Ted Levitt, past editor of the Harvard Business Review declared – “entrepreneurship was the sacred mushroom of the 1980’s…delusively greater and grander than it was”.
Despite this illusion and the lack of a definitive answer to the entrepreneurial mystery, many institutions have capitalised on teaching entrepreneurship for decades.
Hoping to emulate the achievements of visionary leaders and iconic brands, there have been many studies, books, blogs, and articles dedicated to uncovering the definitive list of attributes exhibited by successful entrepreneurs. Becoming an entrepreneur is now an aspiration.
However despite the central to the discussion about entrepreneurship are the questions: are entrepreneurs born or can you learn to become one? is entrepreneurship a state of being or a set of skills? Is entrepreneurship art or science?
As part of my research for the book on the Legacy of Anita Roddick, the late Founder of The Body Shop, I joined the debate by looking at the characteristics that made Anita one of the worlds most successful entrepreneurs.
Anita started The Body Shop without the end in mind – yet created one of the world’s most successful retail businesses. Her aspirational ‘profits with principles’ mantra resulted in an incredible corporate culture people fully embraced. Anita was impatient and intuitive with the courage to take risks and the resilience to deal with mistakes; she was passionate and unreasonable with the mindset of a delinquent and the humour of a sailor. She was human and humane, strong yet vulnerable. She was one of a kind.
Visionary – but without the end in mind
Entrepreneurs are visionary in their pursuits, without necessarily having an endpoint in mind. When Anita started in 1976 her only aspiration was to have a ‘little retail shop’ in order to support her family while husband Gordon was away fulfilling a lifelong ambition. After the success of the first store she then wanted another and then another. When Anita and Gordon stepped down as co-chairs in 2002, there were around 2,000 shops across 50 countries.
Anita and Gordon described their experience growing The Body Shop into an international brand as a journey and a great experiment. They wanted to see how far they could push this ‘experiment’ – how many stores, how many campaigns, how radical and different they could be. The early growth of the business focussed on opening shops without a long-term strategy in mind. “I love tactics: I don’t like plans” Anita said.
Entrepreneurs see opportunity in adversity and see opportunity in trends. Anita was keen to expand but they did not have the cash or the support of the banks. At the same time friends were asking if they could open shops. This was when Gordon saw the potential in Franchising (which at the time he called ‘self-financing’). With what Anita described as a ‘fairly loose arrangement’, Franchises were granted to almost everyone who asked.
Despite this rapid expansion they outgrew their capacity to expand organically. Still riding the high of their experiment they agreed to list on the London stock exchange. On the first day of listing in April 1984, the shares doubled in value – described by analysts as ‘defying gravity’. Becoming multi-millionaires overnight Anita and Gordon made a conscious decision to use their newly acquired wealth and ‘fame’ to push the boundaries of their business experiment even further.
“It wasn’t until we went public that it began to dawn on Gordon and me, The Body Shop actually had the power to do good… The notion of harnessing commercial success to altruistic ideals set my imagination on fire.”
Anita’s imagination lead her to an idea so far out of the box she ended up creating a new paradigm in business. Her idea was to run a profitable business with social and environmental principles. She wanted to create a successful retail business that could co-exist with social and environmental activism and create positive change.
There were many pioneering entrepreneurs with new ideas the 80’s – it was the era of Apple computers, the camcorder and CD player, windows and Prozac! But Anita’s vision was very different to the way these businesses were operating. Part timing, part zeitgeist Anita forged ahead with her ideas creating a brand where the values were integrated with the products. She loved trading, product development and the interaction with customers. The idea sales could be a noble pursuit inspired her:
“I believe quite passionately that there is a better way. I think you can rewrite the book on business. That is the vision, and the vision is absolutely clear.”
Many of the world’s greatest leaders had big goals – Martin Luther King ‘had a dream about equality’, and John F Kennedy aspired to ‘land a man on the moon’. These leaders rarely talked about how they would achieve those goals – they focussed on inspiring others to do their bidding.
Before the rise of like-minded businesses in the 90’s, Anita was alone in her thinking and as a result often relied on her intuition.
The mindset of a delinquent
In 1986 psychoanalyst and Harvard teacher Abraham Zaleznik said: “if you want to understand entrepreneurs, you have to study the psychology of the juvenile delinquent”.
Curiously, despite Anita publicly disagreeing with most of what Harvard Business School had to offer, Zaleznik’s assertion is similar to the way Anita described herself and other entrepreneurs: “There is a fine line between the delinquent mind of an entrepreneur and that of a crazy person. The entrepreneur’s dream is almost a kind of madness, and it is almost as isolating. When you see something new, your vision usually isn’t shared by others. The difference between a crazy person and the successful entrepreneur is that the latter can convince others to share the visions… success is simply a matter of finding and surrounding ourselves with those open-minded and clever souls who can take our insanity and put it to good use.”
