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Former Dragons’ Den panellist Sarah Willingham is a successful acquisitions manager, but when she walked into one boardroom meeting, she was mistaken for a refreshments server and asked to make the coffee. The 49-year-old says the experience “empowered” rather than embarrassed her, as the male colleague’s misjudgment cost him a lucrative deal.
Sarah, who served on the judging panel of Dragons’ Den for two series before leaving for a mammoth three-year holiday with her husband and children, is instantly recognisable as an entrepreneur these days.
However, back in her early 20s, it seemingly wasn’t always so easy, as she was judged for her youthful image.
“As I walked in [to one meeting], the lawyer on the opposite side of the table looked up and went, ‘Oh, thank goodness for that, I’ll have white with no sugar, please’!” Sarah exclaimed.
Little did he know that she was running the acquisitions team at Pizza Express, and was a key player in whether or not the company should buy a new business in Soho.
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“The [other people at the] table were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s got no idea that she’s actually the person running this negotiation’,” Sarah continued in a hushed voice.
In an unexpected twist, instead of explaining who she was, Sarah walked towards the kitchen and made the lawyer the coffee he’d requested.
When she asked if anyone else wanted one, there was total silence.
“Great, let’s start the meeting then!” she exclaimed, taking up the seat directly opposite him.
“As I said that, he looked up and saw that I was the person that he’d mistaken as the girl who was coming in to make his coffee for him,” Sarah recalled.
The lawyer turned out to be very “embarrassed”, but for Sarah, being under-estimated provided a feeling of empowerment.
“It was really amazing because I realised in that moment that the misjudgment on his part was going to cost him the deal,” she gloated.
“It really empowered me and made me realise that actually when there are people that misjudge, that don’t see me coming or don’t see women coming, and underestimate the person sat on the opposite side of the table, you use it as your superpower.”
Her conclusion towards the lawyer was: “You can misjudge me all you like.”
Sarah, who currently has ten investments on the go, believes that sexism towards women is still “prevalent” in the world of work.
Now running Nightcap, an award-winning family of cocktail bars, she confided: “I’ve been quite surprised actually by how little we’ve moved on.
“I’m quite well known for doing quite a lot of stuff, yet I still get looked over, or dismissed because I’m a woman often, or somebody might think, ‘She’s a much easier target, I can bully her,’ because I’m a woman.”
She added that some men “struggle” to work with “strong, independent women” to this day.
However, that’s one reason why the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards, for which Sarah will be one of the judges, means all the more to her.
The aim of the awards is to recognise the achievements of women and “acknowledge the unsung heroes”.
“I do meet a lot of people in my everyday life where I think, ‘Wow, you really don’t know how good you are,'” she declared.
Nominations for the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards are open until April 5. https://www.pourmoi.co.uk/upliftingwomennominate
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