Inspiring women: In search of a modern muse

Meet the female tycoons behind Specsavers, The White Company and many more of our best enterprises. Now, these role models are joining forces to launch Modern Muse, an ambitious project to inspire a new generation of British businesswomen

How do you inspire a generation of women to run or lead a business? Karen Gill and Maxine Benson, the founders of everywoman, an organisation that supports women in business, believe they have the answer. This week they launch the Modern Muse project, which will showcase the diversity of women in business in 2010 – and the paths that led them to their achievements. Their goal is to inspire the next generation of young women and girls to believe anything is possible. "We want to encourage 100,000 women to run or lead a business in the next 10 years," says Gill.

The project will shine a spotlight on inspirational women, whether they be academically gifted or the girl most likely to drop out of school, blessed with material wealth or scraping a living from their teenage years.

The Modern Muse programme begins with a book, with photography led by Mary McCartney, celebrating 100 successful women. The stories range from that of Dame Mary Perkins, who stands on the brink of becoming the UK's first self-made female billionaire through her chain of Specsavers opticians, to Sadie Ayton, in her seventies and still running the lingerie company she founded 40 years ago, and Becky Humberstone, who took over her gift business during her GCSE exams.

Where once muses were a source of inspiration for science and the arts, the modern-day muses inspire in different ways. There are the passionate campaigners who have helped change laws or set up schools, the truly courageous who have fought in battle, those who have built businesses that are focused on the green agenda, and those who have smashed the glass ceiling in the corporate world.

Everywoman was founded a decade ago to provide training resources and networking for women in business. Benson and Gill realised there was a rich vein of talented women whose achievements were largely unsung.

Gill says: "This is a long-term project – it is not a list. It will have real measurement and we will get the message to 1 million young women and girls."

The 100 women were identified because their achievements were remarkable, whether in business or in life – and demonstrate that anything is possible. Once the project has launched, with an exhibition of photography from the book at the Adam Street club in central London on Thursday, the website will be used to recruit more women who are considered inspirational.

"We have a commitment from each of the 100 muses to recruit a further three inspirational women," explains Gill. "Over a period of one year, they will engage 10 young girls through mentoring or by taking the Modern Muse story to schools and universities."

Through this exponential growth, the Modern Muse message will reach one million young women and girls by the middle of 2012. "We will be able to measure the impact as early as the middle of next year," says Gill.

The winner takes it all

Judy Craymer

Living proof that it is never too late to dream a dream, Judy Craymer, aged 50, worked in film and television, doing everything from making tea to lugging sets around, but her life's ambition was to bring the music of Abba to a West End stage. What began as a pile of Post-it notes on the dining table of her one-bedroom flat in Notting Hill eventually became Mamma Mia! the biggest stage musical of the Noughties and the biggest grossing British film of all time. "Having an idea is one thing, taking it to the next stage is something else," she says.

White heat

Chrissie Rucker

As the founder of The White Company, the mail-order brochure and high-street store, Chrissie Rucker, 42, has become one of the UK's best-known entrepreneurs. For her, there is no better feeling than running her own business. "It is not like going to work, it is my fifth child," she says. Her advice to young girls who are looking at the world of work and considering what they want to do is to consider doing their own thing. "I wouldn't change a moment. I've learned from experience. It's been very challenging at times, but it's also exciting and rewarding."

Inner strength

Rachel Bryan

Teenage mothers often get a tough press. But when Rachel Bryan, now 21, had her son at 19, it gave her a determination and focus. Last year, she co-founded Veritas Language Solutions, a global translation, interpreting and multilingual language services firm. "When my son Noah was born I was forced to mature quickly and become independent," she says. Striking out gave her confidence. "It's no longer a man's world. Femininity in business is a powerful tool and women are showing their strength more and more every day."

