Entrepreneurs as social superheroes: not so fast

Oh no, I’ve just made myself unpopular again. This time it was at a breakfast event (at the House of Lords, donchaknow) – celebrating social enterprise and entrepreneurialism as a social good. Why I couldn’t have kept my big gob shut I don’t know. But I couldn’t. I just had to ruin it, saying that entrepreneurs tend to be selfish people. They’re highly uncharitable, I said. They’re individualists, misfits, outsiders. So while entrepreneurialism provides society with social benefits such as innovation, employment and economic growth, the notion of entrepreneurs doing so purely because of their altruistic instincts is false.

Of course, this rather went against the grain of the entire event. In fact, I was focusing on a particular story – just told by a guest speaker and well-known London restaurant entrepreneur. He’d been involved in a cooking-skills project in a London prison, aimed at developing a route towards employability for young offenders. One shone above the others and, on release, was offered work experience in his kitchen, which morphed into full-time employment as a chef.

Great news. In fact, such great news it found its way into the newspapers (via a deliberate PR drive, of course), which led to a spike in interest and bookings for the restaurant.

And it’s here where I intervened: stating that the increase in bookings via strong PR should be the essential takeaway for entrepreneurs. For the entrepreneur, the social good is a byproduct: a happenstance (though one happily publicized for gain). What really matters is the entirely-selfish economic benefit, not least in the fact the restaurant found a new chef willing to work hard and demonstrate loyalty (a small price for having his life turned around), and the restaurant itself saw an uplift in custom from the propagated feelgood factor.

What’s not to like?

Yet I was nearly hounded out of the room for my temerity. No, no, no, said speaker after speaker: entrepreneurs should do good for good’s sake. “Giving back” – perhaps via a corporate and social responsibility programme or even by the very nature of the business – was cause-enough for strong social works: profit motive be damned. Soon, they were out bidding each other trying to prove their social worth – and me wrong – even suggesting percentages of profits be ring-fenced for good deeds.

Before long – and to my amazement – we were hearing about swathes of the African countryside being educated on the proceeds of British entrepreneurialism, with each step towards this social nirvana making me feel more like some despicable and selfish capitalist pigdog. Or at least someone at the wrong event. I even noticed the body-language of those around me stiffen: who let this freemarket dinosaur in, they seemed to be saying? What a throwback!

But then I remembered where I was. Here we sat, in one of those slightly faded mock-gothic committee rooms in the bowels of Parliament. Lords, OBEs and CBEs sat around me, as well as people from government agencies, think-tank wonks and a smattering of accounting, banking and private equity bods whose job it was to attract entrepreneurial clients.


And then there were the entrepreneurs that had cashed-out and were now “giving back” in one form or another. Sure, in-the-thick-of-it entrepreneurs were also represented. But, even here, all was not what it seemed: one wanted to become a politician, for instance.

So I tried again with my “entrepreneurs are essentially selfish and that’s just fine” line – only to dig myself into an even deeper hole. Take a Rotherham window cleaner, I said. He’s only concern is putting food on the table while he grows his business. He’s more interested in outfoxing rival Rotherham window-cleaning firms – and then moving on to outfox those in Doncaster – than being the good guy, doing good things. Sure he may employ an ex-offender, but that’s because he’s cheap and willing to work long hours: it’s got nowt to do with charity.

Yet even my fictional Rotherham window cleaner didn’t escape the need to deliberately-benefit wider society (rather than as a byproduct of his selfishness). While accepting his narrow motives, it was no excuse for not consciously acting for society’s benefit, they said – with someone even suggesting he make a principled stand by using only environmentally-friendly detergent!

That depends on the cost, I replied, rather desperately.

In fact, so desperate was I that I made the mistake of referring to my favourite thinker, Abraham Maslow: he of the hierarchy of needs. Here was Maslow’s hierarchy in action, I stated, to bemused looks from the audience.

As all psychology students know, the point of Maslow’s hierarchy is that it’s impossible to move to the higher level without first satisfying the lower need. So, while the most basic personal needs are food and water, we cannot move towards the next level (safety) without satisfying them. Once fed – and only once fed – will we seek safety via shelter. Only once safe will we seek love and belonging. And only once we feel loved, will we seek self-esteem – usually via achievement, including wealth.

