By Mike Southon
FT Columnist

Like everyone, I watched the riots in London last week on Monday night (8th August) with a mixture of horror, revulsion and fear. There was serious trouble only a few miles away and I feared for the safety of the family I love and the local small traders I cherish.

The next morning, my own contribution to the solution was clear. I am an entrepreneur rather than a politician, so my inclinations are towards action, rather than words. The social media platforms that had been partially blamed for the rioting also offered a positive side; there was immediate information from about where to go and what items I should bring along.

I stocked up with garden bags, duct tape and a new pair of heavy-duty gloves and armed with the domestic broom, dustpan and brush headed down to Chalk Farm. I was particularly keen to help clean up Evans Cycles, but found it cordoned off awaiting a police forensic team.

The story was the same in the other damaged shops, and people on Twitter advised us to head down to Clapham Junction. By now, I was part of a motley crew of other self-employed people: a legal secretary, location manager, a lighting technician and an actor.

Realising that our group represented a balanced team of entrepreneurs I was beginning to get a good feeling about our adventure. Arriving at Clapham Junction, we found ourselves in a crowd of over 1,000 people, who were all in very good spirits. Most were connected to the social networks, so not only was the buzz spreading exponentially, but we had also acquired our own unique branding as ‘Riot Wombles’.

Some had prepared homemade t-shirts with this lettering, so I wandered over to the local Snappy Snaps to suggest they printed and sold t-shirts to the crowd. Fortunately, my twenty-five years of pitching interesting but fundamentally uneconomically viable ideas had prepared me for the polite but dismissive response.

I rejoined the crowd and waited for instructions. The local council were delighted with the turnout but clearly unprepared for this spontaneous offer of free labour to supplement their already overstretched delivery of local street-cleaning services.

Eventually Boris Johnson turned up and tried to woo the crowd, but without adequate amplification. His reception was largely positive but clearly mixed; it was then that I truly appreciated the inherent powerlessness of politicians when faced with either mob rule in the night or a positive crowd the following morning.

When we were finally unleashed on the streets of Clapham there were so many of us that it was soon difficult to find people to help. But it was great to see that Claire’s Accessories had been cleaned up in fifteen minutes, and the hand-written sign covering the broken glass said “faith in humanity restored”.

The picture of us holding up brooms appeared in the media and was re-Tweeted to millions of people. I then realised the solution to the underlying problems that caused the riots is entrepreneurial, rather than political.

Not long ago I spoke in a school not far from the scenes of some of the worst rioting. Perhaps some of the members of the audience were later causing havoc and taking coveted consumer items without any fear of retribution.

If they had been in a crowd of Riot Wombles the following day they would have realised that the overwhelming mood in their local neighbourhoods was one of pride in their environment and unqualified support for anyone who suffers misfortune.

Then they might understand the primary purpose of entrepreneurship, which is to make a better life for yourself and your family.

Originally published in The Financial Times: Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker-

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.

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