Husband and co-founder Gordon Roddick agreed “Anita has the dreams and I try and make her dreams come true.” Anita’s dream became the mission of the company – for the pursuit of social and environmental change.
Delinquents tend to see opportunities where people see challenges. They are not afraid to ask the silly questions and challenge the sacred cows. They become the Mavericks – the game changers – the disruptors.
When Anita came into the skin and hair care industry she was deliberately and provocatively different from her competitors. In this way, entrepreneurs do not compete with others in an industry – they change the terms and the rules of the game.
Gary Hamel, the author of Leading the Revolution, said of Anita. “She is absolutely an outsider. I mean if you listen to her, she is filled with vitriol around the traditional practices of the cosmetics industry. I have always believed that industries don’t get reinvented by profits, but they get reinvented by heretics. People who can see the dogma, see the orthodoxy and then ask why turn those things upside down.”
She watched which way the cosmetics industry was going and walked in the other direction. In packaging, positioning, branding, pricing, promotion – literally everything got changed.”
Because entrepreneurs are considered a little crazy, and because their ideas are new, they often face push back from their industries, staff, and stakeholders. This is why entrepreneurs tend to be over optimistic. Anita attributed her eternal optimism to having a strong work ethic learnt from her mum and being Italian – “you’d never meet a miserable Italian”.
Humour and curiosity
As well as being an optimist Anita was a prankster. She delighted in making people laugh as well as making them feel uncomfortable. Like many great entrepreneurs she had a way of making people do what she wanted.
In 1962, Anita was on a teaching scholarship on a Kibbutz in Israel. After playing a prank with a colleague – that had him appear as though he was walking on water – she was asked to leave. Instead of going home she explored Israel and in doing so developed a lifelong love of and yearning for travel.
To Anita travel became “the best university; getting from one place to another means more than physical movement. It also entails change, challenge, new ideas and inspirations.”
Anita was endlessly curious. Always probing. In the early days of the company’s growth, potential franchisees and staff members were confronted with Anita’s version of a ‘Marcel Proust quiz’. She would ask questions such as ‘how would you like to die?’, and ‘what’s your favourite colour/food/drink?’ ‘Where is the most interesting place you’ve had sex?’
She would use shock and often crudeness to jolt an audience out of inertia. During a promotional tour of her book ‘Business As Unusual’ she delighted in telling a group of ‘stiff’ fashion journalists how she showed her pubic hair to a group of Bedouin women (who pluck their body hair) in exchange for learning how to make their aphrodisiac perfume Oud.
She shocked Stanford students by saying “the trouble with society is the power of the penis”. In 1997 she accepted a CBI Company of the Year business award with a speech that lambasted London city analysts and financial journalists as “the pinstriped dinosaurs of Throgmorton Street”. She was often called hypocritical by the London Stock Exchange analysts over her ‘anti-city’ attitude.
Anita didn’t really care who she offended. She was devoid of cynicism. She courted controversy. She knew how to bait the press. She was often quoted as saying: “I hate the beauty industry. It is a monster selling unattainable dreams. It lies. It cheats. It exploits women.” She was determined to create a brand that went in the opposite direction to her competitors.
The Body Shop’s acceptance by Greenpeace, in 1985, as a campaign partner was symbolic of the NGO’s trust in Anita’s authentic and impassioned activism. In the years that followed The Body Shop became campaign partners with some of the world’s biggest and most respected social and environmental NGOs. The Body Shop, through it’s staff, customers and the media, gave NGOs a platform and reach beyond what they could achieve on their own. The NGOs gave The Body Shop campaigns credibility and a way to diminish criticism of campaigning being a profitable pursuit.
While campaigning was an important part of building a reputable trusted brand, the direct link to sales was tenuous, which at times was not direct enough for the shareholders. Much to Anita’s frustration:
“If I put our poster for Colourings [a line of makeup] in the shop windows, that creates sales and profits. A poster to stop the burning of the rainforest doesn’t. It creates a banner of values, it links us to the community, but it will not increase sales. What increases sales is an article in boring Glamour magazine saying Princess Diana uses Body Shop products. Then we’ll get 7,000 bloody phone calls asking for our catalog. You can measure the effect.” (Inc Magazine 1990).
Anita could not see irony in her active participation in the anti-globalisation protests at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle November 1999. Anita marched alongside activists who accepted and applauded her – perhaps in the hope she would be successful in leading more companies into the corporate social responsibility movement.
