The NS Interview: Deborah Meaden, Dragons’ Den panellist

‘‘When people meet me they say, ‘You’re so much nicer in real life.‘‘

Have you always wanted to be in business?
Absolutely. I had my first flower stall when I was seven, at the end of the drive in Minehead, Somerset. Nobody was stopping so I moved it to my neighbour's drive, because I thought: "Location, location, location." It worked.

Do you ever feel that you are represented harshly on Dragons' Den?
I think I'm fairly represented, but only in that situation. It's me, but it's a very narrow slice of me. When people meet me they say, "You're
so much nicer in real life." But if they were to ask me for £500,000, trust me, I'd get extremely focused on the business.

Which Dragon are you closest to?
I think it's to do with the way we sit, but Peter Jones, Theo Paphitis and I socialise quite a bit. James Caan sits a long way away.

Most people on the programme fail. Do you not feel guilty?
They know the environment they're walking into. They've got this amazing opportunity, and what do they do with it? They say, "I'm
not a numbers person - I don't know what my turnover is." That's why I get so irritated.

What's your advice to a young entrepreneur?
Consider, in this climate, "Will this business proposition work?", not just "I want to get into business". If you're convinced it will, don't be put off, because there are plenty of people, particularly when you're young, who are happy to say, "I don't know. I wouldn't do it now."

How ruthless did you have to be to get ahead?
I don't think I'm ruthless, but I'm very driven, irritatingly so.

You've had ups and downs like anyone else. How have you coped with failure?
I've only just learned to say the word "failure". I hate it. I hate getting things wrong and I hate failing. It hurts, and so it should.

Are you mega-wealthy?
I'm afraid so.

What's it like?
It's very nice, but I think when you've earned your money you never feel there's enough. Obviously, I'm not worrying about whether I can pay my heating bills, but it does emotionally [affect me] because I work with people who are worried. I don't live in isolation.

Do you think there's too big a gap between rich and poor in Britain today?
In utopia there wouldn't be one, would there? But of course - when you've got people sleeping on the streets and others with six houses they don't even know they own, that's too big a gap.

Do you feel you pay too much tax?
I have no problem paying taxes. It doesn't bother me, because I want to live in a society that's happy. My worry is [governments] don't spend the money correctly.

You don't object to the 50p income-tax rate?
No, but I do think the threshold has got to be right, because there's a big difference between people earning £150,000 and people earning millions of pounds.

Does the proposed immigration cap worry you?
When I had my holiday parks, if I hadn't had Polish workers I would never have kept my business going. [The workers weren't] going to come from the local Cornish community.

Why aren't there more women at the top of business?
I'm pretty a-gender. I don't know what the numbers are, because I don't count in terms of men and women.

Do you not feel in a minority on Dragons' Den?
I get asked that all the time: what's it like to be the only woman? I have no idea. I don't consider myself as a woman on Dragons' Den. When I'm there, I'm a business person trying to invest in something.

Doesn't discrimination stop women advancing?
I don't think it does women's cause a lot of good to blame everything on gender. I think it's much more important to just put your head down,
be very good at what you do, and then sooner or later people will have to recognise it.

Do you vote?
I'm a floating voter. I voted Tony Blair in and I voted him out. I don't understand how people can stick their stake in the ground for life. They have to win me over.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I've forgotten already. I have a very selective memory.

Is there a plan?
Everybody has a plan, don't they? The key is the execution.

Are we all doomed?
Economically, no - but I do worry about our souls sometimes.

Defining Moments

1959 Born in Somerset
1975 Leaves school at the age of 16
1978 Moves to Italy and launches glass and ceramics export company
1988 Joins leisure wing of family firm
1992 Enters family's holiday park business
1999 Oversees £10m management buyout of family firm Weststar; sells six years later for £33m but retains 23 per cent stake
2006 Joins BBC2's Dragons' Den
2007 Sells remaining stake in Weststar Holidays for £83m

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza