The fallacy of relatable billionaire drop-out entrepreneurs
There is nothing more beguiling than a rags-to-riches story. The plight of the underdog triumphing over adversity can ignite hope, within all of us, that success is possible if one is dogged enough to hustle and fight for it.
In the US, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are often held as the poster-children of entrepreneurial success and are among some of the most famous billionaire college and school drop-outs we know of. Whilst none of them started from a position of hardship and disadvantage (all derived from middle-class backgrounds and attended elite universities), the narrative often woven around their journey and provenance is that you don’t need a degree to be successful in business. In Britain, the same could be said of Richard Branson who, whilst still privately educated, left school at 16 and has talked openly about how his poor academic performance, which he attributed to his ADHD and dyslexia.
Forgoing a university degree is a concept that has never been more attractive, especially now as the full effects of the cost of living crisis bites and the price of higher education becomes even more inaccessible to those from humbler backgrounds, driving further elitism where diversity is needed. But these peddled entrepreneur narratives of ‘failures-done-good’ gloss over the actual realism behind their success.
Just how relatable are these entrepreneurs anyway, never mind to the everyman but to young people looking to find their way and socially better themselves? Their privilege, by virtue of their socio-economic background, race and gender, is firstly underplayed and, in the real world, these are unfortunately huge determiners for success.
The formative years are said to be the most important in our development but, for Black pupils and students, endemic underachievement at school has been a problem that’s flummoxed policymakers for years.
Secondly, 95% of startup entrepreneurs have at least one bachelor’s degree or higher. This means that successful female entrepreneurs who are state-educated, come from a working-class background and are without a university qualification are the exception rather than the rule.
In Britain, the entrepreneurial role models that we most often read about are not atypical or mould-breakers raised on a council estate in a single-parent family. Indeed, they are notably identikit: usually white, predominantly male, privately educated if not a graduate of Oxbridge or a Russell Group university. Vacuum cleaner innovator James Dyson (Gresham's School), investor and lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman (Eton, Oxford) and Monzo’s Tom Blomfield (Challoner's Grammar School, Oxford) are just a few examples. Meanwhile, the female entrepreneurial story that is often publicised is equally excluding – on one hand, we see glamorous ex-investment bankers who were able to break free from the soul-destroying bind of their jobs for which they were remunerated a six-figure annual salary, to set up a beauty business. On the other hand, we see the likes of Martha Lane Fox who went to Westminster School and whose father went to Eton, and Karren Brady (born into significant wealth) positioned as inspirational leaders who succeeded despite the setbacks of their sex.
This is not to discount what these entrepreneurs have achieved; there is ingenuity and merit in what they have done, manifested by the sheer impact they have had on the world. Still, in order for progress and innovation to be accelerated, the business community must fully acknowledge that the meritocratic narrative of what constitutes ‘success’ is actually a fallacy.
We cannot and must not ignore the fact that there is simply a lack of diversity in relatable entrepreneurial role models for those from ‘ordinary’ or disadvantaged backgrounds. By radically underplaying privilege, we all inadvertently assimilate a belief that success follows because of hard graft when the truth is much more unpalatable. There is a greater licence for success when one can financially afford to fail.
However, I have no doubt that the right role models can inspire and transform people to reach their goals. In my experience, as a seasoned recruitment consultant – there is certainly no shortage of disillusioned young people in search of successful role models who look like them, talk like them and understand what it means to come from a position of disadvantage and reach the other side wizened, more informed and with a strong mandate to help others succeed too. The right models can instil in the most downtrodden of us a seed of self-belief that we are both worthy and capable of great things.
These days, we are seeing a plethora of business awards and recognition lists intended to celebrate diversity and change the hackneyed narrative of the archetypical entrepreneur. These, of course, are not without detractors. I have seen, heard and faced many internet trolls in my time keen to call out such awards celebrating the success of marginalised groups as divisive, separatist, sexist or racist.
They are unable to process that these awards and recognition listings exist because outstanding achievement was possible in spite of the grossly unequal playing field upon which these ‘players’ are placed – and that, in itself, is a feat that should be celebrated. And this grossly unequal playing field is, in part, generated because of the undiverse narratives we almost exclusively read of white men being the sole champions of the world.
I remember the precise eureka moment for setting up my consultancy. I was sitting in a conference, attended by private sector businesses, talking about inclusive leadership. Every single organisation that presented their “pledge” had shown improved success in meeting the majority of their inclusivity targets – from gender imbalances, and LGBTQ+ to disabilities – except for race. Further examination of the problem, which included my work with young people in communities, indicated that there was a negative ecosystem at play. No one believed in them so therefore they couldn’t believe in themselves. This hampered their academic ability, their skills and employability. They consigned themselves to underachievement without first ever really trying to disprove this set expectation. Critically, they couldn’t identify with the entrepreneurial role models they read about too. I very much wanted to break this cycle of negativity.
I have since launched the Black Talent Awards – an initiative that has since had valuable backing from Merlin Entertainments, Serco, Haleon and EDF Renewables UK, and which provides a vital platform to champion not just Black talent but also nominate key organisations that can demonstrate clear accountability for the success of their DE&I efforts. This year’s winners at the inaugural event in September offered a new kind of role model, particularly for disenfranchised youths – including a headteacher who transformed a failing state school in one of London’s most deprived boroughs into an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ to a national journalist who has dedicated much of her career on writing under-reported stories from minority racial groups.
What sets us humans apart from the animal world is our ability to tell stories. It’s time to use this unique ability to tell the stories of relatable role models in a way that inspires those who lack the self-belief to change their life and career ambitions for the better.