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Review: Memoir: Strong Woman: Ambition, Grit and a Great Pair of Heels by Karren Brady


Woman on a mission: Self-declared feminist Karren Brady has thrived in a male-dominated environment

Woman on a mission: Self-declared feminist Karren Brady has thrived in a male-dominated environment

Woman on a mission: Self-declared feminist Karren Brady has thrived in a male-dominated environment

Karren Brady is one of the UK's best-known businesswomen. From the age of 18 she worked for Saatchi & Saatchi before moving on to David Sullivan's Sport newspaper empire.

By the time she was 23, Sullivan had put her in charge of Birmingham City Football Club, which she took from administration to profit.

Now chairperson of West Ham (bought by Sullivan with Ann Summers founder David Gold), Brady is, among other things, the new "eyes and ears" of Alan Sugar on The Apprentice, a non-executive board member of Arcadia, a Sun columnist, a mother and wife (of player-turned-manager Paul Peschisolido).

Moreover, in 2006 Brady was operated on for a brain aneurysm. Feeling a bit lazy, feeble and underachieving yet? A few chapters into Brady's book and there's a good chance you will be.

Saying that, what a naff title! Alongside the heavy-breathing Sex and the City-style subtitle, it seems to promote a female version of cartoon corporate machismo. As does the cringeworthy screech of "Here come the girls!" on the back cover, nestling alongside admiring quotes from Sugar and Martha Lane Fox.

All of which strikes one as a rather outdated "suited, booted and shoulder-padded" portrayal of modern businesswomen which elsewhere in the tome Brady, an avowed feminist, argues against.

The chapter headings -- "My Mission", "Learning to Lead", "My Rules for Success" -- leave us in no doubt that this is a memoir told from the perspective of Brady the businesswoman.

Born in Edmonton, north London, her father was a self-made millionaire, and Brady went to convent boarding school, followed by another boarding school where there were six girls to 600 boys -- which, with my cod psychology hat on, seems apt preparation for Brady's male-dominated working life. Indeed, other women barely get a look-in, though this could just be a reflection of the business circles Brady moves in.

Certainly she gives short shrift to the question that's clearly been the bane of her working existence: how could she stand up for women's rights (which she does at length in this book) but work so closely with people with interests in the porn business (Sullivan, Gold and Richard Desmond)?

It isn't the stupidest question in the world, and Brady's response isn't the strongest -- just some mumbling about organisations such as Sky having adult channels too.

Nor does Brady fully address her arrest as part of an investigation into football corruption in 2008. (Brady was released without charge, so why the edit?) Similarly, a modicum of self-awareness could have stopped her going on so long about her ongoing and rather yawnsome battle to win the Olympic stadium for West Ham.

Brady's prose verges on monotonous "business android" rather too frequently, but she's gripping and often funny on such matters as being the "first lady of football" at Birmingham City, and dealing with the hard-boiled sexism she encountered daily. When a player yelled: "I can see your tits from here", she replied: "When I sell you to Crewe, you won't be able to see from there." (And she did!)

Elsewhere, it's admirable of Brady to admit that she was wrong to take only three days off after the birth of her first child because she felt fearful about her career.

These days she feels that "having it all" is a ridiculous "pressurising concept" that does women no favours. Go Karren! Let's just hope that the female Apprentice contestants are listening.

Brady's account of her brain aneurysm is frank without being self-pitying. It's as if the corporate mask slips and Brady the human being tentatively appears.

"I might have looked strong but I found my fear quite difficult to deal with," she says. When being driven home very slowly after surgery people were tooting rudely at the car: "I wanted to shout out of the window: 'I've just had brain surgery, you twats!'"

I enjoyed these glimpses into her personality much more than all the business stuff.

Strong Woman seems to be Brady's attempt at a female business bible, in the mould of bestsellers from Sugar and Richard Branson.

Fair enough. However, there are enough hints here that there may be a much more complex Karren Brady still waiting to come out.

Indo Review