Marilyn Comrie OBE is an entrepreneur, life skills coach, and mum. She is in the process of making racing more available to kids by founding The Blair Project and Formula Girl, a project to raise money and create a racing series from women's sports fashion. Follow her on twitter @FormulaGirl_
BS What is your first memory of motorsport?
MC My first memory of motorsport was as a young girl of about 8 or 9 years of age, watching F1 racing legend Graham Hill competing in a Brabham car on TV. I was mesmerized and hooked from then on, and became a fan of other British racing drivers such as James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, David Coulthard and Damon Hill during what was for me, the glory years of Formula One!
BS What got you into motorsport as a career option?
MC The challenges of single-handedly funding the racing career of my 18 year old son Blair, who races karts. It was costing as much as £35k per year, which isn’t sustainable for an ordinary family. And for him to make the next step up into competitive single seater racing would require a minimum of £100k, which was way out of our league. There were lots of other families in the same boat; talented just isn’t enough in motor racing. You need to have serious cash behind you – if you’re to stand any chance of making it to the top. Our family motto is never say die, so rather than simply accepting the status quo, my 19 year old son Nile decided he would do something about it.
In March 2014 he set up a game changing social enterprise called The Blair Project to champion grassroots talent, and innovate new ways to make motorsport more inclusive, accessible and affordable to do something about it. To ensure the success of the venture, I put my business mentoring expertise to good use by becoming the director of business development. As a not-for-profit organisation, the Blair Project was able to attract £ thousands in grant funding from bodies like Sport England – and a new movement to change the world of motorsport was born. We have over six young drivers in our racing paddock, racing karts and rally cars and plans to fund even more!
I never ever imagined that I would carve out a career in motorsport for myself- Nothing was further from my mind! I was an award winning entrepreneur who was honoured by Her Majesty The Queen in 2009 with an OBE, a leadership coach, former BBC TV journalist and series producer and a chemistry graduate. But when life presents new and wonderful opportunities, you have to trust in the process and learn to go with the flow and see where it takes you. It requires you to be courageous, adventurous, resilient and persistent – and maintain a great sense of humour! It’s a bit like being a farmer; the seeds we planted over 18 months ago, are now bearing fruit. It’s taken a lot of sacrifice, and sometimes living a hand-to-mouth existence, but when you’ve faced your worst fears, and come out of it victorious, nothing can ever hold you back!
BS When did you first pursue business opportunities in motorsport?
MC In order to achieve our mission of making motorsport more inclusive, accessible and affordable we knew had to change the rules of the game, and not simply follow the status quo which in the UK was elitist, and only for the privileged few. In the UK only 5% of racing licence holders are female. We want to see this number increase. In July 2015, we were successful in securing funding to run the UK’s largest initiative to get more girls racing. Starting in January 2016, 10 x girls aged 10 – 16 years old will be fully funded to race in the Cheshire Karting Championships for a whole season, and receive expert coaching and tuition. They will be nurtured to develop their full potential, and supported to pursue careers as drivers, mechanics and engineers of the future.
We have also innovated an exciting STEM project (Science Technology Engineering & Maths) for schools called ProtoGP, which will give pupils as young as 8, the opportunity to computer design, and build their own karts using 3D printers and the latest digital fabrication techniques, before racing them in our special ProtoGP championships at Three Sisters Racing Circuit in 2016. The project is being piloted with Manchester University, who are also working with us to develop a motorsport curriculum for schools which will be aligned to the National Curriculum. The pilot will be showcased in Manchester during European City of Science next year, which will provide us with a high level platform to market our innovations.
Manchester has been assigned the status as the Northern Powerhouse by Chancellor George Osborne. The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the Suffragette Movement, it has been allocated massive amounts of government funding to fuel an awesome 21st Century technological revolution. We are working with influential partners in Manchester to develop a home grown urban electric racing series, with the primary aim of making racing more accessible and affordable for thousands more people. This will give people in Manchester the opportunity to touch it, feel it and experience electric racing within the city region!
BS Tell us a bit more about Formula Girl and where you aim to go with the project?
Girls in motorsport are at a particular disadvantage if they want to progress their careers to the highest echelons in motorsport. Motor racing is expensive - the lack of meaningful sponsorship for talented female racers forces many to abandon their racing careers. Added to this, the practice of using scantily-clad Grid Girls posing next to cars has long been a feature of Formula One, and other major motor racing championships makes it harder for female motor racing talent to be taken seriously.
Like other females in sport, they struggle to get corporate sponsorship. Just 0.4% of corporate investment in sport is spent on female teams – even though women make up 52% of the global population, and according to Harvard Business Review are responsible for over $18 trillion of purchasing decisions.
