Prevett kicked off day two of the Elite Business Event National Conference and Exhibition by saying that all of the event’s speakers have really interesting stories. It certainly seems that the more humble the beginning, the more interesting the story.
Take Shaa Wasmund, for example. The founder of Smarta is one of the UK’s best digital brains. Voted one of the best-connected people in the UK, she has worked with a vast client list that includes O2, Virgin and Disney. She was also a part of the early team at Dyson before it became the household name it is today.
Her success all began with the advice her mum gave her when she was 11 and living in a 10×12 foot room, with springs coming through the pop-up bed and sharing a bathroom and kitchen with five other families. “My mother changed my mindset when she said: ‘Take a look around you — I never ever want you to be afraid of taking risks, because no matter what you do in your life you will never, ever be back here’.” From that point on, Wasmund realised that no matter what she did with her life, she was going to keep moving forward. For all her efforts, she is now an MBE and took great pride taking her mum and young son to the palace to meet the Queen.
Ultimo founder Michelle Mone had a similar rags-to-riches story to tell and her new book, My Fight to the Top, is aptly titled. The bra tycoon from Glasgow’s deprived east end grew up in a flat with no bathroom or shower until she was 12. “It was a real struggle,” she said. When she was ten years old her brother passed away and seeing how this affected her parents, she decided there and then she would start a business. By age 11 she had set up a newspaper round business and had several older kids working for her; by 12 she was the biggest selling Avon rep in Scotland.
At school, Mone had to explain to her careers advisor what an entrepreneur even was and was told she had no chance. Given that Mone is one of the most recognised faces in the British business word, the careers advisor couldn’t have been more wrong. The Scottish entrepreneur is now worth an estimated £20m.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what education you manage to get; it doesn’t matter if you’re from money or not, or the colour of your skin or religion,” says Mone. “If you’ve got that drive and the can-do attitude, you can make it in life.”
While Wasmund is an MBE and Mone an OBE, Jim Cregan, creator of Jimmy’s Iced Coffee hasn’t yet been honoured by the Queen (don’t worry Jim, there’s still time). However, he does have one of the most interesting stories to tell and he tells it in his idiosyncratically energetic and witty style.
Cregan’s moment of realisation came one winter following a summer spent dressed as a mermaid and introducing acts at a music festival. The “rock bottom” moment was when he was labouring at aged 27 and caught a glimpse of a co-worker’s “pale bum crack hanging out of his jeans”. It was at this point that his life flashed before his eyes. “I thought to myself, ‘well done; you’re 27, you’re staring at a guy’s bum and you’re a mermaid in the summertime for £50 a day — bravo’.” Cregan had gone to university, he had grown up in Dubai. “You should be doing something a little bit better than this,” he thought.
That day he flipped out and said to his wife: “We are getting out of here.” The two moved to Australia, where Jimmy fell in love with a product called Farmer’s Union Iced Coffee. Having tried in vain to franchise the product in the UK, he set about going down the much-respected DIY route. To used a tired phrase: and the rest, they say, is history.
One thing each of these stories demonstrates is that with the right attitude and a bit of luck anyone can surpass the circumstances they are in and have extraordinary success. Mark Foster summed it up perfectly in his speech yesterday, one of the highlights of this year’s Elite Business Event National Conference & Exhibition. “By reaching for the stars I landed on the moon.”