The meaning of (an entrepreneurial) life

People risk their time, money, reputation, and so much more, in many more places than garages.

When you think of the word ‘entrepreneur’, what does it mean to you? Do you conjure up images of people starting businesses in their garage? Entrepreneurship is about taking risk. Taking risks with your capital – which, but the way, is not always money. Your time is capital also - we all have 168 hours in the week, and that includes sleeping, so invested time is just as valuable as money, probably more so. People risk their time, money, reputation, and so much more, in many more places than garages.

My journey didn’t start in a garage. Everyone’s entrepreneurial journey is different, is unique to them, and so was mine. It started back in 1985 when a lady I had never met called me out of the blue and asked if I would like to come and meet her.  She was acting on behalf of her client, an advertising agency, helping them to recruit staff, and she thought I would be perfect for them.

I went to meet her, then I went to meet the company she was acting for, and then I got the job. But the job I really wanted, deep down, I realised, was hers. More than that, the company I really wanted to own was hers. I spent the next eight years working in advertising and communications, including a stint in Australia, and then did an MBA at the London Business School before spending the next nine years in investment banking, living and working in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Along the way I acquired a husband and three children. While in Asia I started my PhD studies (in my spare time!) at the University of Hong Kong. Then, one day in May 2000, I woke up in Mexico City on a business trip and realised I needed to get on with it if I ever wanted to realise my dream. I called that woman, the one that had called me 15 years earlier, and offered to buy her company.

Four years later, I did just that. It cost me £1.8m and I borrowed every penny. That’s risk for you. It took an age to find a bank that believed in me, and even when I did, it cost a fortune in fees. I kept every rejection email.

I had projected growth of 20% after change of control. No one believed me. I delivered 50%.

Over the next decade we grew, only momentarily pausing during the 2008-9 financial meltdown. We built out an international network, and became the only truly global company in our space. After I got rid of the first major chunk of debt, I started a foundation to make sure there would be real diversity in the workplace in the future, and the whole business got behind it. I also supported other causes. In 2010, I was one of a small group of women who helped Helena Morrissey start the 30% Club. Back then, only 12% of the directors of FTSE100 companies were women. That’s the level it had been at for a decade. Now? More than 30%.

I did other things, too. I finished that PhD. I wrote and performed a one-woman stand up show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 and 2013, which also had an off Broadway run.  I learned to fly an aeroplane. I presented my own TV show on C4. I wrote a best-selling careers book for women.  I even, in a moment of enthusiasm, appeared in Celebrity Come Dine with Me.

When you write that all down it sounds pretty busy.  But the busiest was yet to come. In 2016 I accepted an offer to become a professor at Heriot-Watt and the head of its business school. Heriot-Watt just won Sunday Times International University of the year, and its business school is a big part of that story. We at the business school have 10,000 students studying for our degrees in 166 countries. I preside over Scotland’s biggest education export business. And I got to create the MBA I wish I had done – one specifically designed for entrepreneurs, present and future. The first cohort started in Edinburgh in September 2017.

My entrepreneurial journey didn’t start in a garage and it won’t finish in one either.  There won’t be a conventional exit. I never saw myself as owning the company, merely looking after it for the next generation. I picked my successor from among my team and worked with him for a long time to make sure that the company would pass into good hands when I stepped back. The company is thriving, and we are well into the process of transferring its ownership to the staff. I will remain its non-executive chairman for a while yet. But my main focus now? Creating the next wave of entrepreneurs from Heriot-Watt. That will take just as much hard work, and time, and risk. I am looking forward to it.