The brilliant entrepreneurial initiatives you probably didn’t know existed

Named one of the UK’s most connected people, Oli Barrett joins the dots between some of the best things going on in the world of enterprise

One of the best things about MCing and speaking at events is that you get to meet some brilliant people. In April I was in Dallas (the city, not the TV show) with the Staying Alive Foundation.

Led by the phenomenal Georgia Arnold, the organisation (which funds HIV and AIDS projects around the world) raised over $2m in an evening, hosted at the Dallas Contemporary. Next month I’m in Cambridge with the Queen’s Young Leaders, flying in from all over the Commonwealth.

In September I’ll be in one of my favourite cities, Bristol, with LikeMinds, a two-day innovation conference. And in October I’ll be back with the Tech London Advocates, a vibrant group which has grown to over 3,000 people, under the watchful eye of founder Russ Shaw.

The green room conversations, the post-event drinks, the conspiratorial exchanges on trains or in airports. These are the things I would miss if I stopped spending at least a day a week hosting events.

Another lovely by-product is that you end up seeing a fascinating picture of who is doing what, across sectors, countries and industries. It continues to amaze me who doesn’t know who, and how some hugely worthwhile projects simply aren’t better known.

Inspired by a recent dinner, hosted by a well-known (and much-liked) technology company, I thought it might be useful to join a few dots, and shine a spotlight on some notable organisations.

From female entrepreneurship to enterprise in schools

Our topic for the evening happened to be female entrepreneurship, and of course the conversation turned to role models. Just the same day, Business Insider published a list of the 26 coolest women in UK tech. Whilst some might roll their eyes, I rather like these lists.

Someone on Business Insider’s list is Sherry Coutu. Angel investor, co-chair of Silicon Valley comes to the UK (celebrating its 10th anniversary this November), force of nature and creator of Founders4Schools.

As I write, SVC2UK, along with Go To Grow (the Mayor of London’s International Business Programme) is taking a great group of female entrepreneurs, led by the equally great Janet Coyle, to San Francisco.

From enterprise in schools to role model mentors

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Founders4Schools, is a nationwide service which “enables teachers to connect with leaders of successful, growing businesses to invite them to visit their schools and inspire their students”. Small scale? Not at all. Over 10,000 founders, many of them women, are already on the platform and the team have ambitious plans to scale this up.

Continuing with the school theme, I sat with a successful entrepreneur recently, whose business turns over £200m. He wanted to dish out money to his children’s school, to encourage them to turn it into more.

I could have told him about Tenner, now in its 10th year, which has just handed over 20,000 school pupils £10, challenging them to make money and make a difference. I could have invited him to speak with Young Enterprise, which now runs the scheme I started in 2007, and they would love to hear from him. But I could sense that for this person, at this point, it had to be more personal, and closer to home.

There is a healthy appetite, I believe, from business people to give something back. At one speedmentoring event I hosted recently with some East-enders (not the TV show), I was struck by the passion of the mentors (Vice Media’s head of innovation Mark Adams, in full flight, is something to behold).

Also by the young people, transformed from nervous guests to smiling, highly interactive budding entrepreneurs over the course of a couple of hours. It’s inspiring to see that WeAreDotDotDot (presumably inspired by Mrs Cotton) have now created an online directory of digital learning programmes across East London – the more people who know about this the better.

From role model mentors to small business media

We know that lists and school visits can help to raise the profile of role models, both male and female. As an aside, my challenge to the new editor of the Sunday Times’ business section, is to resist the urge to put a glamorous model on the front cover every other weekend, and instead to seek out and photograph real business people.

In fairness, we are lucky in this country to have a formidable array of enterprise writers (from James HurleyHannah Prevett and Kiki Loizou at the Times and Sunday Times to Rebecca Burn-Callander at the Telegraph) whose genuine interest in the people they meet shines through in their stories. Online, take Ian Wallis here at Startups.co.ukJulian Blake at TechCityInsider, or Dan Martin at Enterprise Nation. They have an enthusiasm for business which is impossible to fake.

