The 20 most powerful women in Britain under the age of 35

They have made their mark in business, finance, politics and fashion. And, for the most part, they have made it despite, not because of, their employers. Sophie Goodchild and Andrew Johnson report
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The Independent Online

They are the brightest and the best; role models for the worlds of business and politics. They are young, successful, self-made, with a life outside their careers – and they are female.

They are the brightest and the best; role models for the worlds of business and politics. They are young, successful, self-made, with a life outside their careers – and they are female.

Britain's most powerful women under 35 have been named and their lives reveal two surprising elements. The 35 businesswomen and executives, to be named by Management Today, are ascommitted to raising children, climbing mountains or charity fundraising as they are to negotiating boardroom deals.

Natasha Clarke, for example, is on maternity leave from her own IT recruitment agency at present, and Ruth Kelly, who at 34 is financial secretary to the Treasury, is expecting her fourth child.

But they share a second characteristic that betrays a less positive side of being a woman in business. The majority are entrepreneurs, and the reason, say business experts, is that female middle managers, frustrated by their lack of promotion options, are being forced to set up on their own. Michelle Mone, for example, survived a poverty-stricken childhood to design the Ultimo bra and found a company with a £6m turnover.

Other women on the list include fashion designer Stella McCartney, Yvette Cooper, who became one of Britain's youngest female MPs and is now a government minister, and Caroline Plumb, at 24 the youngest female member of the Institute of Directors.

All were selected by a panel of experts including head-hunters, think tanks, bankers and academics. These included DeAnne Julius, former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, and Dr Val Singh and Professor Susan Vinnicombe of Cranfield University.

Entrepreneurs represent the largest group of women on the list, with nine places out of the 35. This led to a "brain drain" of female talent from blue-chip businesses. Now, BP and Ford are setting targets to ensure women are given equal opportunities to reach board level.

Official government figures show that at least half of all graduates are now women, yet fewer than eight per cent of the FTSE 100 firms have female directors and only 24 per cent of managers in the UK are women. Creative professions such as marketing, human resources and the media, top the list of worst offenders for stifling women who aspire to progress above middle management. Law, finance and engineering have the best record for promoting women to board level.

Professor Vinnicombe said that many companies adopted a system of "impression management" when considering staff for top-level promotion. This extra set of criteria was used to judge the personal attributes of an employee and put women at a natural disadvantage.

"I'm not saying it's conscious discrimination but the fact is that directors clone each other," said Professor Vinnicombe, author of Women With Attitude. "The reality is that they always feel more comfortable working with a man at that level.

"The assumption is that equality has been achieved but the reality is the glass ceiling has risen further and the number of women at the top of organisations is not changing. We like to kid ourselves that a lot of places are more women-friendly, but that is not the case."

Additional reporting by Malaika Costello-Dougherty

The retailer

Lisa Morgan, 32

A former senior buyer at Dixons, where she spent five years, Morgan has spent 13 years in the video retail trade. She is about to become the deputy CEO of the Game Group, Europe's largest video game retailer with 389 stores. Morgan joined in 1997 and won a seat on the board as commercial director in 2000.

The fashionista

Maria Grachvogel, 33

A former City stockbroker who taught herself how to cut patterns. Grachvogel's G range sells in more than 50 Debenham's stores and she made her catwalk debut at Paris Fashion Week in 2000 when she persuaded Victoria Beckham to wear a £3,000 dress. She produced her first "collection" at 14, and saved all her pocket money to buy fabrics. Then, at the age of 17, she became the youngest person to pass the City's stockbroker exams in order to raise capital to start her company, which she did in 1991.

The financier

Zoe Appleyard, 29

Sold her company Life Capital to investment bank Durlacher for £1.6m in March. The deal also landed her the post of managing director of Durlacher Ventures, which raises money for private companies.

The coffee queen

Sahar Hashemi, 35

The co-founder of Coffee Republic earned £10m last year. A Persian-born lawyer, she decided, on a trip to New York to see her brother, that London had no equivalent of NYC's coffee bars. The first Coffee Republic opened in 1995; six years later they had 110 cafés and a turnover of £30m.

The oil baroness

Ann Hand, 34

Head of a BP business unit, responsible for 1,200 employees across 11 European countries in a business that turns over $1bn a year. Hand was born in Indiana and grew up near Chicago. She joined Exxon at 20 after studying economics and management.