Save as you earn

Emma Elston

Elston, 34, is the co-founder of UK Container Maintenance (UKCM), the largest waste container refurbishment firm in the country. The company was started with her husband when she was just 22. UKCM has helped save an estimated £23m by refurbishing containers that would otherwise have been scrapped. "My mum is the strongest person I know," says Emma. "After my father left her with no home, no money and four demanding children, she set up her own hair salon."

Flower power

Katy Jacks

At age 15, Katy Jacks took a Saturday job in an Essex florist, Belgravia. Eight years later she bought the company from her then employer. She worked hard for the business, packing an NVQ in floristry around full-time work, and then experience alongside the noted floral designer Jane Packer. Katy's passion for floristry might have started young, but the realisation that she had to learn about business, too, came later. "I didn't realise how disorganised I was until I owned a business. I had to learn fast about my weaknesses," she says.

Picture perfect

Christina Vaughan

The founder of Image Source, the world's top royalty-free stock photography agency, was inspired by her mother. Christina Vaughan, 40, was one of 10 children brought up in a rough part of Sheffield by a mother who was one of the first to marry outside her north-east Indian tribe. "My mother said I would go far – I didn't know what shape that would take, but it was important that she gave me confidence. I feel privileged because of the support of my family," she says.

Pet project

Vicky Evans

Sometimes you just have to follow a passion. This 29-year-old grew up in Leicestershire surrounded by animals, and later founded House of Paws, which designs and manufactures pet products. She started at the bottom, learning about business at her father's knitwear company. With no knowledge of the pet products market, after some research she noticed a shortage of pet bedding. "I didn't want to study at university, so I did an HND in hospitality management, which involved a year's work experience. I have always been somebody who is best learning on the job."

Front-runner

Sam Smith

Reaching the top of her profession in her early thirties, Sam Smith became the youngest – and only female – chief executive of a London-based stockbroker, finnCap, in 2007. Her route to the top was not always clear. Of her school days, she says: "I was shy and didn't fit in." Today, this 35-year-old's competitive streak has kicked in. "I didn't take up tennis until I was 24, but now I am very sporty. I like sports where I can win. At school I would be picked in the last five for hockey and netball. Now I would get picked among the first."

Spectacular

Dame Mary Perkins

At 66-years old, the founder of Specsavers, is on the brink of becoming Britain's first female self-made billionaire. The chain of opticians has an almost 40 per cent share of the UK market, and is growing rapidly overseas. Dame Mary's is an astonishing achievement, especially considering the lack of opportunities that were open to her in her early career. "There is so much equality in schools now. It is so much easier to go places than it was," she says. "I see no reason why, because you are female, you can't do as well as any man, if not better."

She claims luck played its part in her success, but so did a passion for optometry and a desire to succeed. "At the start I worked six days a week and three nights – and I had three children." She remains refreshingly down to earth. She shuns cabs for the underground, or just walks. "My job is not finished yet," she says. "You can never sit back."

Positive signs

Fozia Parveen

When Dame Mary Perkins nominated her "one to watch", Fozia Parveen was at the top of the list. She set up Signs4Life to bring sign language into the public sphere, and engage deaf people in mainstream society. She has a rich life: she is an optometrist, sign-language teacher and founding director of an inter-faith community project. "I have a 'can-do' attitude," she says. "My combined experiences have provided me with a more balanced perspective on life." And Parveen, 28, is already passing on the baton of inspiration – she points to Samera Hussain from the charity Islamic Relief as part of the next generation of inspiring women. "She has helped raise millions for charities around the world."

Ringmaster

Maria Kempinska

As the owner of Jongleurs comedy clubs, Maria Kempinska, 56, has built a brand and helped launch comedians such as Rory Bremner and Eddie Izzard. Success came about by hard work and determination – and a work ethic Maria saw in her parents. Her mother was a mathematician and her father was a barrister in their native Poland, but they ended up working in factories in Watford. "For me it was about a determination to get somewhere else," she says. "This is a great country. You can get an education at any time of your life. You can change your career."

