Interviews

Yasmina Siadatan: Apprentice winner, business figure and favourite of famous entrepreneurs

20 min read

03 April 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Yasmina Siadatan, the 2009 winner of Lord Sugar's hallmark TV show, The Apprentice, is known for many things. Firstly, as a 'tough female finalist' who battled it out against a fellow woman to win the show, to facing a media storm when she stepped down from a job at Sugar's Amscreen to start a family, the ride's sure been wild for Siadatan. She's here to set the record straight about her days working for Alan Sugar and later for a Dragons' Den judge, as well as detailing her latest business move which is disrupting the financial services sector.

Can we finally say that life is getting easier for women in business? Well, according to Apprentice winner and insatiable female entrepreneur, Yasmina Siadatan, it is –  or at least we’re getting fairer levels of representation. Since joining investment services company, Dynamic Planner, she’s helped increase their number of female employees from 23% to 37% in under three years.

But her role at one of the UK’s most disruptive fintech firms, (more on why it’s disruptive later), is not where our conversation with Siadatan starts. From working with not one, but two famous entrepreneurs, to being sensationalised by the media, and working with the denizens of no.10, we must begin at the beginning of Siadatan’s story…

Yasmina Siadatan: The daughter of an entrepreneur and restauranteur

“It wasn’t a big deal for me to get into the world of business,” says Siadatan, who is radiating energy as she relays her rather extraordinary business story. “The thing is, my dad was an entrepreneur, so I was brought up in a very entrepreneurial environment,” she adds.

This early entrepreneurial experience not only came from her father, but she also gained it herself whilst working in his restaurant, “from the age of eight, I was cleaning tables, serving customers and counting up the cash,” she says. But what did this period instill in her, apart from some great customer service acumen? “It built in me an awareness of the great opportunities that working in business could hold,” she says.

Following this, she found herself at the revered academic institution, The London School of Economics to study Economic History. After graduating in 2004, she followed in the family footsteps and opened up her first restaurant, “the goal was to start my own business before, or by the time I was twenty-five,” says Siadatan with the confidence of someone who’s actually done it.

Siadatan becomes an Apprentice contestant and winner

Then came one of Siadatan’s landmark moments in her life so far, she found herself on one of the UK’s most obsessively watched TV shows, Alan Sugar’s, The Apprentice in 2009. Siadatan details an odd moment during the early part of the competition before the cameras started rolling…

“When they got us down to the final seventy or so people, we were asked to line up in order of how much we were paid in our current jobs,” says Siadatan. Out of the group, the ‘city banker’ types, mostly male, strode off and took themselves to the front of the line, she says, whilst she put herself firmly at the end, “we had to explain to the group why we had placed ourselves where we had, I explained that I was simply a waitress trying to make a living,” she says.

Sussing out the competition: Kate Walsh, the corporate threat

Siadatan faced Kate Walsh in the 2009 final (left). Source:popsugar

From the very moment meeting Siadatan, it’s clear that not only is she incredibly vivacious and intelligent, but she is also striking perceptive and analytical, (let’s call it the LSE effect). These talents become clear when she explains how she assessed her main competition on the show.

“Right from the start, I knew that Kate Walsh was my biggest competition,” says Siadatan. “She had worked her way up the corporate ladder from a graduate trainee programme”. But was it Kate’s abilities that Siadatan felt threatened by? “It was more her business personality, she was this honed corporate personality, unrelentingly professional and as smart as they come,” she continues.

An all-female final

It seemed that Siadatan’s early assessment was correct, and before she knew it, she found herself up against Walsh in the final of The Apprentice in 2009. “The press really jumped on the, ‘it’s an all-female final’ bandwagon,” she says. “If the same thing happened today, I’m not sure if the press would have the guts to do the same thing, I feel like the gender discussion is too powerful to allow for that today,” she continues. Then came her crowning as the show’s eventual winner which saw her gain a coveted spot in one of Sugar’s major companies, Amscreen Healthcare.

