In conversation with Prue Leith
We are delighted to be joined by Prue Leith – renowned restaurateur, caterer, food writer, novelist, broadcaster, entrepreneur, businesswoman and recent member of The Joy Club. While Prue may have become a household name thanks to the Great British Bake Off, her work and influence spans decades and industries. A former non-executive director of British Rail, Safeway, Halifax, Woolworths, Omega and Whitbread, as well as a recipient of the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award, a CBE and no less than 13 honorary degrees, Prue is a true trailblazer. Here, she tells The Joy Club about starting out in business, the challenges faced by women in the workplace and her passion for supporting innovative startups…
The Joy Club: Thinking about when you first set about working on your businesses in the 1960s (first with your catering company and then with Leiths), what advice would you give to your younger self when she was starting out?
Prue Leith: I’m not sure it’s any use giving advice. I certainly wouldn’t have listened to wise advice like, ‘not to open a restaurant when I’d never worked in one’, ‘not to open a chef school when I’d never taught cooking’, etc.! But my ventures worked. I think energy and commitment are what you need. And rules are there to be broken.
TJC: What have been the biggest workplace wins for women that you’ve seen during your career?
PL: Equal pay – obviously – maternity and then paternity leave, and lots of laws allowing women equality in financial and legal matters. But the biggest change has been in attitude. When I was young, feminists were mocked by men as bra-burning loonies. Now, most of the men I know could be called feminists because they believe in equal rights. Of course, there is still a way to go. But the change has been steady and will go on, I’m sure.
TJC: What are the most important challenges that women still face in the workplace?
PL: Unconscious prejudice, the fact that promotion to board level is still harder for women than men, and how women taking a few years off to rear babies find it hard to get a job at the same level that they had when leaving. It will be even harder for them post-Covid. Then there is women’s own reticence. Many don’t sell themselves well because they don’t want to be pushy, and men still tend to regard women who are forthright as aggressive – which they see as a virtue in a man – but unbecoming in a woman.
TJC: The Joy Club is a membership website for people aged 65 and over, which helps its members to afford a more active retirement. Not all of our members are retired, however, and many are running their own businesses. What advice would you give to anyone thinking about taking the plunge and starting a business in later life?
PL: To be honest, I think women often have an easier entry into retirement than men. Women tend to know their neighbours better – from having made friends at the school gate, to having been active in local charities or organisations – so that when they retire they have time to sit on the parish council, become a JP, or get stuck into a charity. They have friends to walk with, play tennis with, and so on, whereas men often don’t do any of that and miss the office and their work golf buddies badly. So my advice to men would be to make non-work connections while still at work.
As for starting a new business, as long as those who are retired have the energy, and preferably a business partner to share the load, of course they can start new businesses. But you do need to have enormous energy and resilience. Start-ups are very hard work and are emotionally draining!
TJC: Are there any businesses or charities you’re currently working with that you’d like to tell our members about?
PL: Start-ups generally have quite a high failure rate. In the past few years I have backed four of them. Two failed (an on-line publishing company and a rival to “Hello Fresh”) and two have been triumphant successes (Pasta Evangelists, which delivers fresh pasta and ready-made sauces online, and Piccolo, an organic baby food company). Happily, my losses have been outweighed by profits! Right now I’m backing – in a very small way – Carbon Gold, which is a new kind of organic compost enriched with fungi and minerals, which contains no peat, holds the moisture, captures carbon (indeed, is made from charcoal) acts as both feeder and mulch, and doesn’t degrade for years so improves the soil texture long-term. Sounds good, doesn’t it? We shall see…
TJC: And finally, you’ve recently become a member of The Joy Club – what do you think of it so far?
PL: I joined The Joy Club when I saw that you were starting a Joy Choir. I love singing but I cannot sing a note and am too embarrassed to utter a sound in public. But since The Joy Club is online and you are singing away unheard by the others (because there is a delay on Zoom, it’s impossible to synchronise everyone) I found I could sing. Like singing in the bath – it works fine if no one is around! But the advantage here is the teacher takes you through the exercises and the songs, and I’m told that if I just keep trying, and manage to relax a bit, I will improve. Who knows?
So now I have learnt that The Joy Club is exactly that: it tries to bring a bit of joy into people’s lives, whether they are working, retired, self employed or anything in between. Can’t be bad!
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