Daring to fail

Magazine: Building on courage – October 2022


It takes a lot of courage to do something knowing that you might fail. This is because, unlike in other cultures, failure still has negative connotations in  Swiss culture. Stories of female entrepreneurs and the times when they failed were not only an opportunity for them to learn from their experiences but also gave them courage, since only those who fail have the chance to start all over again. This is highlighted by our examples of prominent female figures below.


“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might  as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

J. K. Rowling is now considered one of the most successful female writers in world history, even if she doesn’t come without controversy. Her accomplishments are down to the success of her fictitious character Harry Potter, but her path to riches and fame was rocky. Despite getting turned down time after time by publishing houses, she stuck in there – and ultimately it paid off. After she was finally offered a contract by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996, she achieved a worldwide breakthrough. She was never scared of failing though, because her professional life up until that point had been anything but smooth. She was even fired from one office job as she kept writing stories at work.

“In the end I do respond to my own instincts. Sometimes they’re successful, and obviously sometimes they’re not. But you have to, I think, remain true to what you believe in.”

Anna Wintour, editor in chief of the American magazine Vogue, is something of a living legend, though nobody at first would’ve predicted that she’d rise to the top of the fashion world. After com­pleting a training programme at Harrods, the young British woman began her career in journalism as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. But she was fired after just nine months as she didn’t know enough about the US market. Despite this blow, Anna didn’t let herself be put off, and has been at Vogue since 1986. Under her leadership, the magazine became the most influential fashion publication in the world. Her life story was also made into a Hollywood film called “The Devil Wears Prada”.

“It is not the successes that one learns from, but the  fiascos.”

Coco Chanel was a major player in the fashion industry in the 20th century, but the young Gabrielle – her original name – came from a very humble background and grew up in an orphanage. She wanted to make her name as a singer, but failed at that because she didn’t have the talent. Coco, as she started calling herself, turned her hand to tailoring, and in 1913 opened the first Chanel fashion boutique in Deauville. She obtained the start-up capital from some wealthy male acquaintances, which at the time was the only way she could get money. Yet she earned her worldwide success all by herself – thanks to hard work, strict discipline and a lot of sacrifices.

“Instead of doing our job cheerfully, we had to overcome the wildest prejudices about our abilities every step of the way.”

Emilie Kempin-Spyri was the first woman in Switzerland to complete a law degree, though she wasn’t allowed to practise as a lawyer. She took the only opportunity available to her, and in 1888 moved with her family to New York. There, she was accepted as a professor and lecturer and ran her own law school. However, her husband wanted to move back to Switzerland, which meant Emilie’s time in the US came to an end. In 1895 her marriage broke down, and she moved to Berlin. She died at the young age of 48, demoralised. But her struggle was not in vain. A new law was passed in the canton of Zurich in 1898 which allowed women to practise law, despite not having full civil rights themselves. This right was only extended to women in the rest of Switzerland in 1923.