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'There's more to me than just the scary woman in the chair'

Deborah Meaden has proved a force to be reckoned with, both as an entrepreneur and a star of Dragons’ Den. She tells Georgia Humphreys about why she doesn’t like to call herself a “woman in business”

There's a moment in the new series of Dragons' Den when Deborah Meaden (59) unexpectedly sings the chorus of I Will Survive to one plucky entrepreneur.

It's not the first time ruthless Meaden - who launched her first business straight out of college, and has several successful businesses in the leisure and retail sector under her belt - has surprised viewers.

After joining the BBC Two show, in which members of the public pitch their business ideas to five multi-millionaires, back in 2003, she became famous for her sharp tongue and no-nonsense approach in the Den.

But then, in 2013, she took part in the 11th series of BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing, lasting until the fourth week.

"Strictly changed things, because people used to be quite scared of me," admits Meaden, who spends her time between London and her Somerset home, which she shares with her husband, Paul, and their numerous pets.

"Because of Strictly, they got that there was more to me than just the 'scary woman in the chair'. More people approach me now, which I like - I would rather people said hello and talked to me."

She's also proud of Dragons' Den for making the world of business more attractive to the younger generation.

"I am staggered that, I would say the biggest group of people who engage with me on the streets are teenagers. But if you think about it, they've grown up with it. They were seven when I first started! Kids are talking about being entrepreneurs and I'm absolutely sure that Dragons' has had a part of that."

She has an important message for young women keen to go into business.

"I don't consider myself a 'woman in business' because if I think of myself as a 'woman in business', whoever I'm talking to is going to take my gender into account," she states.

"I'm in business - full stop. And that's the strongest message you can send. Do not think of yourself as 'I'm a woman in business' - just do your thing. Just be good at it!"

She adds sincerely: "There are prejudices against all sorts, all around us, all of the time - you give power to prejudice by recognising it. If you ignore it, it's an amazingly powerful thing."

The other Dragons competing against Meaden for investment in the Den this year are Peter Jones, Jenny Campbell, Tej Lalvani and Touker Suleyman. Meaden agrees with Suleyman, who suggested the Dragons play mind games with each other when it comes to making an offer, and the ensuing negotiations.

"You can see through the eye contact of the entrepreneur who they want, and if it's not me and if I want it, I think, 'Okay, how am I gonna win this thing?'" she explains, raising her eyebrows.

"Everybody else made their offers, and - I've never done this before - I went back in and said, 'Now I know what everybody else has said, I'm going to revise my offer'. And I got it! That's the strategy."

Meaden has found huge success with a wide variety of products pitched on the show, including Yee Kwan Ice Cream (in series 12), and last year, there was Dock and Bay (the quick drying beach and travel towel).

But she admits there are some business deals throughout her career which she's ended up regretting.

"Listen, I've had three, four investments that just haven't worked out. Something I've learnt in Dragons' Den is, now I'm keen to understand, 'How are we going to work together? How are we going to get on?'. Because, actually, if the relationship doesn't work, the business doesn't work.

"People will only engage if they feel they're on the same page and they're working together."

That's why she always makes what she believes is a fair offer. The Dragons can invest as little or as much of their own money as they want - and then the entrepreneur can try and persuade them to match the required investment.

"The worst thing you can do is get into a relationship where there's grit under the eyelids, because then you just spend the whole time rubbing each other up the wrong way," she notes.

It's obvious, from watching her on set in Manchester, that Meaden still relishes her role on the show, which will once again be presented by Evan Davis when it returns to our screens this summer.

"This is my hobby - I don't mean it's my hobby in that it's frivolous, because I want these businesses to work, but I'm really lucky, I'm doing what I love in life, and Dragons' Den lets me do more of it. That's a fantastic thing."

Dragons' Den returns to BBC Two on Sunday August 12

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