Finally, only once we have self-esteem, will we arrive at our “self-actualized” summit, in which we seek attributes such as creativity and morality. It’s here where we become concerned about social good or “giving back”. If we have everything else we need – including self-esteem – morality matters. Before that, morality’s a highly suspicious public attribute, potentially hiding a deep-seated selfishness.

Of course, I love Maslow’s hierarchy. For me it explains why I always felt such an outsider at university and even in my early careers in the media (unlike those around me I was still seeking self-esteem, or even love and belonging). It then explains why I felt equally out-of-sorts in the City (having become self-actualised while working in the media, I no longer sought achievement via wealth). Indeed, it explains all those “greedy” Essex boy City traders, as well as all those “champagne socialists”, middle-class “tree huggers” and wealthy entrepreneurial social “do-gooders”.

“Congratulations,” I concluded, “you’ve arrived at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.”

Of course, I thought my Maslow speech would go down well – offering psychological insight into why this wonderful audience of self-actualised winners seemed so divorced from the more basic needs of my Rotherham window cleaner. I expected spontaneous applause. Yet it was received in silence and with embarrassed smiles (embarrassed for me, that is). Soon, someone – again – defended entrepreneurial social activism, and the enthusiastic smiling and nodding started once more.

Oh dear! The event ended and those either side of me turned right and left to network with those on my far side. Others were keen to meet the organizers and maybe catch a word with one of the entrepreneurial names on the top table. Meanwhile, I sat and pretended to make some notes. I then collected my coat and made my way to Westminster tube station, alone.

It’s not easy being an outsider.


The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made by Insiders, by Robert Kelsey, Capstone, £9.99.


Steve Strange: the outsider (poacher) turned insider (gamekeeper)

I’m not great at reacting to news immediately, which – I realise – is not a fantastic trait in a blogger. I’d rather ponder news, digesting it for a while before reacting. In fact, I’m not even sure what news affects me until – after a few days – I notice it’s still there: in my brain – worming away.

So it is with the news of Steve Strange’s death: not least because his passing triggered an awkward reaction in me. On the face of it Strange should be a hero of mine. Influenced by David Bowie (a definite outsider hero), Strange was probably the single most important person in the New Romantic movement, the musical identity that was at its height when I was at my most impressionable age for such influences: aged between 16 and 20.

Certainly, his outsider credentials are impeccable. A man from the perennially-unhip Welsh valleys, Steven John Harrington was the son of a divorced paratrooper. He was also a state-school drop-out, although his vision of a musical movement based on David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video was spectacularly successful – changing music and fashion forever. Strange was not particularly musical (his best subject was art). Nor was he particularly good-looking. Despite his best efforts with make-up, his face was a little too round and podgy for the high-cheekbone catwalk look of the New Romantics (based on Bowie, of course). Yet his influence was extraordinary because he developed something all-important for an outsider’s success: as I explain in my new book (out in April) The Outside Edge.

Above all his other “talents”, Strange had entrepreneurial flair. He saw an opening and exploited it for commercial gain: first developing the “look”, then the music, and then (most importantly) the movement – in his case via nightclub promotions at The Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden followed, most famously, by Camden Palace.

Yet it’s here where my admiration for Strange becomes problematic. This is because Strange (unbeknown to him, of course) had a direct influence on my own identity and sense of self. And it was a negative one. Strange’s nightclub nights developed a Studio-54 style door policy, in which he strictly policed entrance – reserving it for his friends, his uber-fashionable followers and those brave enough, and cool enough, to try and make it passed the most discerning (and capricious) velvet rope policy in early 1980s London.

Many of my New Romantic friends went, and loved it. I never dared try. To me, it looked like the jackboot law of the fashion police – an oppressive regime I was certain to offend. Any midweek trip (I have a vague recollection of it being Monday nights?) “up to Camden” would have certainly resulted in what I most dreaded: the personal judgement of others – my “betters” – and the utter devastation and humiliation of their rejection. In my heart-of-hearts I knew I wasn’t worthy of entrance into Camden Palace, and so I kicked around my home town and, if asked, lied that I’d been (“yeah, it’s great,” I’d say, and quickly change the subject).

