A Conversation with Jacqueline Gold CBE, Chief Executive of Ann Summers & Knickerbox.

Jacqueline Gold CBE

Jacqueline Gold CBE is Chief Executive of Ann Summers and Knickerbox and is renowned for managing a business run by women, for women. Jacqueline is an activist for women in business, championing female entrepreneurs and, through sharing her own experiences, aims to better the working environment for women. Her attitude towards female empowerment and gender equality inspires countless generations of women to pursue their dreams and celebrate their successes, not least her 11-year-old daughter Scarlett.

In recognition of Jacqueline’s significant achievements during her 35-year career, she was awarded a CBE in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to Entrepreneurship, Women in Business and Social Enterprise.  It is this moment in her career that she describes as her proudest.

Jacqueline’s accolades don’t end there as she was most recently awarded Retail Week’s first Retail Activist Award in 2019 for her work with the #WOW community that she cultivated through her social media, running a weekly #womeninbusiness competition to help further encourage and inspire fellow #femaleentrepreneurs.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Jacqueline about her incredible entrepreneurship journey with Ann Summers and her work empowering women in the workplace.

Q: What was the spark that started your entrepreneurial journey? 

[Jacqueline Gold]: I’d always been someone who was hard-working and ambitious. The spark for me was pure chance…. I had been invited to a Pippa Dee clothes party, it was a social-selling format and women at the party knew I was doing work experience at Ann Summers (which, at that point was pretty much a household name). The party was so much fun! Everyone was playing games, and I remember having to draw a picture of my husband’s ‘meat and two veg’ on paper from the top of my head. The whole experience and being around those women made me realise that women wanted to spice-up their sex lives and be able to buy sexy lingerie but without the embarrassment of going to a ‘typical’ sex-shop (which was really all that was available at the time).

I’m extremely proud of the fact that we have driven social and cultural change. I have always wanted women to be empowered, and we’ve given them that opportunity. At the beginning, we said our events were going to be for women only, it enabled women to talk to each other about their sex lives in private, in a safe and unintimidating environment, and that was part of women’s sexual empowerment as a movement.

Q:  How do you build trust and engagement as a business?

[Jacqueline Gold]: I didn’t have any business experience when I started-out, I was driven by passion, and that served me well as it meant I relied on customer feedback as my guide. I was relatable to our customers; I was a woman! In that original party-plan (which we now call social selling), I was a big part of the pitch for our ambassadors, organisers and sellers. They felt proud of having me as their leader and I really feel that at our events and conferences now. Many of those saleswomen have been with me for as long as I’ve been doing this- 30 years!

For me, it’s important that I embody the brand, that’s how we’ve built trust with our sellers and our customers. I’m surprised that more business leaders don’t do it- I’m very visible and vocal in our business- I was even in our recent Halloween campaign. Especially when your business is built on your passion, being visible connects the customer with the whole story, and builds a deep sense of trust.

Q:  Have you ever felt impostor syndrome?

[Jacqueline Gold]: I certainly felt impostor syndrome when I was younger. I was 21 years old, incredibly shy, and certainly not your stereotypical business leader. I think it’s important to share that reality because there are so many women who do feel they’re out of place and are on the receiving end of comments. I remember somebody saying to me, ‘oh, you’re not what I expected you to be…’ and someone else who said, ‘your quietness unnerves me…’ those comments can impact a young girl’s self-esteem and self-belief.

I remember writing myself a letter- it’s something I encourage women to do today- listing the things they’ve achieved in their career and personal lives. Before you go into that next important meeting, event or anything outside your comfort zone it’s a great tool to give yourself that boost. Women need to be their own cheerleaders and remind themselves of the amazing things they’ve achieved. 

Q: What are the barriers that women are facing today around work?

[Jacqueline Gold]: I remember when we celebrated the hundred years of the suffragettes. Sky News did a vox-pop and people on the street were saying, ‘oh yes, it’s definitely job done.’ – well, I’m here to tell you it’s definitely not job done. As the mother of an 11-year-old daughter it’s really important to me that we address and challenge the outdated views held by many leaders. A recent example would be the former FA Chairman, Greg Clarke who recently resigned over some very outdated comments he made. Sadly, I think there is a lot of this going on.

