Business

A golden age for British entrepreneurship?

Rohan Silva
Image caption Rohan Silva, guest business editor, the Today prgramme

Back in 2006, a young entrepreneur named Hannah Barry walked into a derelict multi-storey car park in Peckham, south London.

At the time, that part of the city was probably best known as the home of Rodney and Del Boy, but like any good entrepreneur Hannah saw something else: potential.

Starting small, Hannah began hosting summer arts events in the abandoned car park (it was too cold and grim in there to do anything there at other times of year), drawing in ever bigger crowds.

With every passing year, Hannah's project got more and more ambitious, and she started to commission public artworks in the car park by some of the world's leading artists.

Nine years on, Hannah has attracted over 900,000 people to Peckham for her arts events - pretty remarkable for an abandoned multi-storey car park in south London.

But she's achieved something even more important in the process - she's helped to spark renewal and economic growth in the local area.

Artists and businesses have started to look anew at Peckham, helping to bring new investment and jobs to a magnificently diverse corner of the capital.

From Google to knitting

Hannah's story is just one of the tales of entrepreneurial derring-do that I looked at as part of my stint as guest business editor of Radio 4's Today programme this week.

Over the course of the week, we spoke to a wide variety of business figures.

They ranged from the chairman of Google, through to a fledgling company developing artificial intelligence software that can write music without human input, and another organising community knitting events to help people escape their electronic devices.

In just about every corner of Britain today, you'll find people like the ones I spoke to, starting businesses in the hope of making a difference to the world around them.

To get a historical perspective, I also interviewed Lord Young, a serial entrepreneur who advised the government on enterprise policies in the 1980s and again in the 2010s.

Lord Young pointed out that in the 1980s, launching your own venture was a relatively rare and exotic thing to do.

Today, there are over 5.2 million small businesses in the UK, compared with 700,000 just a few decades ago.

This is a fantastic moment for entrepreneurship in the UK.

Thanks to the internet, a startup can reach a global market more easily than ever before, and can use social media to communicate with potential customers on the other side of the planet.

Doing it for yourself

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet

Small wonder that so many Brits are becoming entrepreneurs, or that they seem to enjoy it so much when they do take the plunge.

A recent Populus survey for the Royal Society of the Arts found that 84% of people who work for themselves are "more satisfied in their working lives".

And less than 5% of people who have started their own business plan to close it down and move back to a traditional job working for someone else.

However, as I said to the BBC's Business Editor Kamal Ahmed when I interviewed him this week, this exciting explosion of small businesses isn't yet properly reflected in the British media.

That is especially true of the BBC, where the institution's Reithian obligation to "inform and educate" should be applied to entrepreneurship as much as it does to politics, music or sport.

This is what we attempted to offer on the Today Programme this week: not only a portrait of the creative breadth of modern entrepreneurial life, but also - through our "Entrepreneurs' Question Time" with Google chairman Eric Schmidt - information that might help small business owners tackle the challenges they face.

In addition, I was keen to highlight another positive aspect of entrepreneurship today, which is that you can only really succeed if you are thinking about more than just money.

Indeed, the best entrepreneurs - like the Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk - are clearly motivated by a bigger mission: to make a difference to society at large.

Contributing to society

David Packard, one of the founders of the hugely successful technology company Hewlett Packard, encapsulated this optimistic mindset in a speech to his early employees in 1960.

"I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here?" he said.

"I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company's existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being.

"A group of people come together… to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately - they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite, but is fundamental," he added.

Whether it's transforming a derelict multi-storey car park in Peckham, creating amazing innovations, or even organising knitting events in local pubs, creative British entrepreneurs are making a positive difference, and "making a dent in the universe", as Apple founder Steve Jobs so memorably put it.

This truly is a golden age for British entrepreneurship. Long may it continue.

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