Karren Brady: 'I regret taking only three days' maternity leave'

I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit When I was seven, I remember sticking a sign on my bedroom window that read, "Manicures and massage, come on in." My mother rushed in, saying, "All these weirdos are knocking on the door." I used to write to my headmaster [at Aldenham School, Hertfordshire] too, with money-making ideas to raise cash for the school.

Loyalty is so important David Sullivan [the joint owner of West Ham United FC and former co-owner of Birmingham City FC] really took a chance on me at 23 to run Birmingham City and that's why we're still together now. I'd been working for him for three years on the Sunday Sport in charge of business and marketing. He knew what I was capable of, but it was still a risk, and it has meant so much to me.

I've experienced a lot of sexism in football I recall going up to the front desk at my first away game, at Watford, and asking where the directors' box was. This chap said, "Director's wives over there," and I said, "No, I'm the MD of Birmingham City FC," and he put on his glasses, peered at me, and said, "Oh yes, you're that woman; stay here and I'll find out what to do with you."

The brain aneurysm I had in 2006 put things into perspective It made me understand what was really important – to enjoy life, take more risks and stop putting things off. My best friend grew up in Hong Kong and she always told me I must visit and for years I'd say, "Next year, next year." Seven months after my operation, I went to visit her. It felt so good.

It's rubbish to say you can't be proper friends with the opposite sex I was at an all-boys' school – well, 600 boys and 16 girls, so most of my friends then were guys. A lot of them have since married and have kids, and we still hang out. It's probably why I find it so easy working in male environments.

There are lots of cuts you can make to UK plc without affecting front-line services If you take West Ham, when I went in, there were lots of excesses that had to stop if it was to have a future, and I think it's the same with the country. Look at what is essential and what isn't. At West Ham, there's a lot of debt there, but we've made a lot of efficiencies by asking what are the luxuries we can't afford. Cutting some of the support staff was quite hard, though.

Making players accessible to fans is football's biggest issue today My husband [the former, much-travelled striker] Paul Peschisolido used to get a bus home with the supporters when he was playing an away game. Lots of supporters want to be close to their players, but with the environment the players live in now, it's hard.

I regret taking only three days' maternity leave when I had my daughter, 15 years ago. But back then phrases such as work-life balance and flexible working hours didn't exist and I put pressure on myself to carry on as normal. So if I could go back and tell my younger self something, it's that a career lasts a lifetime. Taking time off is not the end of the world; the job is always going to be there, you shouldn't beat yourself up too much about taking a break.

Never look down on people unless you're helping them up It's what my grandmother used to say to me. It's why I'm helping AXA promote their youth awards. Sometimes you can use your life experience to encourage others. It's good to see big companies put up real money to help young people.

Karren Brady, 42, is vice-chairman of West Ham United and an adviser to Lord Sugar on 'The Apprentice'. To enter the AXA awards, visit ambitionaxaawards.com. Applications are open until 14 October, with winners announced on 30 November

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