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My first boss: Karren Brady, West Ham United vice-chair

West Ham United executive vice-chairman Baroness Karren Brady ahead of the game.
West Ham United executive vice-chairman, Baroness Karren Brady. Photo: Getty Images (EMPICS Sport)

The BBC's Apprentice star and West Ham United vice chair Karren Brady is sometimes known as 'the first lady of football'. Brady, 53, was made a life peer in 2014 and received a CBE for services to business, entrepreneurship and women in business.

I had an ambition as an 18-year-old and that was to be independent. I had spent many years at boarding school having being told what to do, but I'd had enough of this and wanted some control over my life.

But I really understood that you only have true independence if you have your own money. At 18, I didn't know how to do this, plus I had no real qualifications after leaving school.


Read more: My first boss: Anne Boden, CEO and founder of Starling Bank

What I had worked out was that even before you work for yourself, you almost always work for someone else. So I went out to get a job. I worked from aged 16, doing stuff like sweeping the floor in a hairdressers at weekends. Once I was turned down for a shelf stacking job in Waitrose.

The good thing was I knew myself. I knew what my core values were; the things that made me who I was, and what drove me to make the decisions. I worked out that I was ambitious, determined and had integrity.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05:  Baroness Karren Brady, Vice-Chairman of West Ham United and Aurelio De Laurentiis, Chairman of Napoli SSC (R) attend the Leaders Sport Business Summit at Stamford Bridge on October 5, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Leaders)
Baroness Karren Brady and Aurelio De Laurentiis, chairman of Napoli SSC, at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in 2016. Photo: Getty Images (Eamonn M. McCormack via Getty Images)

I left school in 1987 and went out looking for a job. My first job was at Saatchi & Saatchi. In its heyday, it was top of its game and a wonderful place to work. I had spent my whole life listening to adults moaning about going to work. But here I was, working in a creative and professional environment, where people wore what they wanted, and everyone drank and had long lunches. I relished it all.

My first boss, who I won’t name, asked me to take a famous client to a venue, and the address took me to a door on Goodge Street, London. I knocked and went down into this dingy room, and I kept wondering if I had got the right place. After drinks, the music came on and a stripper came out. I was mortified. I thought I would get the sack in the first week. But then my boss turned up and gave me £50 and the rest of the day off. I was thrown into the deep end and I loved it.

My first real boss was David Sullivan. We purchased Birmingham City FC six years after I left school in 1993. He gave me the chance of a lifetime to run the club, he always listened, gave me advice and was very encouraging.

The concept of mentors in 1993 hadn't been developed then, but he was very enthusiastic, driven and motivated to do well. And he had this immeasurable amount of persistence which has seen him through multiple businesses.

Being a young woman running a football club wasn’t easy. But I knew I had the backing of my owner and my other shareholders, who also had faith in my ability.

Birmingham City's Managing Director Karren Brady with Director David Sullivan in the 1995/96 season. Photo: Action Images
Birmingham City's then managing director Karren Brady with director David Sullivan in the 1995/96 season. Photo: Action Images (Action Images)

What I took from working at Saatchi was that people did business with business. Having a personality, being able to communicate, get on with people and being able to forge relationships was at the heart of having a great career.

The whole point of the business and tech conference is to empower and arm women with the skills to get ahead in the industry. It’s for people looking for a job and we have lots of the world’s most globally recognised businesses highlighting jobs.

Nearly three million are employed in the UK tech industry but only 26% of the workforce are women; while only 32% of small businesses are female owned. Yet lots of women want to own businesses and get ahead in tech.

Read more: My first boss: Kathryn Parsons, Decoded CEO and digital education pioneer

The keys to setting up a business are: to be passionate, to be clear about what it can offer, to create a business and action plan, to do lots of research, and to start it while you are still employed.

A business plan is important if you want to borrow money, but more important is the action plan. What are you going to do by when? How are you going to get organised to do it? You have to analyse your competition, be creative, stay focused and be prepared to make mistakes.

A true entrepreneur finds a gap in the market for a service or product that’s not being filled and fills it, or finds a business that they think they can turn around. You have to be prepared to learn on the job, make mistakes, back yourself and be driven in delivering success.

Karren Brady's Women in Business & Tech Expo, 12-13 October, is a two-day event for individuals who want to thrive in their career or business

Watch: Why do we still have a gender pay gap