The CBI First Women awards: The woman who invented Viagra and other female pioneers

Forget the glass ceiling: a ceremony held last night honoured ten of Britain's most remarkable women. From the Indian immigrant whose multi-million pound food empire was started on her kitchen table to the only female to chair a FTSE-100 company, Arifa Akbar reports on a group of trail-blazers who broke the mould


Dr Gill Samuels, Science

Dr Gill Samuels, Science

As the director of vascular biology at Pfizer, Ms Samuels, 60, oversaw the discovery of compounds for reducing hypertension and migraines. But perhaps most famously, she was part of the 1,000-strong team which invented Viagra.

The discovery, she said, came in 1985 after 13 years of intense team work and laboratory experiments. She said: "We were looking at various disorders in vasular contraction when we came across this new class of compound that could relax blood vessels. I have heard people call it a lifestyle drug but I don't think of it like that. It has caused men to think differently about their health. It has de-stigmatised erectile health and as someone who had to review all the letters of patients, who say 'It has stopped me killing myself' or 'It has stopped me hitting my wife', that I realise what a good medicine it is," she said.

The granddaughter of a Shropshire coalminer, Ms Samuels' early love of science was encouraged by her parents, not least because her own father was a chemist.

"I have always been curious about how things worked. I was one of those children that loved to demolish dolls to see how they were put together and my parents did not distinguish in the educational choices of my brother or myself. They supported us both. Science is a bit like cooking - and my cooking has always been a bit experimental," she said.

After completing a PhD, she began working in industry and joined Pfizer 27 years ago. While she has never felt she has "bumped my head against a glass ceiling", she stressed that girls needed role models and ambassadors both in the world of business as well as science.

In spite of her many ground-breaking discoveries, she said she has had her fair share of scientific disappointments. "You have to be tenacious as well as a good scientist. You have to be highly motivated and learn to cope with the ups and downs, the disappointments as well as the excitements. Scientists have to be highly motivated to keep working on something that will make a difference," she said.

She said there was a need to retain women in science, who tend to leave in the thirties to raise families. "Whenever you look in science, there are a lot of women who come in at the beginning but around their thirties, numbers of women start to decrease. It is clear we cannot afford to lose good scientists with brains. There must be ways we can keep women in science.

"Pfizer's diversity programme focuses on getting the best people and keeping them, and if they have a period off work so they can have a family, it is about making sure all the options are there on return, such as flexible working hours and shared jobs."

She was praised by the judges for making an extraordinary contribution to science in terms of policy and public awareness. Pfizer colleagues said she always emanated an infectious enthusiasm and remains one of the greatest inspirations to women in science.

Jan Babiak, Technology

Jan Babiak was the first woman to run a business unit for Ernst & Young in Britain and is still the firm's only female managing partner.

As Britain's area managing partner for information systems assurance and advisory services, Ms Babiak created a new business within E&Y which focuses on technology and IT security risk. It went on to become the fastest- growing practice in the firm.

She is a passionate believer in financial education for women and is the international representative on the board of the Committee of 200, whose aim is to advance women in business. A colleague said: "She doesn't restrict her mentoring to work. She checks the effect my decisions will have on my family as well as on my career."

The judges said: "Jan Babiak stood out because she has clearly and unequivocally achieved a number of firsts in her field."

Julia Hands, Tourism & leisure

Julia Hands acquired two hotel groups with her financier husband in 1999. She had no experience in the hotel industry and her original plan was to bring in someone to manage the properties. However, having devised her own grand plan for the project, she decided to take on the running of the hotels herself.

Her aim was to "create a unique collection of architecturally stunning and exquisitely refurbished country house hotels, offering the highest standards of cuisine and service, which will make each guest's stay a memorable one". She went on to create one of Britain's most respected hotel groups.

The judges said: "You can't ignore Julia Hands' achievements as a novice in the industry: she had the vision, developed it and is now reaping the benefits of scale without compromising on individual character or quality of service."

Stella Dorsett, Manufacturing

The only female director of Cookson's precious metals division and the most senior woman in the group, Stella Dorsett has held the role of chairperson of the British Jewellers' Association for the past year - the first woman to do so.

She is also one of small number of female pioneers to hold a managing directorial position in the manufacturing sector.

For Ms Dorsett, strongholds are there to be stormed. "I am not particularly a feminist, but believe with determination, self-motivation and the will to succeed, women do not have to be held back by traditional, invisible boundaries,' she said.

