Karen Millen: The female entrepreneurs who inspire us
This week is Global Entrepreneurship Week, which makes it the perfect time to celebrate some incredible women who are striking out and doing their own thing in the business world.
As a woman running a business that is all about empowering others to live, learn and thrive it was hugely important to me to inspire you all by showing you that there is no set path when it comes to making a success of your passion. So, I approached women who have interesting and varied stories to tell about their experience of running their own business and asked them all exactly the same questions.
Their answers are as unique as they are and give a fascinating insight into what makes them tick as women, and as businesswomen. Some run huge companies with hundreds of staff, others are just starting out on their journey, but I know all of them will inspire you with their determination, tenacity and passion for what they do.
We will be bringing you a different woman every day this week, all of them united in being the very thing we love – they are all on fire!
Karen Millen OBE
Designer and retail entrepreneur
Karen’s iconic clothing brand began in 1981 with a loan of £100 and a thousand metres of white fabric which she made into a series of shirts for friends. This grew into a party plan network selling clothes, and her first Karen Millen store opened in 1983 in Maidstone in Kent. The brand went on to achieve global success. No longer associated with the company that bears her name, Karen is now launching her latest business – a homewares brand called Homemonger, for people passionate about creating the home of their dreams. Karen is also patron for www.teensunite.org
1. What job did your parents do?
My dad was a floor tiler and my mum was a secretary.
2. Did you choose your vocation or did it choose you?
Well I did in fact want to be a painter and decorator. I think probably it was interior design that attracted me, but I didn’t think out of the box; I came from a family of labourers and further education wasn’t on my radar. My teachers at school thought better of it and suggested I go to art school to do a course in fashion. They took me to the end of year graduate fashion show and said I should apply. They helped me put a portfolio together and the rest is history!
3. Who was your role model growing up?
I didn’t really have one, but I did look up to my head mistress Ms Chadwick at school who always dressed impeccably, She would give me her old vogue issues once she had finished with them – I clearly showed signs of having an interest in fashion at this point, probably as I would push the boundaries when it came to my school uniform – which has led me to collect them ever since.
4. Who is your role model now?
All successful women that can balance work and family and still have a social life!
5. What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you and how did you use it?
I don’t remember being given any particular advice, but I do remember a comment from a man passing our second shop, which we were busy decorating before opening in Tunbridge Wells. When he asked what it was going to be and we replied a ladieswear shop, his response was: “That will never last.” Those words have never left me and ignited a fire that made me even more determined to succeed.
6. When did you consider yourself an entrepreneur (and can you spell it?)
At a push I think I can spell it! I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur, just someone who had a vision and worked hard. I see success as something that happens when you surround yourself with the right people. A good team is key to achieving success.
7. What was your biggest challenge when you started out and how did you overcome it?
Getting finance I think was probably the biggest challenge. The rag trade, as it was called back then, was not seen as a serious business and most banks wouldn’t entertain it. We approached just about every bank we could and finally it was a small private bank with a manager who seemed to take a liking to us, and was in fact unusually interested in the industry, who gave us the small loan we needed. Up until then we had grown organically which was very challenging, without this I’m not sure how we would have been able to survive. However, the fact that we didn’t have access to huge borrowings was the reason we survived the financial crisis in the late 80’s early 90’s and allowed us to grow through that recession. I think initially getting your brand out there was challenging without the social media we have today or money to advertise, so growth was slow, but in hindsight this gave us time to get our business structure in place and learn and understand all there was to know.
8. If you could go back to when you started and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Keep a journal.
9. What’s your favourite business quote?
There are so many but perhaps- “I never dreamed about success, I worked for it.”
10. What do you want your legacy to be – what do you want people to say about you after you’re gone?
To be acknowledged for creating a piece of fashion History that can be referenced for years to come. For helping to change the face of the high street, bringing designer clothes at affordable prices and having an positive impact on so many people’s lives, whether in something they wore or for the thousands of people we worked with along the way.
Look out for more inspirational entrepreneurs this week, we’ll be featuring one every day.