The recruiter

Caroline Plumb, 24

Plumb set up Fresh Minds after Oxford. It links students in need of work with companies looking for short-term research.

The marketeer

Karen Blackett, 31

Marketing director of MediaCom, which manages advertising campaigns and media buying and last year spent £610m on behalf of ad agencies. A blackbelt kick boxer, she joined MediaCom in 1995 and became a board director in 1999. She is responsible for such clients such as Volkswagen and Direct Line.

The insurer

Wendy Ferguson, 32

At 29 Ferguson was running the office of Mike Ross, the CEO of Scottish Widows. She is now in charge of the company's client services division. A former PriceWaterhouseCoopers fast-tracker, she is credited with helping turn Scottish Widows into Britain's second biggest pension and life insurance company.

The PR brain

Larissa Joy, 34

Voted one of the 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in March, Joy is chief operating officer for UK and Ireland at PR consultancy Weber Shandwick Worldwide. She was headhunted from advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather where she was vice chairman.

The inventor

Michelle Mone, 31

Left school at 15 to look after her father when he woke up one day to find himself paralysed. Mone grew up in the "tough east end" of Glasgow, and her home didn't have a bath until she was 12. Went on to become a sales manager for Labatts lager, covering all of Scotland, before being made redundant. In 1995 had an idea for a gel-filled bra. Three years later the Ultimo went into production and her company MJM International now turns over £6m a year and designs a range of clothing and lingerie. The Ultimo was famously worn by Julia Roberts to enhance her bust in her eponymous Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich.

The economist

Ruth Kelly, 34

Financial secretary to the Treasury. After Oxford, Kelly joined The Guardian as an economics writer. She was elected MP for Bolton West in 1997. After a stint as PPS to Agriculture minister Nick Brown, she became an economic secretary to the Treasury in 2001 and financial secretary a year later. She is expecting her fourth child.

The manager

Jennifer Tippin, 29

Global accounts manager for Invensys. Tippin joined British Airways from Oxford and led the telesales department, which employed 1,000 people and turned over £185m; at 23, she became manager of BA flight training before being headhunted by the $7bn-turnover technology giant.

The politician

Yvette Cooper, 34 Parliamentary secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department. After Oxford, became journalist for The Independent then MP for Pontefract and Castleford. Married to Gordon Brown's top adviser, Ed Balls.

The thinker

Lisa Harker, 34

Formerly deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, described as Tony Blair's favourite think tank. She is now director of Aspire, a not-for-profit company that provides work and training for the homeless.

The health chief

Claire Scott, 30

Scott joined the National Health Service in 1996 as a service manager and has risen rapidly. She now heads the NHS's Leadership Centre in the South, which trains future managers. There are only four such posts in the country.

The campaigner

Elizabeth Davies, 30

First chief executive of UK Breast Cancer Coalition. A non-executive director of the NHS, she is taking a key role at the National Patient Safety Agency.

The investor

Katherine Garrett-Cox, 35 Nicknamed Katherine the Great, at 26 she headed the American equities desk at Hill Samuel. Now chief investment officer of Aberdeen Asset Management. While on maternity leave in 2002 the firm slumped to the bottom of the UK top 10. She responded by sacking six colleagues on her return to work.

The designer

Stella McCartney, 31 The daughter of Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney rapidly rose to prominence after completing her degree at Central St Martins College of Art and Design and being snapped up by French couture house Chloé. She quickly became known for her bohemian-chic feminine styling and refusal to use animal products. Now her name is one of the biggest in fashion, as immediately recognisable as Yves St Laurent or Armani. Backed by Gucci, she quit Chloé in 2001 to start her own label and opened her first boutique in New York last year, followed by a shop in Mayfair in March. She recently told off her friend Madonna for wearing an astrakhan fur.

The broker

Helen Smith, 31

Group finance director of stockbroker Collins Stewart since the age of 27. Smith is worth an estimated £8.5m from her stake after helping arrange a management buyout in 2000. The company is now valued at around £650m.

The barrister

Kirsty Brimelow, 33

A criminal barrister since 1991, Brimelow specialises in rape and murder cases. She went to a comprehensive in Lancashire, graduated from Birmingham, then studied at the Bar. She climbed Kilimanjaro and gives legal advice to a Bosnia charity.