I have always believed that role models provide vital inspiration for would-be entrepreneurs; real-life exemplars who can be emulated are more important in fostering start-ups than all the business schools in the world. To contribute in a small way, I have been a judge for the Veuve Clicquot awards for female entrepreneurs for some years, helping to choose trailblazing women who have built great companies — hoping it may lead to more ambitious women starting their own businesses.
One outstanding candidate would have been Christina Smith, the subject of a new book called Breaking the Glass Ceiling — Queen of Covent Garden, written by Mark Beech. I recommend the book to any woman who wants to read about a genuine pioneer. I know Christina slightly, but really she is a friend of my wife. She is now retired but in her heyday was a force of nature and a true renaissance woman. She has been a restaurateur, property developer, retailer, philanthropist, conservationist, mentor, art collector, theatre angel and a woman who made things happen — always with style.
Christina’s career took off when she went to work as an assistant to Terence Conran at his design business in 1957. A few years later, she left to start her own wholesaler, Goods & Chattels. It was based in London’s Covent Garden, and in time she bought run-down property there, before it became so sought-after. She saw the potential in the unloved warehouses and dilapidated buildings, and gradually built a real estate empire.
For decades, Christina was a leader in the fight to save and then resurrect the area. Planners and developers were all for pulling down the central market and building ugly tower blocks, as happened in many areas of central London in the 1960s and 1970s. Thanks to Christina and a number of other activists, the heart of Covent Garden was preserved and became a thriving mix of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, offices and homes — and one of Britain’s most successful tourist hotspots.
She backed another female entrepreneur, Rosemary Squire, and became a founding shareholder and non-executive director in Ambassador Theatre Group. Her significant investment was repaid tenfold in 2013 when the business was sold to private equity; it has now grown to become the largest live theatre company in the world.
Christina was also a big donor to the Donmar Warehouse, the theatre in Covent Garden, and to the London International Festival of Theatre. In addition, she backed Trafalgar Entertainment and paid for the creation of Trafalgar Studios 2.
In 1984 she opened a huge restaurant in Covent Garden called, inevitably, Smith’s. Later, the site became a restaurant I owned called Belgo Centraal. She employed Graham Norton as a waiter, prior to his TV fame, and also Fergus Henderson, before he went on to co-found the legendary London restaurant St John. She was landlady and mentor to Antonio Carluccio and has also had a café called Casbar and various retail ventures including Flowersmith, Neal Street East and the Tea House. By no means all her various undertakings have been financial winners, but her irrepressible energy and optimism meant she spent over half a century backing and building projects across many fields.
Christina worked hard to construct her empire — victory did not come easily. She never really chased wealth, but rather pursued ventures she found interesting. Her success was achieved in an era when there were very few self-made women with any public profile. She was good at detail and small print, with a meticulous grasp of contracts, leases and the specifics of her companies. Meanwhile, she has given away much of her fortune to many good causes, often connected with the visual arts, theatre or Covent Garden. There is much to admire in the way she has sponsored and encouraged others, while constantly diversifying and having all sorts of commercial adventures.
I meet an increasing number of female entrepreneurs in industries such as fashion, entertainment, media, hospitality and food production. But in many business sectors — such as software, financial services and engineering — women founders are rare. I suspect that in the years to come, case studies such as Christina will become much more common, although I doubt many individuals will be able to match her dizzying array of involvements in both for-profit and philanthropic organisations of every size and shape.