In a special issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs magazine, we sat down with Matt Smith to look back at his entrepreneurial career so far.
Matt was one of 14 people inducted into the Great British Entrepreneurs Champions Hall of Fame in association with NatWest and JD&Co, a brand new initiative led by the Great British & Northern Irish Entrepreneur Awards.
Many entrepreneurs feel almost destined to become one, whether through a long line of family entrepreneurs or frugal time spent setting up mini ventures as a youngster. Perhaps the type of path you don’t hear of too often is that of Matt Smith, founder of the Centre for Entrepreneurs.
Unlike a lot of his peers, Matt didn’t grow up with entrepreneurship flowing through his veins. Instead, it was his education that turned his head. Taking part in Young Enterprise at school first sparked Matt’s interest in the entrepreneurial world – a spark that burst into a flame as he progressed through college and university.
Instead of finding a passion for profit, Matt discovered a love of helping others to thrive. Shortly after graduating university he launched Nacue (National Association of College & University Entrepreneurs), the student enterprise charity. And it was in 2013 that he would find the idea that would establish him as an influential figure and a leading champion of entrepreneurship in the UK.
Serial entrepreneur and investor, Luke Johnson, brought the idea of Centre for Entrepreneurs to Matt, and it didn’t take long for Matt to accept the offer, becoming the organisation’s co-founder. Matt was tasked with designing, launching and running the Centre for Entrepreneurs.
“I was invited to coffee with Luke, who pitched the idea of Centre for Entrepreneurs to me,” Matt recalls. “I was immediately taken with the idea to create a research-backed campaign organisation to bring substance to the entrepreneurial world.”
He believed entrepreneurship was struggling at the time, and Centre for Entrepreneurs would be at the heart of changing that.
Matt explains: “In 2012-2013, entrepreneurship was active but I think it could be suggested that it was more style over substance. There was a lack of understanding around entrepreneurship itself, and we wanted to change that.”
Of course, fundraising for a new non-profit was problematic for Matt. But he highlights credibility as his biggest challenge in the early days launching Nacue.
“I was a year out of university, trying to influence government and other universities. It was hard to get investment, but the main issue was credibility. The only way I could overcome it was to outperform and deliver above expectations to exceptional standards. I had to work hard, put in the hours and do bigger and better things than anyone would expect of someone that age.”
Matt takes his inspiration from entrepreneurs who seek to do good, and apply their business knowhow to deliver success.
He explains: “Like a lot of people, I looked to a lot of American entrepreneurs – the Bill Gates of the world. What appealed to me is not only the sharply turned entrepreneurial drive that made these people successful, but their philanthropic perspective and approach.”
Matt also took a great amount of inspiration from the Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney, who built his fortune as a pioneer of the duty-free concept. The book The Billionaire Who Wasn’t recounts Chuck’s life and tells the story of how he made his billions, but also famously gave away $10 billion and prompted the ‘giving while living’ movement. And Matt says it had a hugely influential impact on his life.
He may not have billions to give away, but it’s fair to say Matt has followed these ethos since launching Centre for Entrepreneurs in 2013, and he’s now shifting his focus to have a stronger social impact.
“I think the least expected but most interesting aspect is our work with teaching entrepreneurship in prisons. These are highly excluded individuals that are often phenomenally entrepreneurial. Our research and campaigning around it has led to more prisoners and ex-prisoners having the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship, and the support they need.”
With six years under his belt, Matt has no plans to deviate the course, placing the Centre for Entrepreneurs right at the heart of his future plans.
“It’s entrepreneurs that drive innovation, create jobs and bring the country forward. We need both of those across the UK. We’re entering into a new phase of Centre for Entrepreneurs, where we are doing a lot more research and building networks to support refugees, ex-prisoners, and graduates.”