Titans of history: Lessons from the entrepreneurs who built Britain

 
Liam Byrne
Guildhall Librarians Receive Largest Private Collection Of Dick Whittington Treasures
Source: Getty

The history of the modern world is bound up with that of Britain.

There are many theories of how and why we spawned the Industrial Revolution and had such an impact on international affairs, but none is complete without accounting for the British people, and the entrepreneurs who built Britain and changed the world.

In Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain, I delve into the history of some of the leaders who were pivotal in building the country.

From the great cloth barons like Dick Whittington, to great buccaneers like Robert Rich, who created the colonies and companies of the Americas and the Caribbean. To the traders, like Thomas Pitt, who made fortunes building new trading empires in the East. And the capitalists, like Nathan Rothschild, who founded the City of London. Opium dealers, like William Jardine, who founded Hong Kong, and imperialists and warmongers, like Cecil Rhodes, who built an empire. As well our brand builders, like George Cadbury, and John Spedan Lewis, who brought the products of the earth to the great British high street.

So, what can we learn from these titans of history?

First, entrepreneurs need finance to succeed. As Thomas Pitt said in the early 1690s: “there can be no working without good tools”, and centuries later Nathan Rothschild was fond of his edict that “money makes money”. The barriers for starting a business have never been lower and the UK leads the world in crowdfunding, but we need to be alert to where the big bucks are going and why.

The Entrepreneurs Network’s report Untapped Unicorns recently revealed that only nine per cent of publicly announced funding went to female-led businesses. Part of this is due to unconscious biases of the VC industry. University of California and Harvard University, revealed that a female name, picture, or voice cut the odds of receiving investment. The 10 entrepreneurs included in Dragons are all men; I hope that future authors aren’t forced to do the same.

The entrepreneurs in Dragons also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether that involved moving to the colonies like Robert Rich, or to Britain, like Nathan Rothschild, who moved from Frankfurt to Manchester. This cosmopolitan mindset has been vital to our success and will serve us well as we head towards Brexit.

There are other traits that bind Britain’s greatest entrepreneurs – whether it’s spotting a winning idea, taking calculated risks, or leading from the front. But perhaps the most inspiring is their desire to change the world.

Robert Rich fought for Britain’s interests against Spain.

William Jardine was instrumental in convincing the country’s leaders to use firepower in defence of free trade.

Nathan Rothschild created the European bond market and in 1825 was able to supply enough coin to the Bank of England to avert a liquidity crisis.

Through sick funds, pension schemes and education services, George Cadbury used his success to look after his workers.

And John Spedan Lewis was setting out through his innovative partnership model to build something that “makes work something to live for as well as something to live by”.

The very best entrepreneurs have higher-level objectives. This sense of purpose guides many of the Leap 100 entrepreneurs, and they, like all of us, should be inspired by our incredible ancestors.

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