International Women’s Day: celebrating women in business and beyond

Tomorrow marks International Women’s Day – a highly significant day in both my personal and professional calendar. While facilitating female leadership is firmly established as a year-round business priority at MBS, I find this day provides a good excuse to critically reflect on the issues surrounding gender equality and celebrate the successes of inspirational women in business.

This year, I’m more eager than ever to champion successful women – not least because of the raft of work MBS has done around diversity, which has served to remind me of the vital part played by role models in fostering diverse leadership teams.

Our reports on diversity in the food and grocery and hospitality, travel and leisure sectors have demonstrated the many great strides being taken in the consumer-facing industry to achieve diversity, but also revealed that many businesses are still at the beginning of their journey. It has also been a privilege to continue to partner with WiHTL. I was particularly proud of the Women To Watch in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure Index, which highlighted the breadth and depth of inspiring women in the HTL sector.

I am acutely aware that a lack of female role models can act as a barrier to success for women wanting to rise up the ranks or start a career in business. It is for this reason that sitting on the judging panel for the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Awards is one the highlights of my year. This is my tenth year on the panel, and the finalists for this year’s awards – the Bold Woman Award and the Bold Future Award – are indicative of the calibre of female talent that exists in the UK today. Particularly exciting for me is that almost all the finalists are operating in the consumer-facing sector!

It is always a privilege to profile inspiring women who are excelling in their field and shaking up their industries, whether they are established corporate executives or trail-blazing entrepreneurs. So, without further ado, here are the finalists for this year’s awards.

Left to right: Vania Leles, Anne Boden MBE and Anne Pitcher.

The Bold Woman Award celebrates women who have demonstrated their enterprising spirit and unrivaled determination to transform a particular field. The finalists are:

Anne Boden, Starling Bank

By founding and leading Starling Bank, Anne has changed the face of modern banking. The mobile-only challenger bank aims to simplify banking, and has raised £230m in funding and gathered 920,000 customers since launching in 2014.

Anne started her career at Lloyds Bank, where she helped architect CHAPA, the UK’s first real-time payments system. After the financial crisis, Anne joined Allied Irish Bank as COO but remained frustrated by the restrictions imposed on banking by outdated technology. Like any good entrepreneur, Anne decided to take matters into her own hands and build a bank from the ground up. Starling was born in 2014 and Anne’s vision today remains to build the best bank in the world. Indeed, Starling has been named Best Bank at the British Banking Awards for two years running – so it seems that Anne may be well on her way to achieving this vision.

Vania Leles, VanLeles Diamonds

Vania is the founder and Creative Director of VanLeles Diamonds, the world’s first, female-founded, fine jewellery brand with deep-rooted African heritage. Vania’s story is one of perseverance and determination, and demonstrates the importance of honing one’s craft. After studying at the world-renowned Gemological Institute of America (GIA), and working for the best names in luxury and fine jewellery including Graff Diamonds, De Beers and Sotheby’s Jewellery Department, Vania founded VanLeles Diamonds in 2011.

From the very beginning, Vania’s business has been focused on producing pieces using rare and unique stones and, specifically, the highest quality conflict-free diamonds. Having witnessed first-hand the harsh illegal diamond trade in Africa, Vania remains personally involved in sourcing all diamonds and gemstones, constantly travelling around the world to find the most beautiful stones from the most sustainable sources.

Anne Pitcher, MD, Selfridges

Anne has played a transformative role in defining the UK’s luxury retail landscape over the past 20 years. Her career began at Harrods, where she was Deputy Merchandising Director, before moving to Harvey Nichols in 2001. At Harvey Nichols, Anne led buying for womenswear, menswear and accessories, before being promoted to Buying & Merchandising Director in 2005. In 2011, Anne moved to Selfridges & Co to lead Selfridges stores in the UK as Managing Director. It was here that she oversaw significant investment into the heritage business, including launching the accessories hall in London and Birmingham’s enhanced footwear offering. In 2018, Anne was appointed Group Managing Director at Selfridges & Co, giving her responsibility for Selfridge’s UK estate as well as Ireland’s luxury stores Brown Thomas and Arnotts, Holt Renfrew in Canada, and de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands.

Anne is one of the few leaders in luxury department stores who looks after stores and ecommerce. She is respected by brands world-over, not only for being good at what she does, but for being someone who has been able to teach so many young people the art of buying and spotting talent.

The award is in honour of Madame Clicquot.

The Bold Future Award was introduced in 2013 to celebrate innovative female entrepreneurship. The finalists are:

Ella Goldner, Zinc VC 

Ella co-founded Zinc VC, a mission-led venture capital firm driven by social good. A graduate of London Business School’s MBA programme in 2010, Ella teamed up with Saul Klein (Founding Partner at VC, Local Globe and Executive Fellow of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS) and Paul Kirby (a former partner at KPMG) to launch Zinc, a VC firm which brings together the brightest minds to build and scale organisations that solve important societal problems. Since this time, Ella’s firm has raised £3m, which has been used to fund three projects around mental health, globalisation and automation and later life.

Celia Pool, DAME

Celia is transforming the tampon category with DAME, the world’s first reusable tampon applicator. Free from toxins and synthetic materials, DAME’s applicator and organic cotton tampons are designed to save menstrual  products from ending up in landfill. Celia launched DAME in 2018, and since then the startup has gone from strength to strength, winning the Dezeen Product Design Award and launching in Waitrose.

Michelle Kennedy, Peanut

A social networking veteran, Michelle has now created an app for mums. Frustrated with feeling lonely and isolated as a new mother, Michelle launched Peanut, an app designed to match up mothers with similar interests and to encourage friendship, communication and socialising among its users. Michelle was previously an executive at the social networking site Badoo, and was also integral to the launch of the popular dating app Bumble. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup