Oli Barrett, MBE, host at this year’s’ NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards, an entrepreneur success story in his own right, is a communicator extraordinaire, and passionately tries to create an entrepreneurship culture starting at school. This is the second installment of our conversation with him, and he begins with a story about how he was outsmarted by a school student.
Oli is the man behind the ‘Tenner’ campaign. “The idea is to give kids £10 each for a month and they have to try to make money or try to make a difference, they can either work on their own or as part of a team, so if there is five of them, that’s £50. At the end of the month, the £10 comes back into the ‘Tenner bank’ and any profit made they decide what to do with it.” The project has been going for ten years – and has around 250,000 participants to date.
But Oli tells a story about an occasion when a young school child presented her idea. There was an array of pebbles, shiny ones, pretty ones, unusual ones. With the sign 50p. “So you charge 50p; a pebble?” Oli asks, feeling quite impressed. She looks at him as if he is naive, “No, it’s 50p a look.”
“Once again,” he says, “I had been outsmarted by school students!!”
But then that’s partly the point.
As a man who has done so much to promote entrepreneurship at school – that’s why he got his MBE – Oli would no doubt say that he wants to help create a culture buzzing with entrepreneurial talent, resulting in all kinds of businesses and charitable ventures, many quite brilliant, that he would never have considered, himself.
“If you turn the clock back ten years ago, students leaving university were signing up to go to the City, but now some of the smartest students leaving university, and even considering going to university in the first place, are now starting businesses,” he says. “When I tell people that over 50,000 people a month start a business, people can’t believe it, they guess that it is more likely to be 200 a month. It is considered to be a rare thing to start up a business but actually, we need to get out the message that it is a more common choice than people think.”
Grumpiness versus fun
He talks about the influence shows such as Dragon’s Den have had. “It can get people thinking about their own inventiveness and creativity,” but he has two criticisms. “Firstly, it can leave people under the impression that you need a lot of money to start up a business. By and large – you don’t, many businesses start on £10,000 or less. Secondly, the overriding attitude of some of the high-profile business experts on television appears to be one of scepticism, grumpiness, sitting in judgement, whereas my experience of the business world is one filled with people who are generous, kind, open, supportive and fun, that doesn’t come across in the TV portrayal of business.”
But what can be done to foster an even greater entrepreneurial spirit?
Oli starts with school: “We should have it as a goal that every child that goes to school in the UK should have the experience of starting something, it doesn’t have to be a business, it could be a music project, it could be a team, or a charity, for example. So, if every child that left school had played a part of starting something from scratch, that would be a huge step forward for the country. In terms of specific initiatives, I would like to see an initiative like ‘Tenner’ scaled up so it connects with closer to a million-young people as opposed to 100,000 young people, I think it is simple, I think it works, I would like to see initiatives like ‘Tenner’ in every school in the country because it fosters team work, creativity, persistence, imagination, resilience and all the things we want to see in young people and that does make them more entrepreneurial.”
Oli is also big on talking to people. As was told here last time, he says: “school teaches us to be afraid of strangers.” But “At some point we have to be able to think more creatively about busting this stranger, danger myth – maybe when people reach 16 plus – we have to design into our schools and colleges practical, thoughtful, responsible, safe ways for young people to engage with people.” He warns that “at the moment, the danger is that you have cohort after cohort of young people leaving school with the inability to connect with people that they don’t know, either face-to-face, or on the telephone and with email communication, then this is a real problem for our country.”
What about the government, what can it do? “The UK government has a habit of creating powerful techniques to support entrepreneurs and then failing to promote them.” He cites R&D tax credits and SEIS as examples.”
He also talks about the need for “a huge scale-up initiative, where we identify the programmes that support entrepreneurship and then work with the founders and leaders of those initiatives to dramatically scale-up their work, “as a person with huge power to convene, the Prime Minister could be in a very good position to help.”
He refers to schemes such as ‘Founders for Schools,’ for example, “which could become a leading accelerator programme. There are some extraordinary techniques being used to drive entrepreneurship and we have to identify them and understand what the roadblocks are to their scaling-up and help them.”
He also talks about studying what other countries do, and learning from them. “That could be Eurovision for policy ideas, but I’m hoping it would be even broader than that, so I’m thinking everywhere from Singapore to South Korea to Finland to Germany, so what are the practical techniques which other governments use that fuel entrepreneurship, we need to study them and think more deeply as to how they might translate in the UK.”
As for Brexit, he says: “The government is hugely distracted by Brexit, but exports and trade are more important than ever for the British economy. I personally rate the chances of the British government getting behind a significant campaign to drive trade and exports as quite slim, so it is the time for businesses to join forces and rally around this export message, that means in practical terms, making it easier for British businesses to go global.” The government can encourage this, even facilitate it, perhaps, but its business that can make the real difference.
So, it seems that talking to people and listening is vital. Kids need to learn how to communicate with strangers before they leave education, the government needs to communicate its entrepreneurship programmes, but the government needs to listen too, help businesses push their own collective interests and as was told here before, encourage ‘would be’ entrepreneurs to listen to those with expertise.
To find out more about The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards visit this page.