Deborah Meaden: "Would I hire my 16-year-old self? No!"
I was in a rush, a real rush. At school I realised, I am not academic, I’m not engaged by this – I just want to go. I left home [in Wiltshire] to go to Brighton to do a two-year business course. But 16 is still young, I still wanted protection. So I lived in a YWCA.
It was 1975 and I’d just bought my first pony for £40. I was still into horses but I knew if I was going off to Brighton I couldn’t afford to keep one, so I had to give up on the whole pony thing. That was a big change for me. At the YWCA there were girls from all over the country, from all walks of life, using it in the same way I was – as a stepping stone. It was very well run, with a very strict person on the door you had to walk past when you came in every night. But girls get up to stuff.
I got a job in a bar collecting glasses to earn some extra money. Would I hire my 16-year-old self? Good God, no. I must have been very difficult. I always had an opinion of the way things should be. You think you know it all at 16 and you don’t. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that ‘different’ isn’t always ‘wrong’. I used to think that I knew the right way to do stuff and that I knew better.
I’d been to boarding school when I was a lot younger. I was at Godolphin for 18 months, not terribly long. My mother was working. Godolphin was the alternative to childcare, but I didn’t take to it at all. I like my independence and I’m not terribly good with rules. If I was told to do something I was the kind of annoying child who constantly goes, ‘Why? Why? Why?’, and boarding school has those annoying rules where you think, 'What on earth is that all about?'
I probably thought I was a streetwise teenager. The summer I was 16, I went to Canada to stay with a friend – that was an eye-opener. She’d just got herself a boyfriend and so I wasn’t really needed. I was there for two months and I had to make a whole new set of friends in a foreign country at that strange teenage age when everyone is getting boyfriends and doing their stuff. It taught me a lot of social skills.
I was already into business at the age of 16. My parents were entrepreneurs. We talked about entrepreneurialism at home. My father went to university but my mother never finished her education and as a family we understood there were other options. There’s no need to follow the education route if it doesn’t suit you, and there was an expectation that [older sister] Gale and I would make our way in business.
I was into music – all teenagers are, aren’t they? But I wasn’t listening to classical by then. I played classical music on piano because that’s what you did. At the age of seven I’d won a scholarship to Trinity College – at the time I was the youngest ever. But I went from hero to zero very quickly because I don’t like being made to do anything and it turned from being the thing that was mine to something the music teacher was driving me on. I played a little piano as a teenager, but I was just tinkering.
That 16-year-old would be surprised by the television thing, which was never something I considered. But she wouldn’t be surprised by the business success. I was born a confident child. I expected myself to succeed. And whatever I do, I do with absolute gusto and the confidence that it is going to work. If you are going to do something, why not put your all into it?
In 1967, the year Deborah Meaden turned 16... The new town of Milton Keynes is founded... Celtic become the first British football team to win the European Cup... BBC Radio 1 is launched... Wimbledon is first broadcast in colour... Che Guevara is captured and killed in Bolivia...
Deborah Meaden is Campaign Ambassador for Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign, calling for a switch to renewable energy. www.cleanbritishenergy.co.uk