Working for Lord Sugar: The Amscreen days

Siadatan poses with Sugar after winning the coveted role at Amscreen. Source: Ian West/PA Wire

Upon joining the company, Siadatan was surprised yet impressed about the ‘business-as-usual’ culture present at Amscreen. Instead of the flashy Gherkin based offices that feature in the show, Amscreen called an Essex-based industrial estate home. “Going there and working every day felt very normal,” she says. “It really was just about getting your head down and cracking on with it,” she adds.

Other presumptions were challenged too, “this was my first job working for other people, so it was always going to be different,” says Siadatan. “But it was also the structure of the company that surprised me, I thought it would be very corporate, in fact, it was anything but.”

However, that was a good thing for Siadatan, “it operated more like a family business, Lord Sugar is the chairman of the board, and his sons help run the respective businesses, including Amscreen.”

But did this ever make the business feel like an undemocratic place to work? Not at all, says Siadatan, in fact, she was made to feel like part of the family…

“Firstly I was used to working in a family business because of my dad. But more than that, I feel like The Apprentice was a baptism of fire, Lord Sugar could see what I was capable of, and I proved that to him by winning, therefore, I feel like I entered Amscreen as a part of the business family of sorts, I had qualified for the position, and earnt his respect in the process.

When the conversation naturally turns to Sugar’s personality, Siadatan is complimentary and calls him an unflinchingly honest entrepreneur, “the thing about Lord Sugar is that he’s the same in real life as he is on TV, there’s no lip-service,” she says. “He won’t be fake to you in case he needs to use you in the future, he either likes you or he doesn’t, when you earn his respect, it feels genuine and well deserved,” she adds.

Pregnancy, and taking a break from business

Two years into her time at Amscreen, Siadatan, the only woman in the business at the time, wanted to start a family. She went on maternity leave and had her first child, and fell pregnant before she was due to return.

“For me, it was about timing, I had a six-month-old baby starting nursery, which is stressful anyway, and was also heavily pregnant, it just wasn’t the right time for me to go back to work. So, I left, and had the most incredible period of my life with my children,” she says.

Contrary to popular media opinion, Siadatan did not, in fact, part with Sugar on frosty terms because of these events, in fact, it was quite the opposite. “The Amscreen team was very supportive of my decision, you’ve got to remember that Lord Sugar runs a family business, and he is a family man as well as a businessman, he has sons and grandchildren,” she continues.

However, Siadatan wants to make clear that whilst her decision to take a year and a half away from the world of business was right for her at the time, she encourages other professional women to ‘try to have it all’, “I would say to pregnant professional women that they should reach for the stars, if you have a supportive partner and can access support networks, why not try to continue working and caregiving if you can!? However, I understand that sometimes women don’t have choices in this matter, and are forced by practicality to take time off, (if their partner can’t provide the caregiving) or remain at work full-time, (if they need that financial support).”

Working with a Dragons’ Den judge – and the UK government

Friends in high places: Siadatan was headhunted by James Caan. Source: Twitter

After a year and a half off, Siadatan was “itching” to get back to work. She found in a Head of Operations role in a Private Equity firm (she was headhunted by serial entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den judge, James Caan).

“At the time the coalition government was in No.10, and they approached James to be the face of the new government-backed start-up loans initiative designed to support and grow businesses, we then transformed it into a standalone company in less than a year,” she says.

So what did Siadatan learn from this experience? “Many things, I learned a lot about how to pitch to investors, and how they like to place their money,” she says.

“I enjoyed watching James in action, largely recruitment businesses wanted his investment because of his own background in the sector, he would assess the credentials of the company, as well as the credentials of the person pitching. He would always look at the ‘human capital’ as well as everything else. If one of the boxes wasn’t ticked in a pitch, he wasn’t interested, his business life is so fast paced that he doesn’t have time to reconsider pitches, it’s really like Dragons Den without the makeup and cameras.”

