One of Britain’s top three female entrepreneurs, Michelle Mone OBE, is the very picture of poise and supreme confidence.
But when she took to the stage as a headliner at Sheffield’s celebration of self-made success, the Made Festival 2014, the Ultimo boss known the world over for her phenomenal climb from rags to riches revealed the private anguish, the public battles and the crises of confidence that have plagued her all the way to the top.
Her searingly honest admissions to an audience of 2,000 ranged from the stage-fright that makes her physically sick before every public appearance - and once caused her to throw up on the shoes of former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev at a conference - to the time she contemplated suicide as her marriage hit stormy waters after New York distributors stole £1.8million from the lingerie company.
Every admission ignited not sympathy, but admiration. Her triumphs over adversity were inspiration to battle on in the face of adversity.
“Never, ever give up,” she urged the City Hall audience. “We all think we’ve had more troubles than anyone else, but it’s all to do with how you deal with it. People say to me: I’m not successful because of him, or because of that. I tell them: you’re not successful because of you.”
Michelle grew up in a one-bedroomed flat in Glasgow and had to leave school at 15 with no qualifications. Her father had been left paralysed by a spinal infection and her mother was suffering from depression following the death of Michelle’s brother from spina bifida.
The teenager got a modelling job for a while then got into sales at Labatt’s Brewery and worked so hard that within two years she was running its Scottish sales and marketing division.
“Then I got made redundant at 23. I was devastated, but it was the best thing. Not long after, I was at a dinner dance. The bra I had on was so damned uncomfortable. I had a brainwave and told everyone I knew what I was going to do next; make a better bra,” she said.
“Three years on, a mum of two, £480,000 in debt with our house on the line, my husband urged me to give up on ‘this stupid bra.’”
She refused and the next prototype worked, giving her guinea pig, her flat-chested Auntie Jo, her first cleavage.
“Heavily pregnant with my third child, I managed to get in front of the lingerie buyer at Selfridges. She tried it on and promptly ordered six month’s worth of stock.”
With just £500 for a marketing campaign, she hired actors to dress as placard-toting plastic surgeons and ‘campaign’ outside Selfridges to have the bra banned.
“The least money you have, the more creative you will be,” she said. “That stunt went global and netted us PR worth £54million.”
Her masterclass in business skills also included advice on trusting your instincts, never waiting for people to come to you and, “when you launch a service or a product, aways think: what next? Innovation is key.”
Ultimo now has 13 patented ‘Miracle’ inventions and nine brands.