Why entrepreneurs deserve their day in the sun

I DO NOT travel to find comfortable, rich, and hospitable people, or clear sky,” wrote the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. “But if there were any magnet that would point to the countries and the houses where are the persons who are intrinsically rich and powerful, I would sell all, and buy it, and put myself on the road today.”

I’ve come to Monaco, for the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year awards. Here I’m lucky enough to find some of the world’s top business innovators collected together. The setting is notable for comfort and clear skies – but as Emerson understood, it’s the presence of brilliant people, not just the sunlight glinting off harboured yachts, that makes the experience dazzling.

These awards give a rare day in the sun to the struggle involved in building a successful business. Over the last three years, as the global economy faltered, this year’s 49 finalists collectively doubled their revenues to $40bn (£26bn) and expanded their headcount by 40 per cent to over 200,000. Famous or not, these are some of the world’s greatest innovation stories – from Spain’s Grupo Codorniu, the world’s largest producer of cava, still improving after four and a half centuries in business, to Banco BASE, recognised as one of Mexico’s best forex traders.

It’s good to see that the UK too has a place of honour in this global showcase: Michael Spencer took home the title of world entrepreneur of the year in 2010 for Icap. This year’s UK contender is Lance Uggla, chief executive of Markit. Uggla founded the financial information firm in 2001, and in just over a decade has built it from a St Albans barn to a giant with more than 2,800 employees and offices in 22 countries.

The truth of running a business is not about champagne and glittering receptions. It is about the courage to take risks, the ingenuity to bring an idea to life and the dedication and adaptability to make it a commercial success. Such an undertaking involves working in the dark: for long hours, with limited information. It involves a endless struggle between the driving vision of an innovator and the institutional inertia that every successful firm develops. Success in such endeavours is heroic. It reminds us what is possible with guts, dedication and skill. And it does more: it brings a steady, peaceful revolution of the world for the better. The tireless work of entrepreneurs brings us the new goods and services we want, creates jobs and grows the economy.
Emerson also wrote that “in every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” This gala of entrepreneurial success should be a rebuke to that side of the UK beginning to swap welcoming business and celebrating private innovation for a suspicion of corporate tax arrangements and a commitment to unsustainable state spending. If we want a better world, we have to build it.

First published: City A.M., 7/6/13

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