Working with the coalition government

“I would relish working alongside the government again,” says Siadatan. “I’ve only had very positive experiences with them. I believe that business should take on more social responsibility, whilst the government should be there to help the neediest in society, however, the government has been, and should continue being there partly to promote business too.”

But what about Siadatan’s personal political views?

“I’m a compassionate conservative, I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to look after the neediest in society and efficiently manage public services, but I also believe in less government and the power of the free market with minimal intervention.”

“Look at Brexit for example, despite the government’s total focus on it, the economy continues to flourish anyway, proving that the market can manage itself. Although I do believe that business should take on more responsibility and become more accountable on the impact it’s having on communities and the environment. This will come from the demands of consumers.”

Her latest role: Disrupting the financial services sector

In 2016, Siadatan made her latest transition into more a tech-based role, and as Head of Marketing at a fintech firm to be precise, “Dynamic Planner supplies technology to independent financial advisers and asset managers, it helps financial advisers select funds for their investors, and asset managers use it to display their funds, it’s all done through technology and clever algorithms,” she says.

“I was really excited about the tech,” she says. “Whilst I was in the world of financial services before, learning about this software was something entirely new,” she adds.

“Our mission is strong, we want to help ensure that investors are invested in funds that are most appropriate for them, this is an area of financial services that has been under a dark cloud for some time. We’re focused on making sure that advisers and asset managers are providing the right products for their customers apart from what is going to make them the most money. In short, we’re making sure that investors are treated fairly by the system. I see that as both impactful and innovative.”

Diversity and inclusion at Dynamic Planner

“Since I’ve joined the business, there are more women employed than ever before, both in senior management and on the board. I’m half Iranian and a woman, so encouraging the growth of a diverse workforce was always important to me,” she says.

Located in Reading, an already thriving multicultural community, it was easier to make the business a diverse place, she says, “in terms of recruiting for candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds, we didn’t have to try that much, as Reading is diverse anyway. If you look at the cultural diversity index in the UK, Reading is right in middle, meaning that it’s truly diverse, with no majority or minority communities.”

“We now employ 40% women, which we consider a great statistic as the average for tech companies is 18%. When women are looking at different businesses to work for, they look at the website, and especially the team photos. If the people don’t look like them, they’re not going to be enthused about applying, it’s the same for BME candidates. However, our company CEO was keen to focus on purpose, impact, and diversity from the outset, and that’s why I wanted to join the business.

The importance of mentorship in business

Siadatan is also passionate about the power of mentorship in business, it’s something that she does herself, and has at least one call booked per day with someone who is looking for support and advice…

“They don’t always have to be entrepreneurs,” she says, “they can be corporate professionals who are working their way up the ladder and want some tried-and-tested advice from someone who’s been through it,” she adds.

But a free market advocate to the end, Siadatan says that despite its merits, mentorship should not become a policy implemented by the government throughout businesses. Instead, senior staff must engage in mentorship, and once they have mentored and brought middle management up to their level, they, in turn, should be inspired to help others do the same…

“It’s a natural human instinct to help others, and if something else has benefitted from effective mentorship, they’re more likely to want to help others achieve what they have, and then the positive cycle continues,” she says.

Reading: A great place to do business

“I’ve been so happy to watch Reading grow and prosper as a business hub over the last ten years,” she says.”There’s a real focus on attracting inward investment, whether that’s from the university, or from amazing local businesses that give up time to focus on nurturing talent.”

“When many councils in the UK had their funding cut, I think it forced them to become more entrepreneurial, and that’s what Reading borough council has done,” she says. “We’re located near Heathrow and London so we can advertise ourselves as an international market for business. We’re even becoming known as silicon valley of UK, so it’s important to us that we attract global corporates, and then make their staff stay afterward, and perhaps even start businesses in Reading, get married and have children here.”

– At that, our conversation comes to a close, and the Apprentice Star turned business leader, diversity and impact advocate is racing off to another meeting, disappearing in a whirl of positive action.