Hi Deborah… What took you from a teenage school leaver to Dragons’ Den and Strictly?
I didn’t not come from a wealthy family but I always felt safe and nurtured, which is the most important thing your family can give you.
I was born in Somerset, my parents divorced when I was young and I moved with my mum and sister to Essex. My mother remarried and I had a new dad and then two more sisters. It was a happy childhood, but I never felt comfortable with the concept of role models. As a small child I liked chatting and playing and I liked people… I still do. But I was never that focused unless something REALLY caught my attention.
At school I was good at things I loved, like History and Maths, but that may have been all about the teachers who inspired me and grabbed my attention. If they didn’t enthuse me I would spend most of the time looking out of the window. For teachers who didn’t grab my attention, I must have been a bit of a nightmare. It was the same with sports. I was always quite good, but never the best. I got used to being third or fourth, but that never bothered me, unless it was something that I really valued and wanted to do well in.
At Trowbridge High School I carried on much the same. My father recently dug up my school report and I couldn’t believe how accurate their assessment was. I was good at subjects that I was interested in, and bad at subjects I couldn’t be bothered with. I engaged in quite a bit of verbal back-chat. I was really good at that and I still love a bit of verbal jousting. I always loved challenging people, including teachers, and that must have driven them crazy. But in challenging everyone and everything, my confidence just grew and grew.
I left school when I was 16, studied business at Brighton Technical College and worked as a salesroom model. I moved to Italy when I was 19 and set up a ceramics imports business whose outlets included Harvey Nichols. It didn’t work out but it taught me a lesson about working on a project that isn’t going anywhere. You can’t just keep slogging your guts out doing the same thing going nowhere. You have to take a step back, see what’s wrong and fix it.
Along with a partner I bought one of the first Stefanel textile franchises and sold out two years later. In 1999 I borrowed a small fortune and completed a management buyout, grew the business and six years later, sold the company at a time it was providing holidays for more than 150,000 people each year with earnings over £11m a year. I then began investing in other businesses, Dragons’ Den followed and so did Strictly Come Dancing.
"My advice to you is… No one can be great at everything, but everyone has the potential to be great at something. But even with the stuff you’re good at, you don’t always get it right, if you’re in a room, there’s always someone who knows a bit more than you- so listen to them, and learn. Equally in that same room you may be the one who knows more about a subject than anyone else. It’s just important to find your expertise, work hard and you will eventually excel."