In a special issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs magazine, we sat down with Oli Barrett MBE to look back at his entrepreneurial career so far.
Oli 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 NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
Oli Barrett MBE is a rare breed of entrepreneur whose passion for connecting people is as strong as his love of business. Widely known as the ‘most connected person in Britain’, and as a serial entrepreneur with a range of advisory positions, he is one of the most influential champions of entrepreneurs.
Chief among Oli’s repertoire of skills is his standing as an event host across the tech and entrepreneurial spaces. It’s his charisma and connection that has ingrained Oli into the journey of the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, having been our first since the very first event in 2013.
The journey to where he is now is an unusual one, taking in many twists and turns in the early years. Having finished his school education, a teenage Oli took himself to Florida for six months to work at Walt Disney World Resort in 1997. While many would see it as a simple job to fund a longer exploration of one of the US’ most attractive states, it’s here that Oli credits as the start of his journey to the master networker and connector he is today.
“It sparked in me a love for meeting people and enjoying work,” he recalls.
Oli returned to convention once his time in Florida was up, attending Edinburgh University to study French and Spanish. His love of the city was not matched by a love for his course, however, and he left after just one term.
“In the spirit of taking a few unusual decisions, I went to be a Butlins Redcoat,” Oli adds. “I then went to Leeds University on a far more practical course in Broadcasting”.
It was at Leeds University that Oli really discovered his bug for starting things. While he wasn’t studying, he was producing and appearing in stage shows and spoken-word radio. And he would even launch his very first business – an alternative careers fair organised by students, for students, which would even gain support from Saatchi & Saatchi.
Oli says: “We ran events in nine cities. Ultimately, the business didn’t work out. However, by that time I had met Ben Way, who I would go on to founder several projects with.”
A move to London saw Oli exercise an incredible trait which has been pivotal in his success. He read about a national enterprise campaign and offered his help. He saw an intriguing idea and saw ways he could support and add value. Oli was already running speed-networking events for fun, and teamed up with Enterprise UK to roll it to a national and international level – a move that saw Oli credited as the man who brought speed-networking to the UK.
“It helped me to meet literally thousands of interesting people, and little by little people started approaching me to get involved in a range of projects and opportunities,” Oli says. “By this time, I had been asked to speak in a few schools about what it was like to start something.”
Although he was being asked to speak at schools and events more and more, Oli was becoming increasingly frustrated by how passive the ‘speaker-audience’ had become. He decided to do something about it.
“I read about a vicar who had handed his congregation £10 each, and encouraged them to see what they could turn it into. It gave me the idea for what became Make Your Mark with a Tenner, which launched by handing 10,000 school pupils with a tenner.”
Make Your Mark with a Tenner would go on to become simply Tenner, and is still going today, these days run by Young Enterprise. It is the largest schools enterprise challenge in the UK and has reached over 250,000 young people since it started in 2007.
Starting and connecting
Tenner was just the first in a long line of ventures Oli would go on to start, or help start, that would see him invited to join a number organisations as an advisor. Following Tenner’s success, he joined the Council on Social Action from 2007 to 2009 which was chaired by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Oli explains: “It was about the idea that governments can’t solve problems on their own, and neither can companies or charities. The group brought together a diverse cast of characters, from Tim Smith, the creator of the Eden Project, to the managing partner of Accenture.
“The experience convinced me that this bringing together of unlikely alliances was both exciting and important.”
It was this thinking that prompted the creation of StartUp Britain, the national campaign which aims to encourage enterprise across the UK. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron’s entrepreneurial advisory, Lord Young, resigned. Oli contacted a select few of his most esteemed entrepreneurial connections and recommended they meet with Lord Young.
“The eight attendees at that meeting became the founders of StartUp Britain. Lord Young suggested in that first meeting that we meet his former colleagues in Downing Street, and less than a month later we were presenting our ideas inside Number 10.”
Such is the length and quality of Oli’s entrepreneurial CV, a profile of the man simply can’t go into detail on each of them.
In addition to Tenner, Oli is the co-founder of Volunteer It Yourself (VIY), a social enterprise that helps and encourages young people to renovate and repair their own young clubs. He is also the founder of TOTS (Turn on the Subtitles), a children’s literacy campaign. From 2008, Oli co-created and led several international trade missions designed to help businesses expand and succeed overseas. Oli also holds advisory positions on the boards of Tech London Advocates, One Million Mentors and Troubadour Theatres and is a Fellow of impact business builder Zinc. In 2016 he stepped back from Cospa, the cross-sector partnership agency he co-founded. Among his main focuses now are The Connector Unit, making impactful introductions between small and large companies, and presenting The Lens, a Business in the Community podcast exploring responsible business the in the digital age.
But what is it about everything that Oli does that he finds so engrossing?
“I love making useful introductions. I believe that creativity and problem solving are fuelled by connections between often wildly different people and ideas, and I was to help create projects which embrace this.
“Typically, I’m in my element at either end of the creative process. Either right at the start, bringing people and ideas together, or on delivery day, seeing good ideas put into action.
“Although I need to get better at keeping in touch, I love meeting new people, especially those who believe, like me, that life is short, that business can make a difference and that work can be great fun.”