Thanks Steve!

Of course, if it wasn’t Steve Strange they’d have been others, so my resentment of this poacher turned gamekeeper (or gatekeeper) is a small-minded reaction. And I liked the music – often going to concerts involving New Romantic bands such as Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, Spandau Ballet and Simple Minds (even then, Duran Duran was a wee bit teenybopper for our tastes). Yet concerts sold tickets to all punters. Strange picked his followers. And I’d have certainly been one of the un-chosen.

Yet there’s a corollary to this. While enjoying the music, I hated the look, which seemed to be Strange’s central preoccupation (despite having one hit with Visage). I didn’t like the quiffed and quaffed hair or pigtails, I detested the make-up and even the clothes were awful – making my then-skinny frame look even skinnier. I actually preferred the mod look (revived as it was in the early 1980s), because the clothes were nattier, the hair sharper and there was no bloody make up. Yet, here, I disliked the 1960s music and found their events (which always seemed to end in violence) scary. And then there were the heavy-metal fans. Here, I had some admiration for the music, thought the Caroline Radio Roadshows (the main headbanger nights) great fun and yet thought heavy-metal fans looked like ragdolls thrown through a hedge.

So I had New Romantic friends, mod tastes in clothes and attended heavy-metal bashes. And while some would consider this confused, I’ve now decided it was the typical eclectic tastes of an outsider. Perhaps I should have started my own night at Camden Palace.



Out in April: Outside Edge – How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made by Insider



The outsider’s view: Harper Lee’s genius – and her prejudice

The news that Harper Lee is to publish a sequel to To Kill a Mocking Bird has been greeted with unbridled joy in certain quarters of our house. I’ve been reading my eldest son this tale of judicial injustice in the southern states of America, and he’s been enjoying it – despite me having to wince my way through repeated uses of the “N word”.

Just as Atticus Finch’s son Jem (with Scout, sneakily watching the trial from the “coloured” seats upstairs) concluded from the unfolding evidence that black farmhand Tom Robinson would be surely acquitted, so too did my nine-year old. And, like Jem, he was shocked when, instead, every member of the white-male jury returned a guilty verdict: bringing home the appalling racism of that time and place, just as Harper Lee had intended.

Yet, as I read, I became more and more troubled by Lee’s depiction of pre-war Alabama – and not just because I kept having to read a word since removed from the lexicon due to its offensiveness. Certainly, that engendered a father-son discussion – as did the overall injustice meted out to the descendents of former slaves. What troubled me, however, was Lee’s depiction of the Ewells: the family that Scout describes as a “disgrace to Maycomb County” and accuses, in the book’s opening passage, of starting all the trouble.

Mayella Ewell’s “rape” is the cause of Tom Robinson’s trial (a capital offence in 1930s Alabama). Yet it’s Bob Ewell, the father, that’s depicted as the book’s central bad guy. He has no job and lives off social security, which he squanders on alcohol – leaving his children to scavenge for food. He is racist, abusive, violent, and – having been the person obviously responsible for his daughter Mayella’s injuries – clearly a liar. Lee (via Scout’s narration) describes him as a “little bantam cock”: an ingenious description that captures his physical appearance as well as his farmyard sense of hierarchy, fiery temper and bird-brained ignorance.

And I guess that’s where the trouble started for me with respect to my renewed acquaintance with Lee’s book. More and more, I felt that Lee was using one form of prejudice to attack another. If you were poor and white in Maycomb County, it seems, you were almost certainly stupid, dysfunctional and racist. Meanwhile, if you were a middle class professional – like the book’s lawyer hero Atticus – you were kind and caring. You had clarity of thought, laser-sharp judgement and, importantly, not a prejudicial bone in your body (with Atticus even indulging Scout’s tomboyish ways). Heck – as Atticus proved when shooting a rabid dog – you were even a better shot than all those dungaree-wearing rednecks.

