Saturday, 2 August 2008

Back to school

The last week or so was busy. Busy presenting to VCs. Busy presenting to students. Busy presenting to government ministers. Busy presenting to TV crews. By the end of the week I was exhausted.

The government stuff and the student stuff was all about the education side of my life. I feel a bit like I've gone back to school (that's me front row, left first time round). I have chosen to focus my charitable efforts on education and I spend as much spare time as I can involved in various educational initiatives.

I often get asked to speak to students about business and whenever I can I accept the offer. It's always a challenge and you have to adapt your normal business style when presenting to young people. There is nothing more painful than some pompous business executive ploughing through powerpoint slides, cracking in-jokes to himself and sending a room full of students to sleep. I learnt this the hard way. I once gave a talk to a small group of young people around a big boardroom table when I was the grandly titled Chief Information Officer of Egg, the world's largest pure Internet bank. As I smiled to myself at some highly amusing anecdote I had just told, I glanced around the table only to observe that three of the blighters were actually fast asleep right in front of me! Ah, well, I blame it on the hot summers day.

Over the last week or so, I've been involved with a very exciting initative run by Entrepreneurs in Action run by the inspirational Derek Browne. About 70 gifted and talented maths students from all over the country were brought together for an intense week of project based learning and Garlik set them a business challenge to work on. I also had the opportunity to say a few words at their gala dinner at the end of the week which was great fun. I even got to do my amazing magic trick!

A couple of weeks before that I was up at Warwick University, acting as one of the "Dragons" judging the results of the GOAL programme for gifted and talented young people. One of my fellow judges was a very high powered lady from a large US investment bank. At one point she challenged the nervous group of 15 years olds saying "I see you will make £260 Million profit in year one?....wait, oh, I see, you will be making £260 pounds in year one...whoops, sorry".

However the two big education projects that I am involved in centre around building brand new schools. I am a governor of a big new, 1,800 student academy being created up in the north of England, in Lancashire and I am leading the effort to build a specialist technology school in London. Both of these are fascinating and challenging projects that I must admit really stretch me at times in very different ways to my day job as a tech entrepreneur, but it's going to be amazing in a few years time when they open their doors to thousands of young people.

One of the challenges in being involved in education is dealing with the Government. That's a new departure for me, navigating the Men from the Ministry. And so it was that on the afternoon of my recent birthday, when I should have been at home wearing funny party hats and blowing out candles with nearest and dearest I found myself closeted with, amongst others, "Very Important Education Chap" and "Chap Who Takes Notes and Makes Tea for Very Important Education Chap" debating the arcane science of government procurement. Phew. Good old Venture Capitalists are positively warm and cuddly in comparison.

I sometimes get asked (1) where do you find the time and (2) why do you do it, when you are trying to run a tech start up? Well, entrepreneurs, unlike corporate wage slaves, are in control of their own time (and besides you work at any time of the day or night anyway) so we are used to finding slithers of time to get stuff done. It's actually easier to find space for these initiatives in my current role as CEO of Garlik than it was in my role as CIO of Egg, when my diary would be booked solid with back to back internal meetings for months ahead.

Why do it? Just ask Derek to invite you along to one of his sessions and experience the response from the young people and the hunger they have to learn from someone like you - yes I mean you - and you will answer that question for yourself.

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