Bras, Bitcoin and Brexit - Baroness Mone on entrepreneurs, business diversity and tech

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett September 6, 2017
Baroness Mone might be best known for starting up underwear brand Ultimo, but she is now much more interested in the potential of the tech sector than fancy lingerie.

Baroness Michelle Mone

It's an interesting journey - bras to Bitcoin, but Baroness Michelle Mone OBE and her business and life partner Douglas Barrowman are launching a £250 million luxury development in Dubai, which they say is the first to be priced in the crypto-currency.

When construction completes in September 2019, the development will offer 1,133 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments. 480 of these have already been sold, and there are now another 150 properties up for grabs for Bitcoin investors. A studio flat at Aston Plaza will set you back around 30 Bitcoins, equivalent to about $130,000 at the current exchange rate, while the most expensive two-bedroom apartments are priced around 74 Bitcoins.

The decision to target Bitcoin owners seems a sensible one. Since its release in 2009 by an unknown party, the crypto-currency has enjoyed a meteoric rise. Back in April 2010, one Bitcoin would have bought you just $0.003. By 1 September this year, just one Bitcoin would garner you a whopping $5,000.

The exchange rate has dropped slightly since this all-time high, not helped by recent developments in China, but even now you’ll still get around $4,600, making it a pretty fantastic investment for anyone who bought up Bitcoins in the early days.

The Dubai development is aimed at allowing those who have done well in the cryptocurrency market to diversify away from digital assets into more conventional areas like property, Barrowman explains:

I’ve been a big supporter of cryptocurrency and Bitcoin for a number of years now and have heavily invested personally in the sector. We’re probably preaching to the converted, who are already heavily invested in the space. There are tens of thousands of people who have done really well in Bitcoin. Bricks and mortar is seen to be a safe asset.

Due to its nature as a decentralised system, cryptocurrency provides a level of anonymity favoured by criminals, and as such has attracted the attention of financial regulators, legislative bodies and law enforcement. However, both Barrowman and Baroness Mone were quick to point out there was nothing shady about their choice of Bitcoin. Barrowman says:

The front end is in Bitcoin. Someone will give us Bitcoins and BitPay will convert it into dollars. We then put the dollars through the conventional Dubai conveyancing system, so at that point we do need to have passports, we do need to know who we’re dealing with, our clients, source of funds, all the usual compliance checks.

Baroness Mone adds:

I own Bitcoin myself, if I thought there was anything untoward - you know, a Baroness in the House of Lords - I certainly wouldn’t be doing it. This is a first and it’s very exciting. I think a lot of other developers will look at this because it is a growing community and a big community.


Baroness Mone had her first success as an entrepreneur with the launch of underwear company Ultimo in 1996.

It seems as if I started out in the dinosaur age. I really really did struggle 21 years ago, there were not many – in fact I think there was maybe only one famous high-profile businesswoman, and that was [Body Shop founder] Anita Roddick at the time. I didn’t really know of any others. But the business world has moved on.

Despite her role as a high-profile businesswoman, Baroness Mone advises women to stop focusing on gender if they want to get ahead in the business world:

I don’t think women should get so caught up about it. For me, it’s not about gender at all. We do need to help women and encourage women with networking events and mentoring, it’s super important. But I never ever wake up in the morning and go out in the business world competing with men. I do my own thing, I put my head down and I just work hard and that is the way to do it.

When you start getting caught up with things, it will just distract you from doing some of the good things. My advice to women would be don’t go out there and look at men as serious competition, go out there and look at your own competition in the business world. It certainly doesn’t bother me.

She adds that if she got offered a position in the boardroom just because she was a woman, she probably would not take it.

I’d want to be there because of the skill set I’ve got.

Despite underwear having made her fortune, Baroness Mone is now much more interested in bits and bytes than bras. She met Barrowman through investing in tech company Social Superstore, now WeShop. While she has been offered deals by department stores to go back into lingerie, she feels she has done her time in that sector:

I hung up my bra two years ago. It’s very exciting to show that women entrepreneurs can go from making a bra to being involved with building towers and tech businesses as well. I am super excited about the cryptocurrency world, I’ve got my wallets. It would be nice to share that with fellow women entrepreneurs as well.

Brexit implications

Baroness Mone may be a relative newcomer to the tech sector, but she is already concerned that the shadow of Brexit could be holding back investment in UK start-ups:

I was always a Remainer, but the majority of people voted to leave. I think it will be a rough ride for the next five years, but I don’t think we can all sit there and be doom and gloom, we just need to get on with it.

Any bad divorce is going to take years to sort out – mine certainly did – and I’m sure it will be the same with this. They just need to speed things up because it is taking far too long. We just want everything to be dealt with as quickly as possible to gain back that confidence that the UK is the place to be involved when it comes to tech startups.

It’s an area I got involved in two years ago, and it’s an area that excites me. We need to attract talent and keep big talent and nurture the talent.

Baroness Mone got first-hand experience of the tech startup scene after she was appointed business tsar back in 2015 by then Prime Minister David Cameron. He tasked her with carrying out a review into how to encourage more entrepreneur and startups in deprived areas. The subsequent Be the Boss report was delivered in March 2016, and since the review, HSBC has committed to opening 10 startups hubs dotted around the UK.

However, Baroness Mone called for the government to do more to connect with technologists to find out directly what support they require. Lack of funding, networking and space to work are all ongoing issues for startups, she adds:

There are far too many office companies out there like Regus that absolutely scare the living daylights out of startup entrepreneurs and businesses by suddenly putting all these hidden clauses in. That was a big thing that I didn’t like.

It’s alright being a government person and thinking you know what they need, but actually these are tech people and we need to get to know what they’re all about.


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