From small business media to inspiring start-ups

How then, we ponder, as the main course arrives, to boost confidence? My initial answer would be to find out what works, and ask its creators what is holding them back. The Careers and Enterprise Company has recently invested £5m in over 30 projects across England to scale-up their activity.

One of them, I’m pleased to say, is Volunteer It Yourself, the scheme which (with the help of Wickes) has helped thousands of youth club members to repair their own youth clubs, getting a City and Guilds accreditation in the process. That investment fund, I understand, received over 400 applications, which makes me wonder what a network of those projects might look like over the coming months and years.

Of course I understand the desire to create something new. As a co-founder of StartUp Britain (potential sponsors, let’s talk), I know first-hand the rush of a fresh challenge. Many potential changemakers however, see themselves at a crossroads (not the TV show). Yes, they can start something, and that has huge appeal.

From inspiring start-ups to funding them

For brands too, the temptation is to create their own initiatives, something they can “own”. However sensible and needed, the opportunity to partner and support can seem less enticing. That’s why I’m grateful to the Business Growth Fund (surely not well known enough) for its support of Tenner.

When I ask the founders of growing businesses if they’ve heard of the organisation with £2.5bn to invest (and with offices in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Leeds, Machester, Bristol, Reading and London), they frequently haven’t.

For early stage tech companies, BGF Ventures is also very much open for business. Aside from the cash, you get to deal with the brilliant Simon Calver, Rory Stirling and Harry Briggs. How have I been able to enjoy the company of Simon, Rory and Harry?

From funding to events and campaigns for social good

Through quality time at well-organised events, some of the best of which, by the way, are produced by Belinda Raynes of Forgather. It’s connections like these which encourage me to see every event as an investment.

One was with Jon Smedley, a former PE teacher who also taught maths. This combination inspired him to start Maths of the Day (like Match of the Day, yes, the TV show), which is an “active maths” concept. Instead of sitting still, the pupils run around, sorting themselves into numerical order or jumping on numbered squares as they do their sums.

Children, parents and teachers love it and the challenge for Jon is how to get it into every school in the country. Perhaps I should have mentioned it to Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education when I interviewed her on stage in Liverpool recently. Instead of suggesting that the food company she wanted to start as a teenager could have been a bakery called Nicky’s Biccies. We live and learn.

Speaking of maths, next time you hear someone talking about the need for more people, especially girls, to study the subject – ask them to check out the YourLife campaign, chaired by Edwina Dunn. Helped by some huge brands, including Carillion, Ford and Johnson & Johnson, it has the support of the private sector and the backing of Number 10. Perhaps today’s school talk (with Founder4Schools) will become tomorrow’s video content (with YourLife), reaching millions.

In July, I’m looking forward to meeting over three hundred “future leaders” (no pressure everyone), gathered by Business in the Community at the O2.

We’ll discuss mega-trends from population growth and climate change to scarce resources and smart energy. Not everybody knows that BITC, which counts some of the biggest companies in the world as its members, was created by the Prince of Wales.

It is just one of the seventeen charities he has founded, from the Prince’s Trust to In Kind Direct. Here we have a family with perhaps the ultimate in convening power, with a future monarch who is, unbeknownst to many, a hugely active social entrepreneur.

To start or to support? To lead or to follow? Whilst his sons help an amazing array of causes, it will be interesting to see if they inherit (as Prince Harry has done with the Invictus Games) their father’s incredible appetite for starting things. That, all jokes aside, really would be a dynasty.

Oli Barrett MBE, is a founder of Cospa, the co-sponsorship agency that helps to create and deliver social action projects, such as Tenner, Web Mission, Clean and Cool Mission and Volunteer It Yourself. He also co-founded StartUp Britain and can be found on Twitter

Picture source: Sheila Sund, Flickr

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