First published in the Sunday Times on 28th June 2015.
Apparently Britain’s elite financial services, accountancy and legal firms operate a “poshness” test that screens out talented working-class candidates — at least according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
I can believe it: a very high proportion of the City bankers and lawyers with whom I do business attended top public schools. But the disadvantaged who are excluded from this narrow pool should not despair. No such social class tests operate in the world of entrepreneurship.
Those choosing to start their own businesses are a truly diverse lot. They self-select: there are no exams to pass or academic qualifications required. Accents, parental contacts and old school tie networks are irrelevant. Instead, the core competences are application and a ferocious hunger to succeed. After all, intelligence is distributed evenly, and those with sufficient chutzpah don’t need to be from the upper reaches of society to get ahead.
Many of the finest entrepreneurs I have known left school at 16 because they couldn’t wait to take the plunge and forge their own careers. A majority, like me, went to state schools. Classrooms and structured learning bored them. They had the guts and the imagination to seize opportunities, and shunned the tedious hierarchy that dominates most of the traditional professions. They started young and learnt the hard way, and their streetwise education served them well.
All are bright and ambitious, but not necessarily good at writing essays or following rules. Many are outsiders. At the Centre for Entrepreneurs, we published research showing that one in seven British companies is founded by a migrant — many of whom started with no advantages save their wits and fire in their bellies.
Of course, those who want to practise as barristers, architects, surgeons or accountants will need to swot, and should no doubt strive to get a place at a Russell Group university. Similarly those entering the military, politics, journalism or the civil service seeking high rank will need the right letters after their names. Good luck to them.
But few will enjoy the freedom, independence and satisfaction that can come from building a business. I suspect entrepreneurs understand how to embrace risk and trust their intuition better than those who spend years in higher education so they can ascend the pecking order in some establishment organisation.
For those who tick the poshness box, are the rewards worth it? I gave up working in a fairly aristocratic merchant bank partly because I didn’t really fit in. Some colleagues stayed there for decades, undertaking an identical commute to a faceless office block day after day, well-rewarded cogs in a dull machine.
The privileged frequently lack drive because they have not had to fight for their achievements. As the essayist William Hazlitt put it: “Prosperity is a great teacher; adversity is a greater. Possession pampers the mind; privation trains and strengthens it.”
Modern society sometimes overemphasises formal education. The snobbery associated with fee-paying schools, degrees and such like is generally misguided. As Aristotle said: “The character which results from wealth is that of a prosperous fool.”
Different industries attract certain sorts of entrepreneurs. Entertainment, catering, property, retailing, construction, recruitment and transport are full of self-made individuals running big concerns who come from modest backgrounds and didn’t attend illustrious universities. Instead, my business partners have typically possessed motivation, willpower and people skills.
By contrast, in sectors where technical skill is an advantage entrepreneurs are likely to come from wealthier, better educated stock: tech and financial services are classic examples. Yet a remarkable number of technology tycoons, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Ellison, were college dropouts.
Undoubtedly those who flourish in commerce benefit from plenty of self-confidence, and our public schools seem good at instilling that. Some also excel in teaching leadership and teamwork. But, like all institutions, they can also inhibit creativity and struggle to manage mavericks. Yet such nonconformists are the ones most likely to invent, innovate and start enterprises — even if they rarely become head boy or girl at school.
Rebel entrepreneurs, once they become rich, all too often insist that their children do attend the top private schools and universities. It is almost as if they reject their formative circumstances entirely and copy the crowd — or at least those who can afford it. This follows the pattern described in Martin Wiener’s insightful book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850–1980. In a way, such gentrification is the British disease, and a kneejerk preference for those educated in fee-paying schools is a symptom of it. Self-improvement is wonderful, but entrenchment of entitlement is a disaster.