I used to worry that Britain lacked enough inspirational female entrepreneurs. Success inspires success, and a lack of female role models was, surely, a big disadvantage for budding female founders.
It remains the case that top male entrepreneurs are more prominent than female, be it in the media (partly because they lean towards the sort of tech overnight successes that attract attention) or popular culture (think The Apprentice, Dragons' Den, The Social Network). But the rate at which women are starting businesses is on the rise. Of the 500,000+ new companies formed each year in Britain, around half are started by women. It's statistics like these, combined with events like a recent Female Founders Forum roundtable, which reassure me that the tide is turning.
Among the attendees at the meeting was a selection of successful, confident female business leaders - many of whom had founded companies I know and have used in the past, like Laura Tenison MBE of JoJo Maman Bébé, or Debbie Wosskow of Love Home Swap. It also included Tamara Lohan of Mr and Mrs Smith Hotels, who I caught up with after the event.
I already knew snippets of the Smith story - that Lohan created the boutique hotel website with her husband, for example, or that she had earned an MBE for services to the travel industry. What I didn't know was that she had recently became an angel investor, that she finds time to do the morning school run every day despite working full time, and that she never set out to be an entrepreneur. Instead, she took an opportunistic approach to life and career; one that would see her build one of the world's most successful "aspirational yet accessible" accommodation brands.
"After graduating from university, I quickly realised a career in the City wasn't for me," she says. "But with a degree in languages, there was no clear-cut alternative. My first job was launching an energy drink in Brazil for a UK-based company. There were only two of us on the project, and we had to do everything over there: from product creation to sales and marketing. It was, in fact, perfect training for a career in entrepreneurship."
When UK operations faltered, Lohan returned to Blighty and worked as a marketing consultant for brands including Ericsson, Honda and Swissair. By 2002, she'd had enough of the corporate world and was ready to try something new. This time she knew exactly what: like so many innovative new businesses, Mr and Mrs Smith was borne out of personal frustration. "My husband and I were planning a weekend break, but soon realised there was a dearth of luxury hotels aimed at young professionals. So we founded a business which published boutique travel guides in print."
Today, only a tiny percentage of the company's revenues come from book sales - further evidence, if needed, that successful entrepreneurs must be adaptable to market changes. Over the course of a decade, the business pivoted from trusted publisher to award-winning booking service and worldwide travel club. The founders have developed their own booking system, expanded into new markets, built apps, and grown consistently year on year.
When Lohan first introduced herself, she said that, as CTO of a 14-year stable business, she doesn't feel entrepreneurial anymore. This stability is usually a source of relief, but at times, she misses the sensation of "flying by the seat of my pants". Luckily, she can delve into her work as an angel, and live vicariously through the budding entrepreneurs she supports. Or she can find new growth opportunities - like the development of sister brand Smith & Family, or launching an investment bond to raise finance.
The two questions Lohan is asked more than any other are: "Is it hard working with your husband?" and: "Which is your favourite Smith destination?" She is quick to rebuff the first, telling me that it works because of their mutual respect and clearly defined roles in the company. The second requires a more measured response: it is, after all, tantamount to choosing a favourite child, she says. Finally she concedes: "One place I would go back to in a heartbeat is Uxua Casa in Brazil. It was designed and built by Wilbert Das - former creative director of Diesel - who has designed every single piece of furniture in the hotel. It's wonderful."