The judges praised Ms Dorsett as a woman who had a number of firsts to her name, adding: "Early in her career, she made the move from IT into production, making her subsequent success all the more impressive."

Julia Rogers, Business services

Hailed as a "trailblazer" by the judges, she was one of the first female recruits to attend Sandhurst Military Academy, one of the first four women officers in the Royal Military Police, and the Army's first female adjutant, helping a commanding officer with administrative affairs.

Now a general manager with the Co-operative Group, Ms Rogers continued to break new ground throughout her career - she joined the Co-operative Group as its head of security, a post that had traditionally been held by male former police officers. Today, as general manager for central services, she juggles her duties with extra projects and has most recently been involved in helping former offenders back into the workforce.

The judges said: "Julia Rogers simply does not accept barriers. She's been a trailblazer wherever she's been."

Fru Hazlitt, Media

Hazlitt arrived as sales director at the internet giant, Yahoo, just as dotcoms were moving from boom to bust. She managed not only to improve the fortunes of the company but also to become its UK managing director.

As one of only a few women to run the British arm of a major American corporation, Ms Hazlitt tripled Yahoo's revenues. Now CEO of Virgin Radio, her mantra is to "watch the kids" for guidance on the shape of things to come for new media. "Today's kids will not remember a time when there was no email, no mobile phone, no internet search and only four or five TV channels," she says.

Colleagues praise her energy, commitment and ability to lead through "sheer brute force of personality".

The judges said she led Yahoo through a turbulent time and that she had "set out her stall bravely and supremely competently".

Fiona Morton, Retail & Property

The first woman to be managing partner of Ryden, her commercial property partnership - and the only woman among 26 partners - Ms Morton is a true pioneer in the Scottish business community. A graduate - in geography - of Edinburgh University, she is also the chairman of the Investment Property Forum in Scotland.

A colleague said: "What Fiona has achieved in her chosen profession would be no mean feat on its own, and I know she has also been a role model to many a young surveyor."

She herself says one of the toughest challenges in her career was fighting to persuade sceptical upmarket London retailers in the 1980s that Glasgow's shopping revival was about to begin.

The judges said: "Fiona Morton is not just a pathfinder but is a role model. She is passionate, a woman of great personal achievement who has plenty more goals ahead of her."

Jocelyn Blackwell, Finance

A pioneer in a very traditional sector, not only did Jocelyn Blackwell create the industry-wide initiative to raise standards of pensions administration but she is also one of the most senior women advising the UK pensions and insurance industry.

She founded Dunnett Shaw, which provides consulting services on pension schemes in 1987. It recently became a subsidiary of Higham Group, which offers specialist services to life insurance and pension industries. Ms Blackwell, who also sits as a council member of the Pensions Management Institute, believes women should thrive in the male-dominated pension industry. "Pensions is essentially a caring profession," she says.

The judges said she was "making an impact in a very traditional industry" but that her influence extended far beyond to enhance the culture of the pensions industry as a whole.

Perween Warsi, Lifetime achievement

Born in India, Perseen Warsi agreed to an arranged marriage to a doctor at the age of 17, and came to Britain a year later in 1975. A mother of two sons, she was inspired to start a cooking business from her kitchen after buying a tasteless samosa from a local shop in Derby.

"I thought I'd buy my sons a ready-made samosa to save me cooking. But when I tasted it, it was bland and boring and I couldn't eat it. It was then I decided to cook my own and sell them to a local takeaway. I learnt my craft by doing it," she said. She went on to create her own company, called S&A after her sons, Sadiq and Abid.

Now 48, she is one of the 100 richest women in the country, with two factories in Derby and an annual turnover of £70m. She said: "I think women are breaking through the glass ceiling. My message to women is to say, 'Don't hesitate. Go and do it. And enjoy it'.

Sarah Hogg, Lifetime achievement

A renowned economist, Baroness Hogg, 58, has a pioneering role as the only woman to chair a FTSE 100 company. Her achievement, the judges said, would "open the door to many, many other women to follow".

As chair of 3I, Europe's leading venture capital company, she also founded Frontier Economics, in 1999, to provide advice on competition and the economics of regulation.

Before her success in business, she was a respected journalist with The Economist, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and was involved in launching The Independent, with responsibility for the business pages. She was a BBC governor from 2000 to 2004, and was head of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit from 1990 to 1995.

The judges celebrated her "astonishing record of career firsts across journalism, politics, economics and business."

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