Be Inspired ambassador Suzanne Harlow, group trading director at Debenhams, calls on businesses to unleash potential from within.

We live in rapidly changing times with the balance of power continually shifting.

Boom boom the label

Boom boom the label

Boom Boom The Label, set up by 24-year-old Alie Mackintosh two years ago, has already generated more than £1.5m turnover

The openness and transparency created by the internet has not only given us access at speed to information that could formerly hide away in hard-copy reports in the hands of a few – it has given everyone, regardless of age, background or status a voice and a medium through which they can challenge the status quo.

In these enlightened times, it is mind-boggling that in an industry largely fuelled by female consumerism we still have to debate and question the absence of women in the boardroom.

“It is mind-boggling that in an industry largely fuelled by female consumerism we still have to debate and question the absence of women in the boardroom”

Suzanne Harlow

To highlight that the majority of retail purchasing decisions are made by or influenced by females is true but no new revelation, and, while you don’t have to be the same gender to understand the influences behind the decision-making process, you do need to understand and have a true empathy for your customer.

The same goes for understanding the drivers and aspirations of your team (regardless of gender). They, like your customer, will vote with their feet.

Internet age

Not only has the internet brought greater transparency, it has also removed the old barriers to entry of setting up shop and creating dialogue with the customer. And that means talent won’t wait.

Just look at two-year-old clothing brand Boom Boom The Label. Set up by 24-year-old founder Alie Mackintosh, the business has already generated more than £1.5m in turnover and secured Kim Kardashian’s Dash chain as a US distributor. Not bad for the Lewes-based business.

Founded using an £8,000 loan, the business has grown organically over the past four years without spending any money on marketing, and states “Instagram has been our best friend”, adding 1,000 fans to its 176,000 list of followers each week.

“While you don’t have to be the same gender to understand the influences behind the decision-making process, you do need to understand and have a true empathy for your customer”

Suzanne Harlow

Or, take TheSkimm, created by two women in their 20s working in New York as producers at NBC News. Did they sit around and await permission and the endorsement of entertainment bosses to validate they were qualified for promotion? No. Instead they created their own opportunity and launched their own business. Four years later they have 1.5 million subscribers, more than the New York Times and they count Oprah, Michelle Obama and Sarah Jessica Parker as subscribers.

#Beinspired is a call to all senior executives – ignore talent at your peril but ignore gender to your advantage. Unleash the potential that is in the business right up to board level or find yourself with a sunroof cut into your glass ceiling, wondering why you can really start to feel the heat of the sun.

  • Suzanne Harlow, group trading director at Debenhams, and an ambassador for Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign.