Monday, April 16, 2012


Earlier this month, Fortune - the global business magazine - published its list of what it considered to be the definitive list of the twelve greatest entrepreneurs of our time.

Those recognised by the publication, in rank order, were Steve Jobs of Apple; Bill Gates of Microsoft; Fred Smith of FedEx; Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google; Howard Schultz of Starbucks; Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook; John Mackey of Whole Foods; Herb Kelleher of SouthWest Airlines; Narayana Murthy of Infosys; Sam Walton of Wal-Mart; and Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank.

As with all such subjective lists, it was controversial. Dominated by American high technology founders, the list had no women entrepreneurs and only two individuals recognised who are based outside the USA. It didn’t even include Sir Richard Branson despite his various entrepreneurial ventures ranging from Virgin Records to Virgin Atlantic and being the individual that most young people, at least in the UK, would wish to emulate.

Yet apart from being something that any group of people would sit and argue over in a pub whilst having a few beers, what is the value of having such a list of successful entrepreneurs?

Part of the answer lies in research findings that demonstrate the importance of role models in encouraging entrepreneurial activity. This stems from early studies that showed a positive correlation between the decision to start up a new venture and having parents who were entrepreneurs and ran their own firms. Research on networks has also indicated that peer groups can help to influence the decision to become an entrepreneur. In fact, those geographical areas where there are already successful entrepreneurs will continue to grow and prosper because of the presence of such role models who can provide information, resources or just simply inspiration.

There are of course, various ways in which to utilise such role models to encourage greater entrepreneurship. Some have argued that lists of entrepreneurs such as Fortune’s are largely irrelevant to most businesspeople. This is because the average entrepreneur who would prefer to look closer to home for inspiration will rarely consider such iconic individuals such as Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg as role models. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with such a sentiment but there are two excellent examples of successful, but different, approaches in Wales to utilising successful local individuals and companies as inspiration for others to follow.

First of all there is the Wales Fast Growth 50, which has provided role models for other Welsh firms during the last fourteen years in the Western Mail and other publications. Secondly, there is Dynamo, a programme developed by the Entrepreneurship Action Plan for Wales to bring local entrepreneurs into schools, colleges and universities to talk about their experiences in starting and managing businesses, thus encouraging young people to do the same. Both, in their own ways, have helped to celebrate Welsh entrepreneurship across the nation and provided examples of successful practice to those thinking of starting a new firm.

Yet, I believe that if Wales is to fully embrace entrepreneurship across all aspects of its economic and social life, there must be a more coherent way to recognise the achievements of those who helped build this nation since the industrial revolution. Around a decade ago, I discussed the potential of developing a Welsh Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame with the Welsh Development Agency (WDA).

Despite gaining support from academics and businesspeople for the concept, those responsible for marketing within the WDA were not convinced that we should develop a vehicle to recognise individuals such as David Davies, Robert Owen, Laura Ashley and others whose risk-taking, innovation and creativity throughout the last two hundred years have shaped, and continue to shape, communities across Wales. As a result, the idea never got anywhere and before we could resurrect it, the WDA was abolished.

The question is whether such a proposal should be considered again?

Certainly, there should be a drive by the government and the business community to develop more entrepreneurs who would encourage greater prosperity and wealth creation within our nation. The creation of an Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame that would acknowledge, understand and disseminate the achievements of enterprising Welsh men and women as an inspiration for others would be a timely step towards this goal, especially if it included not only industrial giants from our history but also those who, in today’s global economy, are making a real impact in Wales and beyond through their hard work and innovation.