Deborah Meaden left school at 16 but has become a successful entrepreneur. Image: Charles Glover
Deborah Meaden was born in Taunton, Somerset, in 1959. She left school at 16 to study business at Brighton Technical College. After graduating at 19 she moved to Italy where she set up a glass and ceramics export company. On returning to the UK, she headed up various leisure and retail businesses, before joining the BBC Two series Dragons’ Den in 2006 as one of the investors.
Since becoming a dragon, Meaden has become a familiar face on our screens, taking part in the 11th series of Strictly Come Dancingin 2016 (where she reached the fifth week) and The Great Stand Up to Cancer Bake Off in 2023, among countless other shows. She’s been increasingly vocal about environmental issues – she’s the co-presenter of BBC Radio 5 Live’s The Big Green Money Show since 2022, is an ambassador for the Marine Conservation Society and a member of the Council of Ambassadors of the World Wildlife Fund.
In her Letter to My Younger Self, Meaden reflects on learning from mistakes, being a woman in a male-dominated world and showing a different side of herself.
I left school when I was 16. Because I honestly just couldn’t wait to get on with it. I wasn’t academic. I wasn’t stupid, I just didn’t like school. So I left home to go to study business. I went to Brighton, stayed at the YMCA, occasionally turned up for college and had an absolute whale of a time.
I’ve always been quite positive in terms of my outlook. I think one of the reasons I enjoy being an entrepreneur is I like challenges and overcoming difficulties. And I think that’s a sign of character. I don’t see those barriers. I think, right, what can we do to get around this? I’ve always been like that. When I went to Brighton there was no fear. There was no worry. I just thought, wahey, I’m off, brilliant.
My parents could see I was pretty self-reliant. They weren’t particularly worried about me. They could see me and my sister were both ready to go. I’m not saying we knew everything – you shouldn’t know everything when you’re 16, you need to get things wrong. But they trusted me not to get anything fundamentally wrong. I think that robustness must be in our DNA. My mother had a really tough life. When we were children she had already been married and left her husband, not a very nice man, and we became a step-parent family. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were seeing an example of somebody who built their life again from nothing. I probably learned from that.
I think it’s very, very important not to fill a sack of failure up and carry it around with you. We all get stuff wrong all day every day. I’ve already forgotten what I got wrong yesterday. It wasn’t fatal. I do sometimes see people who have just filled their sack with worries and woes, and they’re hauling it around with them. And it weighs them down. So when they’re confronted with a challenge, it must be like oh no, not again. Rather than, oh well, that happened. I’ve learned from it. I’m not doing that again. Off we go.
I’m definitely more savvy now. Life gives you a good nose. But I do think that if I was to start again, I’d want to make the same mistakes. I like to learn from those mistakes. I want to learn how to be resilient and how to pick myself up. And you don’t learn that without being confronted with problems. Then again, my older self knows my younger self well enough to know I’d be wasting my breath giving her any advice whatsoever.
I think the situation regarding women in business has got better. But it still isn’t good enough. I have seen massive improvement – when I started, I was quite rare. Now I see lots of very, very smart women all the time. The good news is that when I see that kind of behaviour now, it really jumps out at me because it is quite unusual. And everybody notices it. We’ll leave the room faster. But I always dealt with things. First offence, I might have taken them to one side and said: “Please don’t do that. If you do that again. I’m going to have to call you on it.” If they persist, then I’ve given them fair warning and I will call them on it in public.
I can be quite strict with people pitching to us on Dragon’s Den if they don’t know their numbers. But once I’m on your side, you’re good. I’d like me on my side. As long as you don’t break my trust I’ll fight for what’s right to the nth degree and I won’t give up.
If I was to tell my younger self about everything that’s happened, she wouldn’t be surprised about the support for the environment aspect. Because I was already interested in that. In fact, at Brighton Technical College my project was on climate change. Dragon’s Den would be a massive surprise, but the biggest surprise would be Bake Off because I can’t even cook, let alone bake. Listen, I’ve been in business my entire life. So Dragon’s Den makes some sense. But Strictly Come Dancing, Bake Off – sometimes I’d sit there when I was doing Strictly thinking, how did this happen? I used to be a bingo caller!
Being in the public eye wouldn’t worry my teenage self at all. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the leisure and hospitality industry. If you don’t like talking to people, you shouldn’t be in that industry. And you’re creating fun, you’re around creative people. Your job is to understand how to help people enjoy themselves and how to help them laugh. It doesn’t worry me that people come up and talk to me, I quite like it. And usually, they want to talk about the thing that I love, which is business. I love people who are thinking about things I love, however crazy the ideas. I’ve never wanted fame for fame’s sake. With Strictly you get to learn to dance with some of the best dancers in the world. But I get offered a lot of stuff and my first thought is, why would I do that? I don’t want to be on television. I don’t want to be any more famous.
I hope Strictly showed people the other side of me. I don’t think people would associate me with humour, but I laugh a lot. I have a lot of fun in work and generally in life. If you just know me from Dragon’s Den you’ll see me grilling people. I don’t give them an easy time. But actually, I laugh a lot. Like my mum. She’s 86 years old but she has twice the energy I’ve got and she laughs all the time. She’s absolutely the life and soul of the party. I just hope I’m like her when I’m 86 years old.
When we were tiny, before my mother met my father – I don’t like calling him my stepfather because he was, he is, the man who became my father. But before that, she was working and we went to stay with a family, the Cannons, at 9 Belfield Avenue in Essex. And auntie Angela looked after Gail, my older sister, and me. She had four girls of her own and a two-bedroom council house in Brighton-on-Sea and she took Gail and me on. Auntie Angela and uncle Derek were so lovely, wonderful. We never felt like outsiders. We were absolutely treated equally with her own girls. They were very happy years.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be with auntie Angela. I really would like, as an adult, to have said thank you. Uncle Derek died when I was still quite young and we did see auntie Angela again and I did say thank you, but I don’t feel like it was enough. I was only about 17 when she died and it was a little bit flippant. I really would love to have spent more time with her. Not just to say the words but show her the difference those years made to us. I think about it quite a lot actually because I love gardening now. Angela gave us a metre square of land when we lived with her, to be our garden. And she taught me about pansies and lavender and cockle shells. And you know, when I’m gardening now, I often think, how do I know that? I bet it’s down to auntie Angela.
Life is certainly easier when you’ve got money. It gives you a feeling of safety and security. But there’s something I miss. Paul [husband Paul Farmer] and I used to do a lot of backpacking around Central or South America or India, being exposed to all sorts of amazing stuff. When you’re out there on the buses and on the roads, just seeing stuff – that was brilliant, that really earthy life.
One memory absolutely sticks with me. We were in Argentina. The only way to visit the Iguazu Falls from the Argentinean side was to stay in this expensive hotel so we really splashed out. We arrived when it was dark, so we didn’t really understand where we were until we got up in the morning and saw the Falls virtually in the grounds of the hotel. You turned a corner and you were hit with the roar of nature; the water, the sound and the spray on your face. It literally took our breath away. I can still hear it now. I can feel it now.
Why Money Matters by Deborah Meaden, illustrated by Hao Hao, from the Little Experts series for ages 6-9, is out now (Red Shed, £9.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
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