Last week we launched our first City MeetUp in Leeds to kickstart getting a generation of experienced business people to mentor tech entrepreneurs.
Everything about the day was very special – from virtually no drop-outs (in fact more people came than we had official spaces!) to a really magical feel in the room with two generations respecting and learning from each other.
If you are coming up to retirement, there is a real challenge for many as to what you do next. In recent years it has become the norm/expectation that if someone wants to continue using their skills after their full-time career, then they will look for non-executive director appointments.
These carry prestige, recognised status and often money. But the market is increasingly competitive and many are asking themselves – is this what I really want to do; does it really use my skills; is it really interesting? And perhaps, above all, do the rewards match the risks?
And too often that is where the conversation ends. The person retiring does get a non-executive director role. Or doesn’t and then tries to find other ways to occupy their time – often with limited success. Which to me seems such a waste of talent. These people have years of experience, networks and time to offer – surely we can be imaginative in using these amazing skills.
Well at the City MeetUp, we did just that. I sat in on all the tables to see how the discussions were going. My own view about the experienced generation was that they asked really brilliant questions, that got straight to the heart of an issue.
These questions quickly put the entrepreneurs on the spot – it was almost a version of Dragon’s Den when as the viewer you start seeing the strength and weakness of a business, completely missed by an entrepreneur because they are too close to it.
On many of the tables, I heard the business leaders challenging the entrepreneurs on an absolute fundamental – what does your business do? Time and again I could sense an element of frustration as people struggled to understand what the business did and what problem it was solving.
The entrepreneurs were really positive in how they took these challenges and several came up to me after and said, “I really need to explain things better – I haven’t really been challenged enough. It was great.”
I asked a number of the business leaders to say how they thought the event worked. Here are some of the comments.
Philippa Mooney was very interesting and said, “I arrived at the event having read the young tech profiles and wondering what I might add when my knowledge of the tech world is so scant. But of course, as soon as the first challenge hit the table I realised I didn’t need to 'know' but instead I knew how to stimulate an enquiry. A reminder of staying in a position of NOT knowing but leaning in together.”
Like many at the event, Melvyn Ingleson has already followed up with some of the entrepreneurs. He said, “I have already introduced one of the tech entrepreneurs to a good friend who will speak to him regarding his experiences of building a management team around an entrepreneur during a growth phase.
“It sums up the advantages the older generation can bring. We have outstanding networks that we can leverage appropriately and we can be generous with our time if we wish to be, or are motivated to do so by the entrepreneur or their business idea.”
Keith Madeley highlighted the value of the experienced generation’s business networks to the entrepreneurs – and helping the techies understand how to build their own networks.
The objective, external view was mentioned by Ajaz Ahmed, “Business people can look at entrepreneurs with an outsider view and use their years of experience – small changes can make a big difference.”
The room was full of challenge, but the entrepreneurs were up for this. This is where Viv Parry thinks the greatest value is, “It was an opportunity to have their strategy and growth plans challenged by experienced business people who don't necessarily have the same world view as themselves. They are therefore able to identify different opportunities and approaches.”
Before the event, I had received an email from a respected lawyer who had been going to introduce a generalist solicitor to the event. When he read the details he said, “I have a ‘wonder’ whether this is about offering new ‘unretired’ opportunities esp to professionals – which is how I initially understood it – or about mentoring tech entrepreneurs. And whether it has a split focus which might lead it to missing both marks?”
I confess it puzzled me and we exchanged a number of emails. I see providing opportunities to an unretired generation and to tech entrepreneurs as a win:win all round.
That was borne out by the tech entrepreneurs themselves. One said to me, “It was so nice to talk about my business without having my ‘face’ on. Normally you have to be really positive with everyone because they could be an investor, customer, business partner. Here, I felt safe and comfortable just to talk honestly about what was going on in the business and get really helpful comments – without judgement. It was very helpful.”
All the entrepreneurs said it helped their businesses and I keep hearing of all sorts of follow up meetings – which in many ways will be the real test of how this works.
You can see all the entrepreneurs giving quick feedback on what they got from the session, in this video
We asked everyone in the room, hands up if should we do this event again – and this was the resounding response!
Our thanks have to go to our sponsors Leeds City Council, NorthInvest and Walker Morris who hosted it in their fantastic new offices. Eve Roodhouse, chief economic development officer, opened the event talking about the REAP project with MIT Boston to build support for entrepreneurs and innovators – and how the Next-Up project absolutely fits in the City’s Inclusive Growth Strategy. Hopefully this event was a small step in helping the region’s and UK’s economy.
I will let Philippa Mooney have the last word on the event, “On a personal note I came away feeling so exhilarated from the energy in the room and the positivity to hear about such creative, innovative work coming from the entrepreneurs. Too often we focus on what is wrong and not working and here we see what is right and emerging. The receptiveness across the generations was palpable.”
She says it all. A heartfelt thank you to everyone, young and not so young, who took part in a really inspiring event.