I’ve been very lucky this past fortnight to hear not one, but two, inspirational – and very different – speakers talk about their lives, careers, successes and failures to date. Last week, I was privileged to listen to Clarke Carlisle talking about his battle with mental health issues; today, at Belfast’s Riddel Hall, I encountered a very different kind of personality: the business woman and (dreaded word) celebrity Michelle Mone – or Lady Mone, Baroness of Mayfair, to use her official title.
Michelle is probably best-known to most of us as the founder of Ultimo and for having gone through a public – and acrimonious – divorce. What is less well-documented – and her account of this time had us all spell-bound – is the incredibly tough beginning in life that she had, growing up in the poorest part of Glasgow’s East End, in a family for whom money was incredibly tight, seeing her younger brother die aged just 10 and her father left wheel-chair bound by a rare illness at the age of 38. Michelle was at pains to downplay these tough beginnings, emphasising what a loving family she comes from and saying she was never really aware of being poor. Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial bug caught her young and by the age of 11 she had her first job – with a group of teenagers reporting into her!
Having left school at 16 (her careers adviser had no better wisdom for her than that she might consider applying for a job at the newly-opened Co-op store), she married two years later, had her first child at the age of 19 – and by the age of 22 was Head of Sales and Marketing for Labatts Brewers. Then, out of the blue and aged just 24, she was made redundant. Michelle describes this time as “terrifying”. And yet, as she freely admitted today, it was this unforeseen setback that was to be the making of her. Six weeks after losing her job, she came up with the ‘Ultimo’ concept.
Pregnant with her third child – and £450,000 in debt, having persuaded her husband to remortgage their house – she managed, eventually, to find a stockist. And with just £500 to her name (it’s amazing, Michelle wryly remarked, how having no money makes you more creative), she managed to come up with one of the most innovative marketing strategies of all time, the inspiration behind Europe’s most high-profile ever bra launch, which would eventually lead to exposure in the U.S. through Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’. Success in Asia swiftly followed.
In the meantime, however, Michelle’s personal life was in turmoil. Through excessive comfort eating she had put on over 8.5 stone in weight (“I hid food EVERYWHERE”, she told us), she and her husband were constantly arguing – and then disaster struck. Her distributor did a runner with £1.3m of Michelle’s money and six months’ worth of Ultimo’s stock. With bankruptcy looming, she considered suicide and came very close to taking an overdose. Thankfully, she managed to talk herself out of it and, at the very last moment, she managed to save her business (although not her marriage; it later transpired that her husband was having an affair with her close friend, Ultimo’s senior designer).
Since then, Michelle has gone on to sell her stake in Ultimo for £20m, become an advocate for equality for women in business and the Government’s start-ups’ tsar, launch UTan, become a Life Peer and begin a new career as a motivational speaker. She has also lost all of those 8.5 stones – and trust me, she looks amazing.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know what to expect from Michelle. I expected to find her story interesting, but had no inkling that I would be completely bowled over by her. As a speaker she is funny, warm and delightfully candid – not to mention self-deprecating (she told several, hilarious, stories against herself). I also like her attitude to life. When asked by a member of the audience what the secret to success is, her message was simple: work hard, play hard – and always give something back (she donates all of her speaking fees to charity). She also stated that one of the biggest life lessons she has learned is that you need to own your mistakes and be big enough to say sorry when you’re in the wrong.
Michelle’s final message of the afternoon? “There’s always a way” – to which she added that, if you have the fight within you, and you’re prepared to work hard, success will inevitably follow.