As a decade-spanning serial entrepreneur, it seems only too on the nose that Sherry Coutu likes to spend her spare time climbing mountains.
When we speak, the founder of the retail investment stalwart Interactive Investor has just returned from a jaunt up Rinjani volcano in Indonesia for the third time. She’s gearing up to take on Kilimanjaro for the fourth time in February and when we tried to arrange a chat previously she was busy taking on the Great Ocean Walk Down Under.
“I just love it,” she says in an interview. “You know, climbing up a mountain you get to the top and you can see forever and you just feel free and alive.
“I think for those of us who are complete workaholics, the fact that you need to focus and it gets you out of everything else is also a release.”
Climbing mountains, she says, is also a “learned activity”. “You can get better over time and learn how to do well if you study them”.
While Interactive Investor might be the best known of her endeavours, the outlook of learning one’s way to the top has dominated the latter stages of Coutu’s career. These days her workaholicism is channeled into tackling a new peak: boosting entrepreneurial learning and education.
Education, education, education
The root of that new goal might lie in her background. Coutu grew up in a small lumber town on the West Coast of British Columbia and still speaks with her native Canadian twang. She credits education and access to teachers as the sole reason for her journey from sleepy hometown to the upper echelons of British business.
“I’m the first person in my family that went to university and it wouldn’t have been a pathway except for the urging and encouragement of some teachers both at school, to tell me that I should go to university, and then at university to tell me that I should go further,” she says.
It was at the London School of Economics, when she began to rub shoulders with professors of entrepreneurship and future business builders, that the idea of becoming one began to fully form.
“When I read about [entrepreneurs], and when I met them, it felt like they were like me,” she says. “It just felt like I belonged.”
The benefits of the education went beyond just teaching as well. After founding Interactive Investor in 1995, she counted one of her LSE professors as one of her first backers.
Since then she has gone on to both found and back scores of firms as an angel investor, winning gongs aplenty including a CBE in 2013 for services to entrepreneurship. Now, her aim is to build businesses that can help develop the next crop of entrepreneurs.
England in bottom set
While Coutu speaks of entrepreneurs in almost mystical terms – a “tribe” – she insists it is something that can be taught and learned. And the UK, she argues, is falling well behind the pack.
Along with a host of the country’s top entrepreneurs, Coutu last year called for a radical overhaul in the way pupils are being taught in the UK, claiming that pupils in particular are falling behind by not being told how to apply the basics of numeracy to real life matters.
England specifically is a major straggler. It is one of the few nations in Europe that has failed to publish an entrepreneurial strategy for education, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all rolled out their own in the early 2000s.
At a more basic level, the fundamentals of numeracy needed to succeed in business are also lacking in UK education, she argues.
“There is a cultural bias that makes it okay here to say ‘I’m rubbish at maths’, or ‘I’m not interested in maths’,” she says.
“I don’t want to get into school policy, but I think the narrowness of the way the curriculum is taught in this country… means that people who are risk averse – and there’s lots of people who are risk averse – would choose to not do maths because they’re terrified of it.”
By the government’s own numbers, Brits’ poor grasp of maths has also left a huge dent in the country’s productivity and public finances. Some 17 million adults – 49 per cent of the working-age population of England – have the numeracy level expected of primary school children, which costs the UK economy around £20bn a year.
The issue has since been taken on with some vim by Rishi Sunak, who has rolled out a pledge that mandatory maths should be taught until 18. But Coutu sees it as righting a wrong rather than any great revolutionary policy.
“I was a bit surprised when they introduced it that they didn’t mention that every other OECD nation has maths mandatory to 18,” she says. “I don’t know at what point in the UK they made maths not mandatory to 18, but I think it was a mistake from a productivity point of view [and] from a personal growth point of view.”
Mind the skills gap
For her part, Coutu has founded a number of ventures to try and close the entrepreneurial and numerical skills gap in schools. Founders4Schools gets entrepreneurs in front of pupils to speak about building businesses as a viable career path, and a new offshoot, Maths4Girls brings in female entrepreneurs to talk about the practical application of their lessons to later life.
The former venture she says was formed in part as a reaction to Speaker for Schools, which gets big corporates and employees in to speak to pupils about career paths. She argues the corporate route – “large shrinking companies where everybody is miserable” – is not always the best thing to promote to mouldable minds.
She does, it should be said, also sit on the board on a number of big educational players, including the listed publishing giant Pearson.
Every day’s a school day
Outside of schools, she says it is now boosting education in the workplace that will keep her busy. Coutu has already founded two start-ups, Superpower and Workfinder, which specialise in recruitment and training in the workplace, and is betting on the sector to put an end to the need for lengthy and disruptive need for education breaks while in work.
“If I think about what’s going to keep me on fire and excited for the next 5-10 years, it’s going to be making it easy for people everywhere in the world to acquire skills with no friction and at speed,” she says.
The ultimate aim is to help people of all ages quickly skill their way up any mountain they please. And while there are some easy and cringe-inducing comparators to reach for when discussing scaling great peaks and building great careers, in a nod to the belief that anyone can do it – she points back to her beginnings.
“Well, I’m Canadian. We do like getting out and about.”