Rajeeb Dey MBE, the youngest member of Future Planet’s advisory committee at the age of 31, has been founding and leading organisations since he was just 17. From entrepreneurial internship platform “Enternships.com” to professional learning services provider “Learnerbly,” Raj’s businesses have channelled his passion for reshaping the landscape of work and education in the 21st century. This week in the Future Planet Blog we pick his brains on start-ups, social impact and the “series A crunch.”
“I suppose I became an entrepreneur by accident.”
At first this might sound like false modesty from the man who spent much of his time at University presiding over the Oxford Entrepreneurs student society, has subsequently founded multiple companies and has been deeply involved in government-backed policy initiatives on the subject, most notably StartUp Britain. “I stumbled into it by trying to change things that I thought needed to change, fix what I thought was broken. It wasn’t about wanting to start a business.”
Dey was only 17 when UnLtd – the foundation for social entrepreneurs of which he is now a Trustee – offered him a small grant of five thousand pounds to establish what became the English Secondary Students’ Association (ESSA), now known as Student Voice. “If that hadn’t happened, I don’t think I’d be doing what I do today,” he says.
In that instance, the problem that ‘needed to change’ was the absence of a powerful student voice at school level. “As the ultimate customers of education, students should be engaged in feedback and improvement of the system: I found out that most countries had bodies for that but the UK didn’t.”
Later, he found himself at the heart of another problem: the 2008 financial crisis and the increasing difficulties that young people were experiencing in finding work. “I became passionate about helping people into employment and about encouraging them to consider entrepreneurship as an option for that.” Thus Enternships.com was born.
A “bottom-up” philosophy the consistent thread running through his subsequent projects in education, to work, to job creation, to talent development. “The world has changed,” he reflects. “With today’s technology, with the rise of millennials, the ways in which people consume and share information have changed. Education, professional development, recruitment - all of this must change as well.”
At his latest start-up, Learnerbly, every employee at the companies with whom they partner receives their own dedicated “learning budget” and can choose from a range of training courses, conferences, educational materials and other resources. Many of these have been recommended and reviewed by staff at other companies in the same industry. The individual can even spend the money on something else, with their manager’s approval, as long as they review it for the wider Learnerbly network.
Moving away from the old model, in which companies determine their employees’ training needs from the top down, the new model leverages individual empowerment and inter-firm knowledge sharing.
“This issue is particularly important for millennials,” says Dey. “They want to learn, to grow, to develop their skills. This is one of the biggest reasons why they’ll join a company, and one of the main reasons why they choose to leave.” The two major groups currently consuming his service are fast-growing technology companies and advertising agencies – relatively young firms with relatively young workforces.
Funding in focus
“The UK has a very strong early stage funding scene, with angel investors and seed investors. EIS and SEIS relief for angel investors has also helped more money to go into the space. There are a lot of business competitions to get people started, especially at top universities,” says Dey. “But then comes the pre-series A crunch. “A lot of companies can get started but it is far harder to find investors for that series A fundraising. Later, at growth stage, more money is available. But that’s a big hurdle.”
In some ways, he notes, the US climate is somewhat more benign for start-ups – particularly those that emerge from university tech transfer – than the UK. “The UK does perhaps take a more onerous and heavy-handed approach to intellectual property,” he explains. “The US is more light-touch. There’s this philosophy at places like Stanford that you should support start-ups to do well and that when they do well the founders will often come back and donate to the university.”
Dey gained his first hands-on experience of the US university innovation environment in 2008, while collaborating with the Global Entrepreneur Programme at the government department then known as UK Trade and Investment – now the Department for International Trade. “We explored creating a new university venture capital fund focused on innovation. A fund called Peer Venture Partners had just been launched in the US and UKTI were potentially interested in replicating that in the UK,” he explains. “I was out there speaking with people, speaking with entrepreneurs.”
Yet the project did not proceed. “It was very forward-thinking, but the conclusion was that the UK was just not ready for that as a model. It would also have been very hard to fundraise in the climate at the time (the financial crisis had just hit).”
He has therefore watched with great interest as new firms and models have subsequently emerged in the UK to support the development of university-related innovation. “There are more specialist university-based funds starting. There’s more private money flowing into the sector. Models like CIC [Cambridge] and OSI [Oxford] have emerged.”
As an advisor to Future Planet Capital, Dey sits at the front line on these developments, working to improve the investment ecosystem around entrepreneurship. “These are exciting changes. A lot of progress has been made. But a lot more still needs to be done,” he states. This ‘accidental entrepreneur’ remains an advocate at heart.