Bake-off star and cookery legend Prue Leith entered the room to a welcome of thunderous applause from the sold-out capacity gathering at Lady Val Corbett’s women’s networking lunch at the end of November.
It was good to hear that Prue and Val have a history, with both coming from South Africa to the UK in their youth and staying in touch over the years. In fact, this lunch event was also a birthday celebration for Lady Val’s network which started 14 years ago in Hoxton Square in a training restaurant for the long term unemployed that both women were connected to. The two women and their ventures have gone from strength to strength.
With a female speaker for a large group of women, we are looking for gossip, insider secrets and tips for how we can emulate her success. Prue did not disappoint. She turned out to be a kick-ass business woman with a winning smile, a colourful presence and in her own words a “terrible show off”!
“Business is boring” ….. but is it?
It’s interesting how as a young woman Prue got the idea that business was boring so she chose a career that she thought was more creative, fun and involved people… cooking. She was good at it growing a team of cooks, then over the next year she found herself out of the kitchen … “Guess where I was …the team were in the kitchen doing the cooking, and I was on the phone, selling the stuff and making up the menus and doing the bills and organising the restaurants …. I was in an office doing business!” To her surprise she found that she absolutely loved it getting as much of a buzz and “smug self satisfaction” from getting the right numbers on her profit and loss as she did from preparing a big wedding feast.
Creative with Marketing
It not only helps to be a good cook but you have to seize the opportunities to move up the ladder and grow your business whenever you can. Prue spoke of a time when she was cooking for a wealthy woman in her Holland Park home. Through the server hatch she overheard the dinner parties guests give lavish praise for the food and ask for the name of genius cook. The hostess then claimed that she had cooked all the food herself and the “little girl in the kitchen” was simply there for clearing the dishes. That little girl resisted the temptation to shout through the hatch and instead came up with a great idea. A small sweet revenge. She took her business cards and wrote on each one that this was the person who had cooked their lovely meal then slipped them into the coat pockets of all the guests. Bingo! Shortly after, she received a call from the secretary of the Chairman of Reed publishing inviting her to cook for the directors’ lunches. He was impressed with both her cooking and marketing skills. Be brave and seize the moment.
Evolving with age
When Prue got to her mid century she wanted to heed a different call for creativity and write novels. Owning three very successful businesses took all her time and creativity so she decided to sell them all … her cookery school, Michelin star restaurant and catering company which now had 500 employees. That’s certainly a brave shift. She opened up space for her creative writing phase but after some time decided she actually missed the buzz of business.
You’re never too old to start again
Recalling how Lady Val celebrates a woman’s love of handbags and shoes (a regular toast at her networking events) Prue pointed out that these items are either hidden under a table on the floor or on our feet and then tucked away in cupboards. She decided to be a bit more canny and showy and choose to channel her creativity into the design of a range of colourful Prue spectacles and gorgeous necklaces .. items that already formed part of her personal brand image and are always on display! Having previously enjoyed wearing colourful and inexpensive plastic jewellery, Prue’s range is a bit more eco friendly and not based on plastic but on beautiful gemstones which also make for a more sustainable business with better margins.
So having semi-retired from her businesses in her 50s .. here she is about to enter her 9th decade and back in the business fray, collaborating with jewellery and spectacle designers. It’s never too late to take on something completely new challenge.
Older women and Invisibility
Reflecting on her own journey through the years, she has noticed that women in their 50s can feel, and also look, invisible. She encouraged women to accept the fact that older men will let their gaze land on more nubile and younger women (that’s just what they do!) and we can still have a good time. Don’t give up on yourself she said … embrace colour.
Prue referred to her long and happy marriage with her first husband. He was 20 years older than her and sadly he died when she was in her sixties. She has been very public in her comments about her surprise and joy at finding love again in her later years. She is going to be 80 next year and is delighting in her wonderful marriage to a man who is seven years her junior which she called “the right ratio” to much applause from the audience.
Women can often find themselves single in later life for a variety of reasons but she pointed out that even though we might not all enjoy the love and connection of a life partner, love is still hugely important in our lives and takes many forms. Appreciating the love we have from friends and even our pets is nourishing and important. Having love and being long sustains us.
Recipe for success
Prue says that because she seems to do a lot, and has accomplished so much, she is often asked about her secrets for success. This is a hard one for any of us to answer but she says she can only draw on her innate optimism. She says she is upbeat in her approach to life. “I do think I’ve been lucky ……. you know, if something goes wrong, I will more likely say, it was really worth a try. I’ll do it again…. Or that didn’t work so I’ll try something else. I think much more about what I’ll do next, rather than worrying about what I’ve done wrong….And I’ve done lots of things wrong.” It can be so easy to focus on the mis-steps and the failures and let them hold us back but Prue maintains a focus on the future which sounds really healthy. Keep your eyes forward and don’t get hung up on the past.
Embrace the colour
Her other secret is her love of colour which she says has a great deal to do with how she feels … “maybe this is because I’m busy flogging colourful specs and colourful necklaces! … but I do think that if you wear a red jacket or a yellow coat on a miserable morning you immediately feel a little happier. So I’m really for us all having colourful lives, and that means having a go with everything.”
A new career phase with Bake-Off
When Mary Berry stepped out of the Bake-Off team when Channel 4 bought the franchise, Prue, already an old hand at TV work, wondered who they would find to replace the iconic female elder stateswoman of baking … she thought “surely they’ll never ask for yet another old lady… Channel Four always want to do something different .. a young cool black woman perhaps …But they obviously didn’t want to mess with the formula”. So she was approached and is now a key part of the successful continuation of the series.
The big faux-pas
As the first Bake-Off series involving Prue came to a close, she recounted how she was prompted to congratulate the winner after 10.30pm. Of course we all know it is a pre-recorded programme and the winner is a very well-kept secret (and has been for 7 years) until the recording is aired many weeks after the actual event. On this occasion Prue was in Bhutan with very spotty phone reception so when that prompting message appeared on her phone, she looked at her watch .. 10.30pm …so she sent out that famously ill-timed message of congrats to the winner. It was certainly 10.30pm in Bhutan but much earlier in the UK and the show had not yet been aired. Her assistant spotted the spoiler message and deleted it so it was only up for 89 seconds .. but that was all it took to spread like wild fire. The spoiler-alert story made headline news. Instead of having her contract terminated as she fully expected, Prue was relieved to find a compassionate response at Channel 4, particularly as ratings soared when many new folks tuned in to watch the show. The potential debacle had another upside when the Prime Minister of Bhutan called her for a chat … congratulating her and thanking her for putting Bhutan on the map .. in the most unusual way!
That is definitely a sign of a woman who is a pure magnet for good luck!!
Lady Val’s next lunch event for women in London is February 20th