From the top · 28 November 2017

Sarah Willingham: The media has made it cool to be a young entrepreneur

Sarah Willingham
Sarah Willingham sat on the Dragons’ Den line-up between 2015 and 2017

Business Advice sat down with former TV Dragon, Sarah Willingham, to find out why Britain’s school children are favouring being a young entrepreneur.

Astronaut, film star, footballer. We can now add young entrepreneur to the list, since new research has found that one in three British schoolchildren want to start and run their own company when they grow up. 

The study, undertaken by Xero, also uncovered a rapidly growing awareness among children of their personal finances – two thirds say they keep track of their cash flow and know exactly how much money they have saved – alongside future aspirations.

So how has this shift come about, and is the nation doing enough to nurture the next generation of business leaders? According to Sarah Willingham, business guru and former investor on BBC Two show Dragons’ Den, this entrepreneurial mind-set can be traced to two sources.

“The media has made it cool to be an entrepreneur – shows like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den have celebritised it. A few years ago, starting a business was seen as a maverick option. Now, it’s something to aspire to. It’s made enterprise more accessible.”

Willingham explained that a business-minded economic model has been shaped in Britain, where government startup finance options and tax breaks like the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) have encouraged people to both start and invest in small businesses.

The second component is the clear technological advancement that has created new possibilities for young business people. “Technology has allowed people to start something from their bedroom, reach their market, influence them and sell to them.”

As Willingham put in an analogy often employed in football: “Business has no barrier – it has been made accessible to anybody.” For impressionable young children and school-leavers sketching out their next steps, entrepreneurship is becoming an increasingly viable path.

To demonstrate this entrepreneurial spirit, Xero found the ten most popular ways children are earning some extra cash

    1. Selling old toys or belongings on eBay (38 per cent)
    2. Selling things at school (25 per cent)
    3. Cleaning neighbours’ cars (21 per cent)
    4. Doing a paper round (19 per cent)
    5. Mowing/watering neighbours’ gardens (16 per cent)
    6. Babysitting (13 per cent)
    7. Saturday job (12 per cent)
    8. Cleaning for neighbours/relatives (11.2 per cent)
    9. Walking dogs (11.1 per cent)
    10. Charging for technical support (three per cent)

However, enterprise education remains a way off inclusion in the national curriculum, and Willingham is among those concerned that the promising traits on display are being met with insufficient know-how in the classroom. Far from wanting to ditch the classics, the investor is worried that Britain’s education system had so far failed to move at the same pace as the rest of society and acknowledge how the world of business now works.

“Often when you go into schools, we are still teaching in a similar way to when I was at school,” she said.

“I really think the world has moved, unfortunately a lot of older teachers haven’t caught up. For example, thinking about how technology works, robotics, coding. While business has been made more accessible, we still don’t teach personal finance in primary schools, and even when you go into some of the top schools, they aren’t teaching entrepreneurship.”

Willingham left Dragons’ Den in February to spend the year travelling the world with her family. When noting how “forward-thinking” some of the schools were that she visited, she remembered one enterprise initiative that saw pupils deliver TED Talks, start businesses and even run their own student bank. Willingham is enthusiastic about what Britain can learn from such an approach.

She’s also clear that businesses with a social purpose will form a great part of Britain’s entrepreneurial future. “In my day, when you set up a business it was all about profit,” she said. “Now, when you speak to kids coming out of school about their businesses it’s all about social enterprise, and what they can give back. We’ve got to help our teachers inspire these kids.”

Sarah’s Dragons’ Den investments include:

  • Cocofina: £75,000 for 20 per cent equity (joint investment with Nick Jenkins)
  • Craft Gin Club: £75,000 for 12.5 per cent equity
  • Sublime Science: £50,000 for ten per cent equity (joint investment with Nick Jenkins)
  • Vitiliglow: £40,000 for 40 per cent equity
  • Grounded Body Scrub: £30,000 for 45 per cent equity

Considering the recent success of British entrepreneurship, joining up the expertise of the business world with the national curriculum has been frustrating for enterprise champions such as Willingham. But, she added, “there are so many businesses out there that would love to get involved and help”.

Prior to his resignation in 2016, Willingham spent considerable time working with David Cameron’s government lobbying to get financial education onto the curriculum for young children. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to get through the red tape,” she explained, referring to the dense structures that make any top-down educational change difficult in Britain.

“At the moment, the education system is about empowering individual schools, but it’s so structured that you can’t sell in ideas at the top. Right now, you have to go to individual schools and inspire the headmaster to allow you an hour a week. If you’re a big business, that’s a big job.

“At best, you’ll get a cluster of schools you might be able to influence. You need to influence from the top, but it’s very difficult to do. There is a lot we can do together. But it’s tough to get into our schooling.”

Cameron had managed to craft a reputation as a pro-business leader who was responsive to the needs of entrepreneurs. His government had made in-roads with Britain’s startup community, and the attacks on red tape and creation of Tech City UK helped create a welcoming culture for business owners.

Read more: David Cameron’s legacy to entrepreneurs

However, like others who had worked closely with Cameron’s government, the progress Willingham made was disrupted by a referendum that led to a major reshuffle. “Those legacies were not passed on. All the people I was dealing with no longer existed in Downing Street.”

The challenge for current government is maintaining the momentum set out by the previous administration amid the current political uncertainty. Willingham is among those who sees business creation as vital to Britain’s post-Brexit future.

“Entrepreneurship gives a purpose to the next generation,” she concluded. “Starting a business becomes a real ambition and it binds a lot of people together. But today’s startup businesses are tomorrow’s big employers, and we need that to keep the economy.”

Quiet Rebellion reveal the off-camera secrets from inside Dragons’ Den

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is a reporter for Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and previously worked as a content editor in the ecommerce industry.

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