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An interview with Mary Portas, the Queen of High Streets

June 12, 2018

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen many great speakers during my years. I loved Levi Roots, was wowed by Sir Clive Woodward and surprised by how superb Deborah Searle was. But I have to say I think Mary Portas is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Hearing her talk about her past, her present and her brilliant approach to business, you couldn’t help but be moved, motivated, entertained, and inspired. Mary’s such a powerful advocate of empowering women in society to soar to heights unimaginable in less enlightened times.

 

Mary’s background was an interesting one. Her story started in the tough streets of Belfast during the times of the troubles. Sectarian violence was a daily occurrence. Mary’s parents were of that often targeted narrative. A cross-sectarian relationship between a Catholic and a Protestant.

To escape the troubles, her family moved to England. It was a toss up between Watford and Dagenham. Watford won. But the stability of her family life was shattered when her mum died, Mary was only 16 years old. And when her father died just two years later, Mary unexpectedly became the head of the family. Rather than shrink, she grew quickly into the challenge. The rest, as they say, is history.

A super successful career, massively popular TV show, a respected figurehead and champion of independent businesses, a mum, partner and loyal friend. It’s fair to say this wonder woman had done well.

 There were four powerful Portas ‘Power Pointers’:

  1. When a business is not making money, you need to take risks.
  2. Be relentlessly persistent. She phoned Harold’s dozens of times looking for a job, and she finally got one at the world’s most famous store.
  3. Recruitment, don’t recruit the best graduate, find the person with the heart and soul, and only employ radiators, not drains! Always innovate. Get people excited about what you do.  
  4. And my favourite, only do things that make your soul sing. I’ll leave you with this final gem from Mary. She told us a story about how terrified she was before her interview as a talented dancer at the world famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Almost paralyzed with fear, her tutor told her a poem that she’d never forgotten. We all do well to remember these words when faced by fear and in a seemingly overwhelming situation.

Come to the edge, we might fall, come to the edge, it’s too high.

Come to the edge, and they came, and he pushed, and they flew.

Christopher Logue, 1926-2011