Supermodel turned investor: what Natalia Vodianova did next

Supermodel and investor Natalia Vodianova
Supermodel and investor Natalia Vodianova Credit: Geoff Pugh

The statistics on the struggles of female entrepreneurs are a depressing read: 90 percent of funding goes to all-male founder teams in the UK, and, in the US, all-male teams are four times more likely to get investment than if they have even one woman in the team. 

But the story is different if you cross paths with Natalia Vodianova, the supermodel. 

The 37-year-old is putting to good use the money earned in a two decades-long fashion career from huge contracts with brands such as Calvin Klein and Guerlain. Now she spends her days managing a portfolio of “impact investments”: businesses which can make the world a better place while still bringing return. The latest of which was founded by two women.

Vodianova is stepping into a man’s world with her investments, given that just 14 percent of business angels in the UK are female. This wild underrepresentation leaves many reporting that women in the pitching room face unconscious - and conscious - bias, leading to female entrepreneurs starting businesses with half as much capital as men. She is looking after her wallet too - women-led start-ups delivered twice as much return as those led by men in a study by management consultant BCG.

I meet her in Google’s office just behind King’s Cross station, where she is due to talk to a forum of female start-up founders about her latest investment. It’s a company called Little Tummy, a baby food subscription service which has been described as “Deliveroo for babies” and which was founded by Nadine Hellmann and Dr Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani. It produces healthy baby food which has been treated with special technology to give it a longer shelf life. 

Supermodel and investor Natalia Vodianova with the co-founders of Little Tummy Sophie Niedermaier-Patramani and Nadine Hellmann, who she has invested in Credit: Geoff Pugh

Vodianova has said in the past she is “a little military” when it comes to her children not eating junk food, telling Porter magazine in 2017 that she got strict with her son when he was 10 and “getting a little chubby”, saying: “Well I tell them they are gorgeous and beautiful and all those good things, but I tell them to watch what they eat, because those habits will stay forever, so you need to make healthier choices from the start.”

But she also sees Little Tummy as part of her mission to improve the lives of women who are still burdened with more domestic jobs even when they work full-time. “It’s proven that having one child for a mother is the same pressure as having two and a half jobs”, she says, referring to a 2018 survey of 2000 mothers’ weekly schedules, which found that they had an average working week of 98 hours, with little more than an hour a day to themselves. 

Vodianova is herself the mother of five children, three with former husband Justin Portman, a property heir whose family owns 110 acres of Marylebone in central London. Her two youngest children are with her current partner Antoine Arnault, CEO of menswear brand Berluti, which is owned by his father Bernard’s LVMH luxury goods conglomerate. 

Despite having a team of nannies, it must still be a struggle to bring up such a large flock as a working woman. I ask whether she splits the cooking with Arnault. 

“Even scrambled eggs is an issue for my man”, she says with a long sigh, adding that he does help put the children to bed.

“It’s still a female-dominated space, still women are making those decisions of what to feed their baby, what to buy,” she says. 

Natalia Vodianova (centre), modelling for Burberry's Spring/Summer collection earlier this year Credit: Nick Knight/Burberry

That’s why, despite its many detractors, she embraces the term “mumpreneur”. 

She is firm that her identity as a mother is a big motivator to why she has continued to work even though she could retire comfortably right now. 

“It’s something they will be much more proud of when they grow up,” she adds. 

“If I stayed home they would never appreciate it, they would just say, ‘Oh mum was a housewife and it was nice to have her around’.”

Certainly the life of her children is vastly different to her own upbringing, in a poor family in Nizny Novgorod, a city 250 miles east of Moscow. She helped her mother, single after her father walked out, to raise her younger sister Oksana, who has epilepsy and autism. She has talked about days when she had only a cup of powdered soup to eat all day. Things changed when, aged 17, she was spotted by model scout. The agency gave her an advance to pay off her mother’s debts and she moved to Paris to start her career.

She says that this experience has informed her desire to do good in the world. She founded a charity, the Naked Heart Foundation, following the Beslan school massacre in 2004 to support children and families in Russia. She then founded Elbi in 2018, an app for charitable giving which incentivises donors with fashion rewards. 

Vodianova with two of her five children, Lucas and Neva Portman, in February last year Credit:  David M. Benett/ Getty Images Europe

Vodianova doesn’t pass for an ordinary investor. If you had spent two decades trapped in a dank cave, not seeing a single fashion campaign, you would still immediately identify her as a model. Most of the founders at the Google conference are dressed safely: all navy blue and shoes that don’t rub. She is wearing a vest under an oversized blazer, tight jeans and dark red crocodile skin mules with a wedge heel. She also still moves in celebrity circles: shortly after we meet she is photographed on the front row at Paris fashion week, in Cannes and at starry charity gala dinners. 

But this involvement with fashion can be tricky to align with her ethical principles. The industry’s success is built on people buying more than they need, and replacing it seasonally. Turning down work with less sustainable brands wasn’t possible in her early career, she says, when the “very competitive world” meant there would always be a model on hand to replace her. 

“But today I’m much more aware and I am making my choices much more carefully than before because I have different priorities,” she adds.

She says her partner “feels that urgency” to make LVMH a more sustainable operation. In July this year the business announced a partnership with Stella McCartney, which it said emphasizes its commitment to sustainability.

Vodianova says: “Of course because of the nature of the business they can’t do miracles - they can’t switch overnight to being a completely sustainable or carbon neutral company, but definitely the efforts are very strong.” 

She adds that her partner is passionate about philanthropy because “he understands that they have been very privileged, especially as children, to inherit this great company”.

Vodianova thinks that tech may be the answer. One start-up she has invested in, 3D Look, uses image recognition software to map a consumer’s sizing with just two selfies, allowing them to virtually “try on” clothes. It also gives producers a clearer understanding of what their client’s bodies are really like, making sure they are producing clothes in the right sizes and proportions. This could help brands reduce the controversial practice of burning unsold clothing. 

“It’s producing less, more effectively, and the return rate drops by 30 percent,” she says.

She attributes her tough start in life to her drive to make a better world.

“When I became successful I left literally millions of people behind who were in a similar situation”, she says. “It’s a huge responsibility but I have managed to turn it into something extremely positive and purposeful.”

Women Mean Business Live, November 5 2019, will bring together over 500 business leaders and entrepreneurs for a day of action, debate and networking to overcome the barriers that all too often prevent female-led businesses and professionals within the workplace from reaching their full potential. Speakers will include media entrepreneur Tina Brown, Samantha Cameron,  founder of Cefinn, Marta Krupinska, head of start-ups Google among many more. For more details and how to get a ticket please click here