Role Models that Disrupt

Richard Reed

Richard Reed, Co-Founder Innocent Smoothies, seems to get the right balance. (Photograph: Emm Hobbs)

How better role models will improve our young entrepreneurs



The world of entrepreneurship is full of big characters, large egos and well established personalities. So, it’s hardly surprising that most young entrepreneurial people are apprehensive when they are associated with them.

In the UK, the public figures that most people associated with enterprise tend to be bullish and have made their riches in periods of wealth. This is clearly a sweeping — and very general — statement. Yet, it seems to me that what we have here is quite different to other areas of the world. When we think of entrepreneurs in the USA, for example, they are associated with innovation, speed, code and technology (and hopefully some fun along the way). Our entrepreneurs are often associated with success and greying hair.

The young people that are acting entrepreneurially in the UK currently need a lot of convincing. It’s clear that many need others to tell them regularly that they are entrepreneurs, before they even begin to believe that to be the case. I put this down to our current role models as being too successful and well established. It causes people to talk along the lines of: “To be an entrepreneur, I’d have to do more and prove myself.”

The creative sector is even more difficult, with many seeing a tension between being creative and being in business.

It is clear that the UK needs young entrepreneurs to thrive. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the government have urged more young people to consider starting a business. The hope is that such businesses will drive economic growth and boost employment. So, surely it is vital that we don’t put any young entrepreneurial people off of starting up a new venture.

The RSA published a report back in March 2013 that explores the ways that young people are starting and running businesses. Prior to this, a lot of the media commentary surrounding young enterprise was based on very little evidence about how young people become entrepreneurs. Where there was evidence, it tended to be strictly quantitative. Excitingly they decided that the report, called Disrupt Inc., would instead focus on listening to and analysing the stories told by young people about their entrepreneurial journeys.

The report suggests that there are a number of obstacles to overcome and, clearly, the position of role models is just one of these.

It goes on to explain that most young people that have set up a business did not do so in order to be seen as “an entrepreneur”. For them it wasn’t about personal enrichment, meticulous planning and a desire to work alone. Their businesses tend to be stumbled upon. They tend to start them up on a shoestring. Plus, importantly, the route they take tends to be anything but perfect, with an imperfect product and down to the help of a number of other people.

This suggests to me that providing inspiring stories that relate to current young entrepreneurs is key (as well as formal mentorship to support their progress). The difficulty with many of the existing entrepreneurial figures in UK press is that they are too well established. They are often too successful and wear too many ties.

We need to hear from recent success stories. Those who can remember their own stumbling blocks. So we can hear about their failures, their difficulties and the way they overcame them. As a 24 year old, that seems a lot more inspiring to me than simply going it alone.


Where do you stand on the role models debate? Do you believe we are missing the appropriate role models for young entrepreneurs? Join in the debate by tweeting me @samueljfry #disruptrolemodels

Photograph courtesy of Emm Hobbs.

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