Given those numbers it’s surprising in this day and age that many companies underestimate the female consumer, and under value the selling power of sportswomen. Despite the best efforts of organisations like the Women’s Sport Trust, big corporates have so far shown little appetite for seriously sponsoring sports women, although more and more of them are happy to make small token gestures as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. There really is very little appetite from Big Business to change the status quo – so we decided we’d do something about it.
We came up with the idea of a new sports fashion brand for women, which leverages the glamour of Grand Prix racing. 40% of Formula Girl’s profits will be used to sponsor talented women in sport, especially motorsport. This is style with substance.
We have a crowdfunding campaign running on Born.com, to raise the £10k we need to produce the first capsule collection. The clothes will be manufactured by a leading motorsport clothing company based in Italy. To date our biggest backers have been men – which is interesting in itself! We certainly hope this will change, and that more women, especially those in motor racing, will show their support by purchasing gifts or simply donating to the cause.
On Twitter, Formula Girl is attracting the support of key players and opinion formers within the female motor racing and business communities from every corner of the globe – from the US, South America, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Asian continent. And we’re being followed by high profile individuals like Pippa Mann, and Daniel Abt from Formula E.
Formula Girl intends to become the next superbrand, leveraging the glamour of grand prix racing to produce luxurious clothing lines for adventurous spirited women who like to look good, feel good – and do good! This is style with substance. The theme has evolved with Athena, the spirited goddess of endeavor meets motorsport; luxury body armour, made on trend – a superbrand female warriors wardrobe.
By purchasing Formula Girl clothing and accessories, women around the world will be able to use their massive buying power to level the playing field in sport, and provide a much-needed lifeline for professional sportswomen, in particular girl racers, who struggle to get sponsorship.
And the momentum for change is building. In America, trailblazers Grace Autosport will be the first all-female IndyCar Series racing team competing in the Indy 500 next May. From team owner to race engineers to aerodynamicists to the driver to marketing and public relations directors, the women of Grace Autosport are seeking not just to empower the next generation of women in motorsport, but attract a new fan base to motor racing.
Formula Girl’s goal is to sponsor a team like Grace Autosport as well as individuals, so that within the next ten years we see a female driver winning a major motor racing championship!
BS How have you found the response to Formula Girl from motorsport fans?
MC The response to Formula Girl from motorsport fans, both male and female has been very encouraging. We have managed to build a core group of supporters within the female racing community from every continent on the planet who are happy to promote what we are doing within their networks – such as Chicas Racing, Horsepower Heels led by Erica Ortiz, Women inMSport, and yourselves (@mtrsprtsstrhd) to name a few. We also have our male cheerleaders such as John Cheadle from Eunoia and motorsport journalist Alex Goldschmidt who writes for the prestigious Paddock Magazine.
We have so far raised over 50% of our crowdfunding target, and are confident of reaching our target of €10k by Decmber 8th, with their help and support.
BS How has the motorsport industry responded to Formula Girl?
MC The response to Formula Girl from the motorsport industry has been more mixed. There are powerful individuals who have made it clear to us that they do not wish the status quo to change. In their view, women play an important role in motorsport as Grid Girls and our intervention is going to upset the ‘natural order’. I have had it said to me by a long serving motorsport official that in his view, male drivers would never be able to live down ‘shame’ of losing to a women driver. This is a very real secret fear – I want ‘drive like a girl’ to become the rallying cry for badass female speed demons. Trinity in the Matrix Trilogy films encapsulates for me, the essence of this spirited, can-do, no nonsense woman.
BS Tell us a bit more about the series you plan to start with funds from Formula Girl?
MC We are in high level negotiations for an new urban electric racing series for Manchester, which we hope will be rolled out to other cities in the UK and beyond. This will make motor racing much more accessible for thousands more, and through Formula Girl we will work towards achieving 50:50 grids of the best male and female racing talent. Above and beyond that, I am not at liberty to say more because of commercial considerations
BS What would you like to say to girls and young women pursuing a career in motorsport?
MC Go for it – and don’t stop until you get it! Keep your eye on the prize, and not the barriers you will have to overcome to get there. Just determine to go round, over, and under any barriers that stand in your way. And through that experience you will become more resourceful, more awesome, and more competitive.
Gender equity is not something that will be given to women – it is something that we must engineer and take for ourselves through working together and effectively mobilizing the money and power that we as women already have. Current projections estimate it will take an hundred years to achieve gender parity in the workplace. That’s far too long. The time is now – and we can have it, if enough women choose!