Of course, characterisation is important in fiction, some of which requires the loss of nuance. Lee was also writing in the late 1950s (describing events in the 1930s) – right at the beginning of the civil rights era. So her message needed to hit home, requiring the social elements of her brilliantly-told tale to be painted in primary colours. Modern writers would probably take more care to explain the context – perhaps focusing on the fact the Ewell family lacked a mother (though so did Scout’s, and they managed fine – of course, with the help of their black but well-treated servant Calpurnia).

But, as an adult reader, Lee’s obvious punt for our sympathies – for the liberal and learned Finches, against the ignorant, prejudiced and dysfunctional Ewells – somewhat irritated. In fact, it bothered me almost as much as I was troubled by the book’s intended impact, which certainly hit home on my first reading (as an 11-year old, reading the book by torchlight under the bedclothes). My problem here, I now realise, is what I call my “distorted empathy” – the classic trait of the outsider.

As I explain in my new book – The Outside Edge (out in April) – genuine, disadvantaged, outsiders (as opposed to eccentric insiders that often claim outsidership) feel uncomfortable in any setting or, for that matter, with any set of societal values. Always the imposter, they find themselves empathising with the very people they’re being implored to condemn. This isn’t deliberate or intended: it’s an unconscious reaction to being on the edge of the group. Sometimes outsiders can spot the injustice driving others’ prejudices: what motivates the behaviour others condemn. Though sometimes it’s just us being bloody-minded.

Certainly, “distorted empathy” is a reaction to feelings of not belonging. Yet it’s also due to our external viewpoint – of seeing the hypocrisies in societal narratives. And, yes, that can lead us to defend the “indefensible” – people that all of society condemns. So when Harper Lee uses Atticus – a middle-class professional – to attack poor whites for their racism, I’m immediately looking at the economic alienation of Depression-era southern-white subsistence farmers and wondering for whom it was that the State’s institutionalised racism was intended to benefit? Not them, that’s for sure.

Yet don’t applaud too quickly, because the same instinct has me picking some unlikely heroes in The Outside Edge. One is corporate raider Gordon Gekko – the fictional billionaire in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). His in-your-face individualism and relentless ambition are the classic responses of the outsider – of those cut out of the elite’s easy nepotism. As a hero, he’s a million miles from the celebrated outsiders of the “new establishment” (usually involving vertical exclusions such as those based on gender and race). Yet that’s the point. Distorted empathy focuses on those everyone else is telling us to hate – and finds common ground: such, I’m afraid, is the twisted logic of the outsider.

The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made by Insiders



Wazzocks, Walters and working class creativity (or how the full grant transformed Britain into an outsider’s paradise)

I’m in that obligatory gap between completing my latest book and it’s publication (in April). Yet the time’s filling up with newsy examples of what The Outside Edge is all about: the notion that outsiders are disadvantaged (ever more so) but that their unique viewpoint can support their success – with vision, the right mindset and lots of hard work.

Wazzockgate” is news item number one: James Blunt’s now infamous retaliation to Labour MP Chris Bryant’s suggestion that success in the arts has become the preserve of the privately-educated elite. In this case Bryant was the “wazzock” – according to Blunt – because Blunt’s success, he claims, was absolutely nothing to do with his posh education (at Harrow) or family contacts (his actually family name is the distinctly upper-class Blount). In fact, said Blount (sorry, Blunt), his background worked against him because he was expected to become an army officer or stockbroker, rather than follow his ragged and uncertain musical ambitions.

Why so apt for The Outside Edge? Because of Blunt’s obvious if unstated declaration of being an outsider – one rejecting his clan’s expectations in order to pursue highly-individualistic creativity. Perfect: except that Blunt’s no outsider. As I explain in the book, Blunt’s an example of what I call an eccentric insider.

One example I use in the book is George Orwell: son of Suffolk, literary giant and sometime tramp. As an Eton boy, Orwell was clearly an upper-class rebel: rejecting his privileged background to sleep under Waterloo Bridge or wash dishes in Paris, or even live the life of an itinerate northern salesman. Yet the guy next to him under the bridge wasn’t roughing it due to his need for authenticity. It was due to his ghastly and intractable circumstances. There was no book in the back of his mind, no creative cashing-in on his outsider status.

