Alpha female: Rachel Elnaugh

Rachel Elnaugh was the force behind experience company Red Letter Days and has done a stint on Dragons’ Den. She discusses her thoughts on women in business and how her own attitude has changed.

Entrepreneur Rachel Elnaugh has experienced highs and lows throughout her career and believes she knows what it takes to succeed as a woman in the male-dominated business world.

‘I started out in business in 1989 and quickly found that if I was naïve and soft, I was going to be eaten alive. My response to that was to become very alpha female,’ says Elnaugh today.

She was 24 when she established the company Red Letter Days, which offered the concept of experiences as gifts for the ‘man who has everything’. Elnaugh claims on her website ( that the business idea ‘captured the spirit of the 90s’ and went onto create an entire business sector. She subsequently won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the 2001 Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year Award. But in 2005 the company went into administration after embarking on an over ambitious growth strategy.

By that time, Elnaugh had joined the BBC’s Dragons’ Den where she remained as a “dragon” for the first two series of the show. After the collapse of her company, Elnaugh put pen to paper and wrote about her experiences in the book Business Nightmares. Today she offers advice and help to companies feeling the pinch in her capacity as a professional speaker and business mentor.

Elnaugh is adamant that her own business would have survived if her bank, Barclays, had agreed to her refinancing plan, rather than being forced into administration. However, she has also admitted since then that her decision to step back from the business in a non-executive chairman role and let a management team take control was the beginning of the end for Red Letter Days.

Unwilling to conform

‘I do a lot of work in the enterprise sector, inspiring women and empowering them so it’s a subject very close to my heart,’ she explains by way of introduction to a webinar she hosted in April on ‘feminine power’.

Entitled ‘Discover your inner goddess’, inner fulfillment specialist Isis Turner discussed how women can succeed in business by harnessing their femininity.

Elnaugh admitted to adopting an ‘alpha female’ approach in her early years in business, but she believes this served her well to begin with: ‘I ended up with a very big business and made a lot of money,’ she explains.

So she recognises the temptation for women to conform to the masculine stereotype in business, particularly when in an all-male environment. In the webinar, she asks Turner how women can maintain their femininity without alienating themselves from men.

‘I really think the key to interacting with males, as well as other females, is to understand what language they react to. Therefore what language can I use to bring out more understanding? It’s not about becoming someone else,’ she comments.

Elnaugh begins the webinar by stating that now is the time ‘of the rise of the female’. Her own attitude and approach to business has altered too over the years. She concludes: ‘I’m much more mellow these days and I’m much happier for it. I think times have changed – we don’t need to be in pinstripe power suits anymore.’

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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