Jenifer Rosenberg OBE is a force to be reckoned with. During the swinging sixties, while The Beatles were exploding global charts and skirts were getting significantly shorter, Rosenberg was working as a senior buyer for M&S. “I was the person who introduced miniskirts into M&S,” she proudly boasts.
Rosenberg left the post in 1973, to found her own fashion brand, J & J Fashions. It went on to become Britain’s largest privately-owned ladieswear manufacturer, employed 3,000 people and supplied to her former employer, M&S. It’s no wonder she was named Business Woman of the Year 1986 by Veuve Clicquot and received an OBE for her services to the fashion industry, before retiring.
She returned to work in 2003 when her husband's heart failure inspired the launch of The Heart Stems Foundation charity to research and raise money for stem cell therapy in Britain. The treatment gave Ian Rosenberg an extra three years of life. Despite his passing in 2006, Rosenberg still spearheads the charity, has seen hundreds of patients prolong their lives as a result of the charity's research and at almost 80 years old, is not slowing down any time soon…
What was it like climbing the ladder as a woman in the swinging sixties?
“I left school at 16 because I didn't like studying. I decided I wanted to work. I applied to M&S because my family told me it was a place with good opportunities for women. I started out in the postroom pushing a post trolley. But I was out of there in two weeks. Whenever I was seen by my staff manager, I always wanted to know when my next promotion was. I never stopped pushing, and I don’t stop pushing now.
Every business is different. I was in fashion, not in finance or banking. But I never felt in any way held back because I was a woman. I was supported enormously by the board of M&S to do things. If we (women) presented things to the board and we felt strongly enough about something, they would let us try it. And if it sold well, we would repeat it. They had a lot of confidence in us. When you've got that support from your superiors it makes a big difference to how you operate.”
How do you feel about the planned closure of 32 M&S stores?
“I get very upset because it gave me so much. It gave me a wonderful career and equally when I became a supplier, it gave me an amazing business.”
What was the biggest setback in your career?
“I opened my first factory in 1974 when the three-day week began. That was absolutely horrendous because the factories were only operating three days a week, not five. I didn’t think we'd last a month. We couldn't use electricity. So I took matters into my own hands and borrowed a generator from a very nice friendly factory nearby. I always believe whatever the problem is, there's a solution - and I apply that to everything in my life.
Everybody has setbacks - believe you and me, I’ve had plenty. But you can't dwell on the past. You just have to get over it and move forward.”
You briefly retired before your husband fell ill, inspiring you to "unretire" and found the Heart Cells Foundation charity. At 79 years old, do you see yourself retiring anytime soon?
“I'm not retiring. No, I'm still going. I've recently went on holiday for a couple of weeks, but I still check all my emails when I'm away. I don't find it a chore at all. I'm very happy to do it. I mean, I have a whole team of people I work with, I don't do it all myself. But I don't want to slow down. I'm enjoying what I'm doing. It doesn't get more inspiring than to be able to save somebody's life.
Plus, what you have with age is experience and knowledge. So, I think if you have an idea or a concept, why not?”
How do you stay motivated and energised?
“I've always had a lot of energy. I think it's to do with positivity - my glass is always half full. If you're a negative person, you're draining yourself. I've always been very positive. And I'm still positive.”
What was it like receiving an OBE?
“The day I went to Buckingham Palace and drove through those gates, I couldn't believe it was happening to me. I was very fortunate to receive the award from the Queen herself, who asked me what sort of business I was in. I was on cloud nine for about a week. I got so much publicity, I was brought into another world of interviews with journalists and television appearances. From that, I became the governor of what is now the London University of Arts and I was on the British Fashion Council. So all these positions opened up, which was very exciting.”