In today’s world, a lot more of us are doing meetings over Zoom and Teams and there’s been a realisation that it’s not just women but everyone who has a life outside work. You hear the doorbells going, the dogs barking, the children coming and going… I really hope this will change the mindset of leaders and make them realise that teams can work successfully from home.

I feel very strongly that we need to remove the barriers, particularly for women, that stand in the way of allowing such amazing talent back to the workplace. As a nation, we’re missing out by not being more flexible, accommodating and encouraging and I think lockdown has- at least- brought about that one piece of positive change.

This also links to understanding the pace of work. When I was younger, not only did I work incredibly long hours, but incredibly hard. I had a sense that I was the only person who could do the job and as a result- perhaps didn’t empower my team as much as I should have. The truth is, if you don’t empower your team, you are doing them a disservice and it’s not about working long, long hours but working smartly, productively, and sharing the workload with others who you are able to empower.

We need to give women the freedom and confidence to believe and be whatever they want to. This isn’t just about business, but about social conditioning in all cultures. Even now I experience inequality- I see it when I go to external meetings and I see two solicitors, both equal, and a female pouring the tea. If we bring girls up to be perfect and a boy to be brave, it’s no surprise that girls will be expected to pour tea in the boardroom.

Q: What has been the role of values and culture in your growth journey?

[Jacqueline Gold]: Values are critical and culture links to them. I’m incredibly passionate about branding (if I hadn’t got involved in business, I think I would have become a marketeer) and our values are deeply embedded all through our brand and communications.

Some of our values have always been there, some have been accidental, and some have evolved over time as we have- but as I look back, the decision about not having men at the party was a real statement of purpose. When we started off, we had a mission to empower women in the bedroom and as time has gone on, that evolved to empowering women in the boardroom.

We live and breathe those values every day and make sure they are reflected in our tone of voice, our images, and the way we communicate to our customers online or in person. Today’s consumer cares about what you stand for, and so having values and purpose are central to building that trust with your customer.

I never went into business to get a high profile, but I realised early on that even though it wasn’t in my nature to be on stage, or do interviews, that it was the only way for me to get my story across authentically. This did sometimes have negative consequences… after opening a store in Dublin, Ireland I was sent a bullet in the post!

I’d never done any PR before, but I knew that I had to be authentic and stand up for what I believed in. Today, that truth is intrinsic to what we do. Whether it’s our social campaigns, building partnerships or designing products, we still stand by those same values now.

Q: What would have been different launching Ann Summers in the digital era? 

[Jacqueline Gold]: Our brand has always had this amazing USP. In the early days it was controversy… I remember, back then, thinking that there was something good about not being acceptable to everyone… it made us stand out from the crowd, and courted press attention. That in turn allowed me to speak about what we do.

We were multi-channel before our time because of our party plans. Those party plans became an induction to the brand! People would go to our parties first, they felt safe and comfortable, and then they came to the stores and- later- the website. Social media has also been huge for us, giving us the opportunity to communicate with our customers 365 days a year, 24/7. Social media allows us to show a fun, tongue-in-cheek side of our brand in a way that other brands simply can’t do. During lockdown, I was cooking penis pasta and putting it on Instagram! The customers loved it! It played to the story that was being told at the time… It’s similar to our strategy when 50 Shades of Grey was released. Before the film came out, the book went viral, selling hundreds of millions of copies. We were right there in the conversation every time the book was mentioned!

When we were putting our brand values together, it was clear that our relationship with our customer should be like a best friend. That means we can have a conversation, we can have fun, we can joke and play but we can also engage them around sensitive subjects that others cannot do.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Jacqueline Gold]: Professionally, I’m proud of having been able to empower hundreds of thousands of women in the bedroom and the workplace. I remember taking my daughter to a speech I gave when she was just 5 years old, I wanted her to see mummy on stage as a way of showing her that she could be whatever she wanted to be. Personally, there are a few things I’ve been incredibly proud of. Receiving my CBE was an incredible moment, especially having my daughter there with me on the day… in 2018, I also received an activist award for retail week for my work empowering women, it was so amazing and enabled me to talk to my peers across the industry and tell them to pick up the baton too!

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.