Despite being the head of a successful multinational company she believed “The Body Shop has been living a protest against the WTO simply by its absolute belief in community trade”. In her speech at the Seattle protest she criticised the WTO for being “blind to the injustice of the pursuit of profits at the expense of people”; and for siding with big business she accused of using “globalisation to create: forced labour, sweatshops, children forced to work long hours, the poisoning of air, water and land, the dislocation of entire communities, brutal dictatorships, gross inequalities of wealth.”
Anita overtly and covertly became a mentor for many individuals – both within the business and outside of it. She was part of the early iteration of the US Social Ventures Network, that she brought to the UK, and supported the UK think tank Demos. She lent her fame and influence to many game-changing people and organisations.
And Anita just made things happen.
Close friend and head of The Body Shop at Home, Barbara Sharples “she’d see some injustice and she’d come back angry and fired up. And then she’d say – ok – this is what we are going to do.”
That was how so many activities and campaigns undertaken by The Body Shop started – with Anita’s passion and rage.
The charity Children on the Edge was founded after Anita came across photos in a Time Magazine article showing the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s abandoned system of orphanages in Romania. She had been reading the article on a flight to the UK and came off the plane asking “what are we going to do about this?” Immediately company resources were mobilised. Within two weeks lorries and volunteers from The Body Shop were inside Romania facilitating a relief effort, repairing and painting orphanages, playing with the children, handing out soap.
The creation of Children on the Edge (COTE), founded by Anita, has become the sole focus of founding CEO, Rachel Bentley. Initially with the support and encouragement of Anita and Gordon, Rachel has developed COTE into one of the world’s most respected charities for children.
Beyond what the charity has been able to achieve for war torn communities, Anita facilitated life-changing experiences for thousands of leaders from The Body Shop who volunteered at COTE orphanages:
“The COTE experience and my time at The Body Shop taught me that something is better than nothing. That I have to do, what I can do, whenever I can do it. I don’t have to do it all, but I cannot sit back and do nothing. I still have that teddy bear and it reminds me of what can be achieved through human kindness”. Gabrielle Little.
COTE also changed the life of now MP Peter Kyle who started his career as an accounts clerk at The Body Shop as a teenager. Anita and Peter bonded on Sundays while working in the Littlehampton headquarters of The Body Shop.
Impressed by his empathy and curiosity Anita would send Peter to give presentations to local schools – “you’ll thank me for this one day” she said in response to his protests. Anita convinced him to volunteer with COTE and he later worked for them. Upon returning from COTE projects in eastern Europe and the Balkans Anita encouraged him to go to university, declaring his dyslexia as irrelevant. Peter went back to school to resit his A levels. Despite getting the marks he needed his University application was rejected. Anita contacted the University of Sussex, where she had an honorary doctorate, who then accepted his application.
Peter described Anita as ‘genetically inspirational’ and in 2015 Peter achieved his dream to serve the public when he was elected as the MP for Hove. In his maiden speech he gave thanks to Anita for believing in him.
Anita had little awareness of the enormous legacy she created outside of The Body Shop. She could not have known all the people she influenced during her lifetime nor the people who continue to be inspired by her words and actions.
“Growing up, I aspired to be the PA of a CEO. Anita showed me that I could be the CEO”. Polly Caldow Chief Executive of The Body Shop Australia/ New Zealand in the 90’s.
“In so many of us – Anita unlocked the desire to create change. It might have there all along – but Anita gave us a place and a platform to act on our passions. Jan Phillips, Franchisee.
“Anita helped us as we grew SustainAbility from 1987, advising business on sustainable development, but there was nothing special in that – she helped legions of people. Many thought her unreasonable, even crazy. But that’s typical of people who change the world.” John Elkington, Sustainability Leader.
Anita provided guidance to start-ups who used her books – Body and Soul and Business as Unusual – more as business bibles than tomes. She motivated thousands of people who heard her speak at conferences, breakfasts and dinners who were encouraged to ‘just do something’. One of her favourite sayings was “If you think you’re too small to be effective, trying going to bed with a mosquito!”
Anita was always up for a conversation and provided gems of wisdom to those she sat next to on trains, planes and buses. So many people have an ‘Anita’ story.
Creating a strong culture
Strong corporate cultures begin with strong leadership and a clear corporate vision with focus. Anita was singular in her pursuit of profits with principles.
From the Quakers, Anita learned “you can organise your workplace as an expression of the way you conduct your life, treating all people as equals – employees, customers, business associates – and adhering strictly to the truth”.
For Anita the staff were the centre of everything. She understood their importance to achieving the company vision. There were extensive resources dedicated to staff and customer education. The company created a publishing arm for books and campaign collateral and video production company responsible for the weekly episodes of The Body Shop TV as well as creating award winning campaign videos. And Anita put her mark on it all.
Anita often called The Body Shop a communications company. To her, effective stakeholder communication was paramount to success. She knew how to use passion to persuade. She admitted to trying to break hearts and make people cry so she could persuade them to take action.