Hence my view that Orwell’s an eccentric insider – as is James Blunt I’m afraid. Both are rebels – battling their backgrounds. Yet rebels with a cause, aided by the very backgrounds they so detest. Not only do they have plenty of open doors to push at, they know that the doors exist, as well as where and how to push them – all of which makes them insiders. So, nice try James: but the wazzock’s right on this one.

News item number two came from Julie Walters. Being interviewed in the The Guardian, she bemoaned the lack of openings for working class actors compared to the 1960s and 70s. This Smethwick-born daughter of a decorator is something of a heroine of mine, not least for her portrayal of the eponymous Rita in the 1983 film Educating Rita. It told the story of a woman breaking free from her background through adult education. She infiltrated the effete elite sharing her course, though remained the outsider – always the observer, with their acceptance of her making her as uncomfortable as her previous fate as a working-class baby-factory.

The brilliance of that role provided me with one of my most telling examples of true outsidership, so I’m grateful (and to Willy Russell’s masterful screenplay). Yet last weekend Walters’ opinion on the state of modern drama provided me with even more food-for-thought.

Her ilk could no longer make it in acting, she claimed. Working class actors were being shut out – pointing, as the cause, to the death of the “full grant” to study at college. I too benefited from a full grant – as a mature student at Manchester University. Yet her words made me realise just what a vital ticket it was to my educational broadening, as well as my (eventual) individualistic fulfilment: one well away from the expectations of others.

Certainly, higher education is the salvation of many working or lower-middle class outsiders – often with a creative bent in one form or another. And Walters, like me and many others, relied on that grant. In fact, Walters came off the back of a post-war uprising in genuinely working class drama, much of it from the “angry young men”: playwrites and novelists such as Alan Stillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Osbourne, Harold Pinter and Rita’s creator Willy Russell. Many were individualists from poor backgrounds, yet able to afford college thanks to the government paying their tuition fees. After the 1962 Education Act – and the introduction of a means-tested maintenance element to the grant – their numbers exploded.

Of course, this wasn’t just in drama. Music too, many of Britain’s most famous pop-groups emerged from the proliferation of art colleges – including the Beatles, The Who, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Ian Dury (and The Blockheads), Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. And it even impacted art itself, with the British variant of pop-art (called the Independent Group, prior to the Britart/YBA movement in the 1990s) being led by working class misfits such as Bradford-born David Hockney, school drop-out Richard Hamilton and immigrants’ son Eduardo Paolozzi (he of the Tottenham Court Road tube station murals).

They were outsiders all: rebelling against their tribal circumstances and limited cultural aspirations through creative pursuits. As a generation, they transformed Britain’s art scene into the world-beating soft-power behemoth it became. Thanks, in part, to the full grant.

Of course, the grant was abolished in 1999 – replaced by loans – meaning that true, disadvantaged, outsiders will not have the opportunities of Walters’ golden generation. Their fight will be all the harder, which is where my new book comes in.


Available on Amazon: The Outside Edge by Robert Kelsey

My New Year’s resolution: think “beautiful thoughts”

“Come on you old bag, get a move on.”

I didn’t actually utter these words. But I thought them – stuck in the queue in the bakers on New Year’s Eve. In fact, I think such thoughts a lot. Sometimes “bag” is replaced with “git”, and “old” may become “stupid”. But, other than that, I’m pretty much guaranteed to think along these lines when queuing behind someone that takes too long deciding what they want, or is too chatty, or fumbles with change, or wants to add one more thing, or enquires about the bloody custard tarts in the sodding window. Anything, in fact, other than hurry-up and go away.

So I’m going to try and not do this in 2015. It clearly does me no favours. After all, thinking negative thoughts – especially insulting ones – is barely an improvement on actually saying them. Sure, if my thoughts had been spoken out-loud they’d have been trouble. I’d have probably been (politely) asked to leave. But my body language was undoubtedly doing much of the talking for me: advertising my general detestation of humanity and polluting the festive aura imbibing that warm Southwold bakery.

