On a list of attributes for someone you might do business with, someone you might hire, or someone you might invest alongside, I don’t suppose “interesting” will figure that highly. You kind of assume it’s a given if someone is good at what they do and can bring a range of contacts and skills to a business.
But a couple of years ago I tasted the secret sauce of Silicon Valley. The most dynamic, the most entrepreneurial and the most INTERESTING place on the planet. But I didn’t just meet businesses, we were taken to universities, banks and a VC investment network.
At one session, we met a guy called Jerry Engel who told a story about his book club the night before. There were a few VCs, some entrepreneurs, academics and of course Jerry, who happens to be a prize winning guru of innovation and entrepreneurship and an adjunct Professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. You know, he says, your typical crew. Wow.
Jerry was a powerhouse of ideas, a real thinker. He pushed and prodded us all, tied his thoughts into what he knows about Manchester and the potential to create a Graphene Valley in our home city region.
But he made the most important point about networks and how worlds collide. It isn’t enough to just describe your world, and learn from other successful business people, but to move between the worlds of other successful people. Be like them, understand them and immerse yourself in their worlds too.
It reminded me of the whole essence of the Renaissance Man – the multi-faceted, intellectually curious and enigmatic risk taker. Sometimes people who don’t fit the profile of the straight laced corporate man attract suspicion, rather than admiration.
As entrepreneur Luke Johnson says in his book Start It Up – “Centuries ago there were no sharp divisions between state and the private sector, between science and the arts. Bring back that enlightened approach!”
I’ve set up a new business this year called Discuss – we bring together about 100 people at a monthly staged debate. They come from a wide range of backgrounds – public intellectuals, academics, politicos, the thinking wing of the business community and even a couple of actors and comedians. All united in the cause of intellectual curiosity. I find the experience of being around such people so invigorating.
I’ll be honest though, I genuinely think the education sector in this country still does far too little to engage with wealth creators and businesses. It’s not about sticking a leading academic on a board, ripping off companies for sponsorship fees – it’s about a social and cultural exchange of ideas between the intellectually and commercially curious of a city.
New thinking and fresh ideas are what companies often need. Universities have them in abundance, but don’t think they even remotely apply to anyone beyond their ivory tower.
I sit on a body known as the General Assembly of the University of Manchester. Its purpose is to be a large group of a few hundred people that can act as critical friends and sounding boards for the University and assist in the communication of the work of this fine institution in the wider region, the distinguished alumni of the University and particularly to inform the city of Manchester about what goes on down Oxford Road.
Let me be clear. Under the leadership of the late Alan Gilbert and more recently of Nancy Rothwell, the president, since the merger with UMIST, the University is true to its aims of being a top class learning institution.
Many staff issues have been addressed. Research is world class. And the achievement of awards of such as the Nobel prizes for physics following the Graphene work is to be commended and welcomed. The income of the University, and therefore its economic power in the city, is greater than that of the two football clubs and the airport combined.
But how often do business people, thinkers and ideas people, really get together with that powerhouse in our midst. I suspect that’s as true of Leeds, Lancaster, Liverpool and Preston as I know it is of Manchester.