Why I’m glad I never went to business school

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Want to be an entrepreneur like Anita Roddick?

The founder of The Body Shop reveals how growing up as an outsider gave her the drive and passion to pursue her dream.

I never went to business school. I went to the business school of life.

And I did so from a very early age, too. I was brought up in a large Italian immigrant family, with a work ethic that teetered on the verge of slave labour. We got up every morning at five to provide breakfast for the local fishermen in our café in Littlehampton, and didn’t close until the last customer had wandered home.

It was a converted Methodist chapel directly opposite the railway station and it served non-stop plates of almost anything-with-chips all day. The four of us children worked every weekend, every evening and every holiday in the café.

I couldn’t help noticing that the other cafés in the town tended to open at nine in the morning and shut at five.

This was a clue to me then about what makes some people entrepreneurs and not others. Our café was owned by ferociously determined immigrants; the others weren’t. We didn’t necessarily belong in 1950s Littlehampton.

This is an important difference, and the reason that I don’t advise new entrepreneurs to submit themselves first to the rigours of an MBA is that business schools do not understand it.
The conventional advice to budding entrepreneurs suggests that they should keep their nose clean, and groom themselves to be the kind of whiz-kid with a suit and a fascination for spreadsheets that bank managers like – if there are such things as bank managers any more.

Actually, potential entrepreneurs are outsiders. They are people who imagine things as they might be, not as they are, and have the drive to change the world around them. Those are skills that business schools do not teach.

I am not of course arguing that you will learn nothing as you plug away at your MBA. Quite the reverse: there are useful skills that can be applied to a life in business.

What I am saying is that they will not teach you the most crucial thing of all: how to be an entrepreneur. They might also sap what entrepreneurial flair you have as they force you into the template called an MBA pass.

Entrepreneurs change the world, even in very small ways. They see something new that others don’t. They imagine the world differently – even if it’s just imagining a cosmetics shop with refillable bottles, or imagining a business with a heart, as I did.

I often get asked to talk about entrepreneurship – even by hallowed institutions like Harvard and Stanford – but I’m not at all convinced it is a subject you can teach.

How do you teach obsession, because more often than not it’s obsession that drives an entrepreneur’s vision? How do you learn to be an outsider, if you are not one already? Why would you march to a different drumbeat if you are instinctively part of the crowd?

Entrepreneurs are often fearless types who cling to their own vision of the world with the passion of artists and writers. Just as artists create a painting from scratch, so entrepreneurs can realise their own dreams in precisely the same way – by turning an idea into reality, earning a livelihood from it and, hopefully, by making a profit.

I’m not saying a beautifully constructed company is somehow equivalent to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or a Dickens novel. But there are parallels. Both are the result of a driving creative passion. Both are the result of imagining the world differently, and both are – in essence – nothing to do with money.

Taking your passion and turning it into reality can also make you wealthy, just as it did for Michelangelo, but it isn’t the prime motivation.

There are other differences too. In the business school model, entrepreneurs are most at home with a balance sheet, a cashflow forecast and a business plan. They dream of profit forecasts and the day they can take the company public.

You certainly must be able to wield these weapons. But these are just part of the toolbox of re-imagining the world. They are not the basic defining characteristic of entrepreneurship.
The problem with business schools is that they are controlled and obsessed by the status quo. They encourage you deeper into the world as it is. They transform you into a better example of corporate man.

If that’s what you want, that’s fine – we need good administration and financial flair, after all – but we need people with imagination too.

Here are 10 lessons that entrepreneurs need to know, even more than the lessons they teach you in busines school… Tell stories
The central tool of someone who wants to imagine the world differently and somehow share that vision is not a matter of accountancy at all. It is much more to do with the ability to tell a story. Telling stories emphasises what makes you and your company different. Business schools emphasise how to make them toe the line.

Concentrate on creativity
It is a critical job of any entrepreneur to maximise creativity, and to build the kind of atmosphere around you that encourages people to have ideas. That means open structures, so that accepted thinking can be challenged: that’s what the philosopher Karl Popper calls an ‘open society’ – and it’s the only kind of society that can solve its own problems.

Be an opportunist collector
Successful entrepreneurs may hate hierarchies and structures and try to destroy them. They may garner the disapproval of MBAs for their creativity and wildness. But they have antennae in their heads. When they walk down the street anywhere in the world, they have their antennae out, evaluating how what they see can relate back to what they are doing. It might be packaging, a word, a poem, even something in a completely different business.

Measure the company according to fun and creativity
Business schools are obsessive about measurement. The result is vast departments of number-crunchers, but often little progress. You always have to remember that what is most important in a company – or anything else – is unquantifiable in figures.

Be different, but look safe
Whatever you do, be different – that was the advice my mother gave me, and I can’t think of better advice for an entrepreneur. If you’re different, you will stand out. But don’t take risks with people who can make the difference between success and failure, especially if you are a woman trying to borrow money from the bank – which is how I came to be turned down for my original loan.

Be passionate about ideas
Entrepreneurs want to create a livelihood from an idea that has obsessed them. Not necessarily a business, but a livelihood. Money will grease the wheels, but becoming a millionaire isn’t normally the primary the aim of an entrepreneur. When accumulating money drives out the ideas and the anger behind them, you are no longer an entrepreneur.

Feed your sense of outrage
I think discontentment drives you to want to do something about it. There is no point in finding a new vision if you’re not angry enough to want something to happen about it. Feeling angry every time you open a newspaper and turn on a television can be uncomfortable, so it’s all too easy to suppress it. The answer is: don’t suppress it – realise you need it and direct it towards things you can change.

Make the most of the female element
There’s no doubt that it can sometimes be difficult being an entrepreneur as a woman, but there are advantages too. In every country I have travelled to in the West, it is the older, larger corporations that are dying of boredom and losing millions of jobs. Corporations as we know them were created by men for men, often influenced by the military model, on complicated and hierarchical lines and are both dominated by authoritarian principles and resistant to change. By setting up their own businesses, women can challenge these male-dominated corporate models, and will be welcomed by customers for doing so.

Believe in yourself and your intuition
It is true that there is a fine line between entrepreneurship and insanity. Crazy people see and feel things that others don’t. But you have to believe that everything is possible. If you believe it, those around you will believe it too. You have to be optimistic before any planning is done, to realise there will be setbacks along the way so that they will not dent your confidence when they happen.

Have self-knowledge
It requires considerable self-knowledge and honesty to surround yourself with people who can do the things you can’t do, but it is absolutely vital. You don’t need to know how to do everything – you can always find people with the right skills or money – but you have to be honest enough with yourself to know what you can’t provide yourself. You don’t have to be a multi-skilled polymath; you just need the vision and the people and a strong sense of yourself. Until they can teach these lessons, business schools will remain the whited sepulchres of the status quo.

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