THE boardroom – 16 candidates, each desperate to be chosen. There’s the tension and the bitchiness, the caustic comment and a roll of the eyes from Nick. Lord Alan Sugar’s damning forefinger. The shame accompanying those dreaded words, “You’re fired.”
At one point, Sharon McAllister yearned to be The Apprentice, selected by the then Sir Alan as the pick of the second series, and handed the opportunity to leave Scotland and work with him in the glamour and excitement of London.
A few years later, however, as she lay on a hospital bed, her unborn baby’s life and hers dangling by a thread, the most important thing in the world wasn’t a television reality show.
It wasn’t the challenges and adrenaline kick of running her own thriving business.
It was simply surviving.
“I nearly died,” she reveals. “It was a few days before I had my second son, Carter. I had septicemia and Bell’s Palsy. At one point my parents were asked to come to hospital because the medics didn’t think both me and my baby would survive. Or even if one of us would live.
“A couple of days later Carter was born – my wee miracle.” The horror of staring death in the face and the nightmare of wondering what might become of her baby and her 11-year-old son Reece if anything did happen to her, a single mum, made her reassess life.
At one point fiercely ambitious – she once tried to persuade Madonna to endorse her baby clothes firm – she stepped back and took a year out to recover.
Paralysed in her face and arm for six months, there was little choice but to sell her interests in the internet television firm she ran and concentrate on just getting better.
Perhaps that experience of what matters most could serve as a lesson in real life for the next breed of eager, attention-seeking apprentices who last night strutted on to the nation’s television screens.
The candidates, Team Sterling for the girls, Team Phoenix for the boys, set about splashing £500 of the boss’ cash on blank mouse mats and mugs, teddies and bags to be printed with money- spinning motifs and slogans aimed at making some cash.
There was long and ill-informed debate among the boys over profit margins, which took priority over design. The girls squabbled over motifs at the expense of thinking through margins. There were poor quality products, toe-curling declarations of personal ability, some selling and one very public sacking.
Sitting at home, Sharon was among the eight million or so viewers who tuned in. As head of the Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Jewel and Esk Valley College, she has more than a passing interest in what the young business minds of today are thinking, even if it is whether to opt for a Union Flag design on a teddy or a red London bus on the front of a mug.
And she appreciates better than most that what we see on The Apprentice may not be the whole story. “
To be honest, last year’s series was the first one I’d watched for a while,” says Sharon, 35, who appeared in the 2006 series.
“I actually really enjoyed watching it. But things aren’t always as they seem. In day-to-day life you’d go on the internet to search for something to help you. But on The Apprentice we didn’t have access to that.
“In one task, we made calendars to sell for Great Ormond Street Hospital. Naturally, you’d want them to feature children, but Sir Alan decided the boys would get the babies to work with – no doubt for obvious reasons – and we’d get a lot of random things not necessarily connected with a children’s hospital.
“On television, it looked like we were picking stupid things for our calendars, like we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Which, of course, made better television.”
Sharon, who left a job with Forth Valley College to take part in the series, made it to week eight before getting the proverbial “finger”.
It didn’t particularly worry her. Instead, she drew on the positives of what she’d learned and enjoyed a string of lucrative opportunities – from public speaking appointments to giving business advice and, in 2007, launching a visionary Edinburgh-based internet television company.
It was while she was driving that forward that, in 2009 and heavily pregnant, life took a dramatic twist. “I was really very poorly,” she recalls. “I was paralysed for six months. It was a miracle that we both survived.”
As she recovered Sharon occupied herself taking a Masters in psychology. When she did venture back to work, it wasn’t in the hothouse of the business world, but a civil service position with Health Scotland analysing addictive behaviour.
But while that was fulfilling, her real passion has always been education. And now, it appears, she’s straddling the worlds of business and education, helping to mould the next generation of business minds.
Far from creating apprentices, what she has in mind is equipping business students with the vital skills to think for themselves, to launch their own businesses and push the Scottish economy into some kind of optimistic future.
Recently she unveiled the college’s Nuclei business support unit, a base for up to ten new student companies, where those studying the vital components of running a firm can also have hands-on experience of actually doing it. Dubbed the “incubator”, it provides office equipment and the support of the college’s business lecturers.
Alongside that ground-breaking idea is her other pet project, a six-month course for 12 students, aged between 16 and 19, selected for a new style of learning which takes them out of the lecture theatre and into real-life business meetings and contact-building environments. The incubator is one way for people who want to start up a business in a safe environment, with experts around them to help,” she says. “And I’m trying to set up courses so people have a business running from day one, so it’s not all lectures and sitting in class.
“I want to promote enterprise and entrepreneurship,” she adds. “So when people do leave the college they will have the ability to be agile and to problem solve and respond quickly – all key to working in industry.”
She stuck her head above the parapet in 2006 to enter The Apprentice. And today she’d like to see more young people follow the lead – not necessarily on TV, but prepared to wear with pride their determination. “I’d like to see more ambition and more hunger in young people. They are at an exciting stage in their lives, there needs to be more ambition.”
As for The Apprentice, she’ll watch with the rest of us, grateful to have been among the select few who did it, and slightly envious of the next 16 to be put through their paces. “I’m glad I did it,” she says. “I learned a lot about myself. I look back and I’m chuffed. It was all good. And, yes, I’d do it again.”
The Apprentice, BBC One, Wednesdays at 9pm
WHO WILL DO LORD SUGAR’S BUSINESS THIS TIME?
1. Laura Hogg: 28, bridal shop owner. Inspired by Michelle Mone. “I am going to be one of Scotland’s next big exports.”
2. Maria O’Connor: 20, restaurateur. Opened her Greek restaurant at the age of 19. “If you chuck me in the deep end I’ll swim.”
3. Jenna Whittingham: 25, beauty salon owner. Spends her spare time horse-riding.
4. Jane McEvoy: 28, co-founder of food manufacturing company. Would like to open an animal shelter.
5. Bilyana Apostolova: 25, risk analyst. Prefers rollerblading to and from work. She was first to be fired last night.
6. Katie Wright: 26, editorial and research director. Wishes she was the brains behind Heinz Baked Beans. “I would call myself ‘The Blonde Assassin’.”
7. Gabrielle Omar: 29, architect. Feels her persistence is her strength. “I will roar my way to the top.”
8. Jade Nash: 29, business development manager. Lists her parents as her role models.
1. Azhar Siddique: 33, founder and managing director of catering company. Inspired by the Ikea brand. “It’s not who shouts the loudest; it’s who has the ability to control the conversation.”
2. Michael Copp: 31, MD kitchen and bedroom furniture retailer. Says biggest strength is his positivity. “I’m better than unique.”
3. Tom Gearing: 23, director of a fine wine investment company. Loves travelling around the world.
4. Nick Holzherr: 25, technology entrepreneur. Once earned money selling second-hand golf balls.
5. Duane Bryan: 29, founder/director of drinks distribution company. Says he is inspired by the Jaegermeister brand.
6. Adam Corbally: 32, market trader. First job was stacking bread.
7. Ricky Martin: 26, recruitment team leader. Says weakness is he is a perfectionist. “I truly am the reflection of perfection.”
8. Stephen Brady: 33, sales manager. Once lived in New York.