Franchisee meetings were about the products, the values and campaigns. They were designed to be hugely entertaining, engaging and inspirational. Anita’s close friend and colleague Jilly Forster described “The early days of the Franchisee meetings were more like political party conferences than business meetings”.
Anita took every opportunity to visit stores and would constantly remind office teams how“the success of the company was in the hands of the shop staff”.
Anita’s had a desire to give staff the opportunity for “a nine to five life, not a nine-to-five death”. Along with campaigning, staff were given paid time to volunteer in regular community projects (now known as corporate volunteering). The LOVE (Learning is Of Value to Everyone) was a program for staff to enrol in courses not related to work. At various times and across different markets there were staff health checks, seminars, random acts of kindness and lots of parties!
Anita’s passion, her expectation of excellence and low tolerance of the mediocre helped create an incredibly strong corporate culture. It has been described as a ‘culture bordering on being a cult’.
She was ahead of today’s work performance currency where ‘how to think’, is more valued than ‘what to think’. Staff felt they were working for a higher purpose than meeting sales and profit targets.
Bo Burlington, author, in 1990 described The Body Shop as a company that “… arouses feelings of enthusiasm, commitment, and loyalty more common to a political movement than a corporation. Customers light up when asked about the company and start pitching its products like missionaries selling Bibles.”
Great leaders are not the sort of people you want to disappoint. They have high expectations and assume commitment and reverence. Anita team members were constantly presenting new and exciting ideas ensuring she was not ‘bored’. Anita could be very generous in her praise but blunt in her criticisms.
“Even though she would come into the office and say ‘who wrote this crap?’ and it was me – I still loved her.” Phil Talbot, Communications Manager.
John Grounds “If you had an idea – you had to convince Anita it was exciting enough. If you presented something to her one of the first things she would say was “is that all you’ve got” – she wanted to be ahead of the curve with everything.
Great leaders know the way to get 25 hours out of 24 is to have a loyal team. Anita generated loyalty because she made people feel they were part of something bigger – together they were changing the world. The vision was authentic.
“It was all hands on deck when The Body Shop was fighting for Ken Saro Wiwa’s life. No-one slept. We pulled out all the tricks we had. And when Ken died it hurt us all personally – there was a massive change in mood. All of a sudden we realised what we were doing did have a direct impact on people’s lives.” Tara Poole – Women’s Rights Campaigner 1994 – 1997.
Anita was always in a hurry. She was able to speak ‘a hundred miles an hour’ without taking a breath, she walked at a furious pace and she was impatient to see results immediately.
In Body and Soul she admitted: “I can never understand why, when an idea pops out of my head, it cannot materialise immediately!”
Anita had 100 ideas a day – but at the most, only 1 or 2 of them would come off as brilliant ideas. Her team became accustomed to knowing which ideas to pursue and when to ignore them. “If she said something twice – we knew we should look into it.”
While she seemed to have little attention span she was a great listener constantly gathering information from observations and conversations.
With hurry sickness, there was little time for perfection. You can have genius without perfection. Perfection can get in the way of making mistakes. Great leaders make mistakes and move on.
On the 1st of August 2005, Anita’s blog featured the entire text of the Commencement address by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, delivered at Stanford University on June 12, 2005.
To Anita “this speech is a perfect example of the pathological optimism of an entrepreneur…This lecture should be mandatory reading, not only because it bristles with optimism and enthusiasm, but because it talks about the true breeding ground of entrepreneurship – loss, feeling like an outsider as a child, wanting to be free, a work ethic and having such a strong vision that it becomes reality.”
Within the speech, Steve shares Anita’s pathological concern with running out of time to do what she set out to achieve. Anita often talked about her fear of death and would often start conversations with the question “how do you want to die?”
Anita “I wake up every morning thinking…this is my last day. And I jam everything into it. There’s no time for mediocrity. This is no damned dress rehearsal.”
Steve Jobs: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life… Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
At Anita’s funeral in 2007, leaders of NGO’s sat alongside politicians and business leaders. Tributes flowed. The funeral concluded with attendees donning ponchos emblazoned with Anita’s name on the front and ‘I am an activist’ on the back and went on a protest march. Anita would have loved it.
Gordon Roddick said of Anita on the day of her celebration “Dying is commonplace, but a life well lived is rare.”
Anita was an incredible entrepreneur but wanted to be known for being an activist. Being both was what made her truly unique. She was a sacred mushroom and I think greater and grander than she has been given credit for (until my book!). She inspired so many of us to be activists, to take issues personally and if ever faced with resistance “just tell them ‘up your bum’”.
To be an entrepreneur like Anita, you have to be prepared to do the same.