Interview: Karren Brady

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Stylist Team
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As The Apprentice returns for its seventh series, steely sidekick Karren Brady talks to Stylist about the new format on this year’s show, women in business and why she’ll be leaving her Prada shoes at home during this series

Not many WAGs can claim to be their husband’s former boss. But Karren Brady (married to ex-Canadian international footballer Paul Peschisolido for the last 16 years) is no ordinary footballer’s wife.

From becoming managing director at Birmingham City FC aged 23 (where she met and sold Peschisolido), she’s spent the ensuing 18 years hauling companies out of the red and becoming Britain’s best-known businesswoman in the process (she’s now vice-chairman of West Ham). Then there’s her seemingly superhuman strength – she famously returned to work three days after having her first child Sophia, now 14 (she also has a son Paolo, 12), once worked non-stop for 13 years without a holiday and in 2006, survived a lifethreatening brain aneurysm.

Little wonder Lord Sugar appointed Brady as his confidante in The Apprentice, returning for its seventh series next Tuesday. This time, the corporate wannabes won’t be scrapping to work for Sugar in one of his many companies however. Instead, the winner will get £250,000 of the formidable tycoon’s money to start their own firm. Karren Brady gives us all the details…

Why has The Apprentice’s format changed this year?

I think [the BBC changed the show] to reflect the recession. Lots of people are now losing their jobs and setting up businesses. It’s changed the type of candidates. They don’t actually want to work for somebody. They’re successful, more driven individuals who want the money and the job. They’re more competitive too.

What can you tell us about this year’s contestants?

Jim [an ex-cycling champion] is a smooth operator, while Melody [a psychologist] and Edna [who says things like, “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit, when there are footprints on the moon”] are strong, feisty females. The other stand-out is Edward, an accountant who doesn’t want to be an accountant. He’s got a real complex about it.

Do you ever feel like stepping in and shouting at candidates because they’re so idiotic?

You need to bite your lip. Sometimes you think, “did you actually just say that?” Stuart [Baggs] from series six was the classic with his one-liners. Some days are long, and we need to have a drink at the end.

Did you get any tips from Margaret Mountford (Karren’s predecessor) before filming?

Oh, loads! The most useful was “look after your feet” because you’ll be walking around 12-16 hours a day. In my first ever episode, I wore a nice pair of Prada shoes and was in agony.

Speaking of fashion, you’re on the board of clothing retailer Arcadia. Do you get the run of what you want from Topshop?

No, I would never do that. My daughter is a bigger fan, I’m in my 40s, don’t forget! I don’t have a say in the fashion ranges – we just discuss business strategy.

In the last Apprentice series, you told the all-female team they weren’t representing women properly after they started squabbling…

It was embarrassing how they were carrying on. Nobody could get a word in. Being a candidate is an important responsibility, particularly as we try to encourage more women into business.

I really believe in life-long learning. The minute you think you know it all is when you don’t know anything at all.

What do you think the government should be doing to aid that?

Childcare should be a taxable allowance. It would allow women to put the cost of having to provide childcare against their income, so they can go out to work.

What have you noticed from observing groups of men working together?

The one thing that always surprises us with all-boy teams in The Apprentice boardroom, is that whenever Alan says, “Good team leader!” the boys congratulate each other, but when they have to save themselves, they’ll easily say, “He’s not very good at all.”

You’ve got a fearless reputation (the ‘anti-Bridget Jones’, according to one newspaper). Where do you get your chutzpah from?

I’ve been in business for over 20 years and sold Birmingham City FC for £82 million. I’ve got a track record, so any confidence comes from that.

What was the last business that you looked at and thought ‘I wish I’d come up with that’?

Facebook. It’s such a simple idea, but often the best businesses are. I’ve achieved all the business ideas I’ve wanted to, though one thing I really love is interior design. I’ve done a few projects but haven’t got the time to do anything more serious.

Is there anything left for you to learn about business?

Oh, always. I really believe in life-long learning. The minute you think you know it all is when you don’t know anything at all. It’s very important to listen to the next generation and to understand technology and the way the world is moving. I even learned from the ideas of the Junior Apprentice candidates. You never really stop learning.

The Apprentice starts on Tuesday 10 May on BBC One at 9pm. Just can't wait? Read our interview with Lord Alan Sugar or ShortList's interview with Nick Hewer.