This week the ninth Perse Enterprise Conference saw nearly 250 students drawn from 20 schools and colleges gather in the Cambridge Belfry Hotel in Cambourne to learn about entrepreneurship and practice their networking and communication skills. Keynote speakers included Old Persean William Reeve who founded LOVEFiLM , Johnny Luk, CEO of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, Max Grell, co-founder of GivTree – an online platform that uses a chain reaction of donations to raise money for charity and Ed Taylor, an entrepreneur providing marketing solutions to the luxury food and wine industries.
It is essential that students learn about the importance of enterprise to the British economy and the entrepreneurial opportunities open to them. Careers education in schools has not always received the best press. Historically it was often a case of school teachers with experience of the classroom but rarely the boardroom conservatively advising pupils to follow well-trodden career paths into “mainstream” occupations and professions. The emphasis was very much on working for others whether in the state or private sector and securing dependable white or blue collar jobs that might last a lifetime.
The world of work has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. In the UK, jobs for life are disappearing, the public sector is contracting and more people are working for themselves. Of the 5.2 million businesses in the UK, 99.3% are classified as small and they in turn employ 47.8% of the UK workforce and generate £3,300 billion of turnover each year.
We need to make young people aware of the pros and cons of enterprise and entrepreneurship. There are some students who will always be happier in the structure of a large organisation, but others, some of whom perhaps already find themselves frustrated by the rules of their school or college, will thrive on the freedom and independence of running their own business.
The advice real life entrepreneurs can give the next generation is priceless both in terms of its quality and its authority. At this week’s Perse Enterprise Conference students learned of the importance of a good secondary and higher education to provide the intellectual skills needed for commercial success. They discovered that many successful entrepreneurs worked for somebody else, usually a high calibre company, where they learned about business before setting up on their own. The speakers emphasised the importance of cash flow, networking, passion, discipline and self-belief. They advised delegates to embrace their “inner geek” and develop businesses in areas they knew well and cared deeply about.
Enterprise is essential to the British economy and we need to encourage our entrepreneurs. The current political debate on the state of public finances is often portrayed as a simple choice between cutting services or increasing taxes. Yet there is another way, with our entrepreneurs helping to grow the British economy and thus public finances. Entrepreneurship creates jobs and wealth that benefits UK plc; it also brings a sense of self-fulfilment for entrepreneurs. It can do a lasting good. Over 400 years ago a Cambridge medic turned entrepreneur invested in a series of local businesses. Many of these businesses prospered and Dr Perse grew wealthy with them. By the time of his death he had amassed a considerable fortune which he used to help the people of Cambridge by paying for road improvements, a clean water supply, the building of alms-houses and the foundation of The Perse School.
Dr Perse was a venture capitalist turned philanthropist and an early example of a tradition that extends to the current day and the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It is an example worth following.