Certainly, such impatience is detrimental to my mental and physical well-being. There I stood, a dark presence, within a friendly artisan-bakers on the Suffolk coast. Outside, the winter sun brightened the street and cheered the strolling families. Inside, the Christmas decorations bobbed gaily with every breeze from the busy doorway, and coffee-drinkers sat rosy-cheeked in the hubbub.

In fact, I’d turned up in a good mood. I parked right outside and was pleased to see my favourite sour dough still stocked. Yet my impatience with one customer – a small, sweet-looking lady in a smart woollen coat with a matching hat – had turned me into a brooding, stressed-out, monster: all because she wanted to ponder the options and create a bit of small-talk. Jeez.

That I can now see the problem as mine – all mine, not hers or the shop’s – is progress, of sorts. But that doesn’t help at the time. What would help when in the zone would be the injection of beautiful thoughts. It’s not enough to suppress negativity or just bite my tongue. Flowery niceness must live inside my head, not just on the outside. That “old bag” is, after all, an elegant lady: someone deserving of respect and patience. And her hesitations and chat was evidence of the joy she found in simple things, such as the overpriced pastries in this up-itself foody bread shop.

Of dear, my inability to sustain such syrupy thoughts for even one sentence suggests – not that I am innately nasty (although that might be others’ conclusion) – but that the remedy must be attainable. Too giant a mental leap is unreasonable, not least because it moves us into the realms of fantasy. We’ll simply disbelieve, and therefore quickly discount, thoughts that are too manufactured: especially if we’re genuinely pressed for time, and she is actually – when all’s said and done – being a bit dithery.

But it’s not beyond reason for me to see the positives, and focus on them. I could have been grateful it was only one person delaying me – the queue at Two Magpies Bakery can snake out the door on such days. I could have also noticed that the server was trying to be efficient, as well as engaged. She even passed a glance my way – showing some acknowledgement of my wait (a miracle in itself in many shops). So there was hardly a bakery-wide conspiracy to thwart my progress, despite the thick black cloud so obviously hovering just above this particular customer’s head.

What takes a little more effort is empathy. Actually stepping into others’ shoes and seeing things through their eyes. For instance, the lady seemed remarkably sprite for her age, despite her indecision. And she was smiling – suggesting happiness and age can go together (however unlikely the prospects are in my case). And she was well dressed, suggesting she was on her way somewhere that was important to her. Of course, this probably explains her quandary – perhaps she was trying to second-guess the preferences of others for her arrival gift, making this a tricky but vital choice involving different generations and fads and fashions that move on too fast (even in food).

Yet she was also alone, meaning that – most likely – this encounter was, in itself, significant to her. It was human contact: the abundance of which was one of the reasons I escaped the house on what was basically a minor, unimportant (and slightly selfish), errand. In fact, there’s every chance my passive aggression spoilt a crucial moment in this woman’s day – maybe even her year, given that I can now recall she was buying for others on a significant day in the calendar. What with my foot tapping and sharp breathing and my deliberately-hurried request to the assistant when the old bag, sorry lady, finally turned for the door with a “cheerio dear, and Happy New Year!”

Now I feel crap, which – of course – is the other major upside of trying to think beautiful thoughts (or at least, not negative ones). Thinking positively – or empathetically – helps you feel positive about yourself. The world feels like a better place, full of nice people. Who knows, I could have even joined-in her decision-making – perhaps helping her choose for the young-uns, knowing how fussy they can be as well as how mums can disapprove of too much sugary goo. Indeed, I could have made a new friend – putting a spring in my step and helping spread the positive charge of happiness that had been that bakery’s primary atmosphere prior to my arrival. It would certainly have been a better outcome than the one I ended up with. Again*.


*A postscript: while writing this article, someone posted this heart-warming though somewhat twee (sorry) Thai advert on my facebook wall (obviously thinking it would do me good), and I decided to order my good friend Roman Krznaric’s book Empathy, not least because I’d heard so many good things about it. All that, and it’s still only January 7th!