My first London Pride march was in about 1990 – I set up a stall in Kennington Park and my mum sold cakes to make back her petrol money. Some 25 years on, Pride in London has grown into a mammoth week-long festival attracting 750,000 people, drawing in £20m in revenue and with sponsors including Barclays, law firm CMS and SAB Miller.
For this, it is attacked on the grounds that what was “once a militant demonstration… has become a corporate-sponsored event far removed from any challenge to the ongoing injustices” that the LGBT community face. A group of trade unionists and activists declared in a letter to the Guardian that they are “determined to challenge the portrayal of Pride as a showcase for multinational companies”. Talk about getting it wrong.
Twenty-five years ago, there were drinks companies who made a fortune from gay bars who hid those bars from shareholders, and now it’s quite the opposite. It’s as if people on the left don’t want the new world – they want division and them and us policies. There was a strong theme in Labour’s election campaign of wanting to characterise business, developers and landlords as somehow evil and “other” – something I had thought died out in the 1980s.
As a prospective candidate for London mayor, in recent months I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship. What strikes me about Pride, which this year includes enterprise campaign StartUp Britain’s bus in the parade, are the commonalities between gay people of my generation and entrepreneurs; and for gay people, substitute any group who have had to battle social stigma or perceived difference.
Gay people in my age group generally felt we had nothing in common with the rest of the country. By the nature of the gay community, we met people from every background and had to get along and get on. Starting your own business, you make a success of it when you feel you have nothing to lose. I’ve had conversations about entrepreneurship with my team of campaign researchers. They’re all Oxbridge and all admit they wouldn’t want to be entrepreneurs. On an opportunity-cost ratio, there’s always a better job. They worry that they might lose money and about their fellow grads laughing at them if they failed.
Read more about diversity in the UK:
- OUTstanding’s CEO on the value of inclusive marketing for diversity
- A joined-up approach to the gender pay and opportunity gap is absolutely key
- Revealed: The UK’s most gay-friendly firms
People who want to do me harm politically refer to my business successes as a burden – as if you’re a sell out for making money. But people with a successful startup don’t know they’re making slightly more than average: they are battling through. I did it because I couldn’t get a job. I don’t want to make this too party political – the negative attitudes go beyond that – but what annoys me most about the rhetoric in the Labour leadership campaign is that while the candidates mention aspiration, it’s plonked there without context. It doesn’t come close to understanding the hours put in by people who start a business, the five years before they turn a profit and the constant burden of tax and regulation.
Maybe it’s a struggle to persuade people because we use this exotic-sounding French word – but entrepreneurship is simply the beginning of a business, an acorn. I wish we could move towards the American model of celebrating entrepreneurship and success that acknowledges the effort and risk people take going into business. There’s no red line dividing small business from large – listen to Sir Terry Leahy talking this week about Liverpool’s International Festival for Business and encouraging more British companies to export.
What people coming out about their sexuality has done is help all of us come out about everything in our lives – whether it’s mental health issues, problems with drink, our religious beliefs, etc. It’s a complete turnaround from when my parents grew up and you were encouraged to keep everything a secret, with disastrous effects. That’s the broader message of Pride.
Building my business in the 1990s, I discovered that people came to me not because they needed to, but because they wanted to. They loved the fact I was standing up for gay rights, and my success was therefore political. I made a difference helping people in high-risk groups get insurance. In fact, the objective of most entrepreneurs is helping the world – not in a vague, feel-good way; it’s their edge. “Disruptor” is a trendy word to describe something significant – entrepreneurs move old-fashioned processes and ideas on to a new level. That’s a political statement. Those anti-business voices show what we’re up against. Let’s take pride tomorrow in London Pride, and pride in our entrepreneurs.