Senior service

Kate Nesbitt

The first woman in the Royal Navy to receive the Military Cross, Kate Nesbitt, now 22, joined the Royal Navy in 2005, as a medical assistant. Three years later, she was deployed to Afghanistan. There, in 2009, she tended to a seriously wounded soldier on the battlefield. She says, "I am inspired by the courage and determination shown by the servicemen and women injured in conflict, and the way they overcome their disabilities to get on with life."

Cutting edge

Katy Aston

Standing out in the field of textile design is tough. But, at 24, Katy Aston has shown that hard work, diligent study, and passion – as well as a dollop of talent – are the ingredients for success. She has gained a first-class honours in textile design and is about to complete her Master's, has won a scholarship to study in Tokyo, and shown her work in London and Glasgow. But her heart remains in her home town of Sheffield. "I like people to look at my work twice and find something new, just as I look at Sheffield twice every time I go back."

Gifted

Becky Humberstone Few people can claim to have taken over the reins of a business between GCSE exams. But Becky Humberstone, 25, did. She saw the potential in Utterly Horses, a gifts and model horses business, a decade ago. "I knew exactly what I was doing and went for it," she says. Her parents backed her decision. "They were behind me," she says. "It is one thing having an idea, but it is about having the confidence to do it. I had support from my family."

First class

Anna Heyes

Upon graduating with a first, Heyes, 28, set up her PR company, Active Profile. "For me, it is all about experience – seeing and doing things when you're young, so the business world doesn't feel alien."

Storming success

Anna Lee

At only age 12, she was working part-time in a shoe shop and, within a year, Anna Lee was a supervisor. "I saw that if I wanted to have the same things as my friends, I would need to go out and do it myself," she says. So she set up her own business. Today, alongside her husband, she runs Storm, the fashion brand best known for its watches. "While others failed or lost their way, we do our own thing. We won't be led," she says.

Driven

Penny Mallory

There is no challenge that Penny Mallory, 44, is afraid to take on. She left school at 14, and left home shortly after that, to live in a hostel. But, despite her lack of advantages in her formative years, her list of achievements is long and varied. She was the UK's National Ladies Champion Rally Driver – despite taking up the sport when most people are considered too old to start. She has also been a television presenter, a marathon runner, and is now a motivational speaker. "I am an ordinary achiever, a non-academic kid – so imagine what bright people can do. I am fascinated by the potential in people."

Sunny side up

Sandra McClumpha

The global rights to Fake Bake, the sunless tanning company, are owned by McClumpha, who negotiated with the American owners and built a multimillion- pound empire. She has also helped change the law and ban under-18s from using sun-beds after a three-year mission to educate youngsters on the dangers. "I have always had drive and determination," says the 42-year-old. "My mother was my inspiration. She was successful in a man's world and balanced work and home life very well. She made me tough on myself to achieve more."

Crystal-gazer

Sharon Hilditch

Sheer chutzpah ensured Sharon Hilditch became a beautician to the stars. When she founded Crystal Clear micro-dermabrasion treatment she knew she had to do something extraordinary to stand out. So she blew her entire £30,000 marketing budget on hiring celebrity PR Max Clifford, and never looked back. The brand is now worth £10m. She was so focused on building a business that she started work in a hair salon when she was only 11 years old. "I never went the academic route, although I knew I could have done if I wanted to," says the 46-year-old. "You can go on to achieve something great without being academic."

Green queen

Francesca Cragg

With the help of her mentor, Sharon Hilditch, Francesca Cragg, 24, has started to plan her own business. They both work in the beauty industry, Cragg setting up Revitalize as the UK's first salon to be run using renewable and solar energy. Her desire to succeed came because of the example set by her father. "My father worked hard," she says. "He had three companies and gave us a good life. I didn't want to give it up. I thought that if I was going to keep that life I had to work for it. I didn't want to rely on anyone else."

Get involved at: www.modernmuse.co.uk

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