Earlier today, I had a meeting with a hugely impressive young lady called Shazia Saleem. Shaz, who’s in her early twenties, and I have been talking regularly over the past few months about two ventures that she’s involved in: one is a really smart video-led initiative to encourage young entrepreneurs; the other, which is really quite a big deal, is a breathtakingly ambitious food business that, frankly, could be both a huge commercial hit, but might also fundamentally shift race relations in this country. Like I said, she’s an amazing young woman.
Anyway, just as Shaz left, she asked me whether I’d be watching The Apprentice tonight. "Oh, yes," I said, "our readers seem to really enjoy it and I’ll be filing my review late tonight."
"My friends and I like Raef," she replied. "I reckon he and Lee are the top two. But we don’t rate any of the women. They just don’t seem up to it." For Shaz, and her entrepreneurial friends, the programme is the focal point of the week.
Contrast Shaz’s aspiration and optimism with the sneering, humourless fraternity who dismiss The Apprentice as irrelevant to entrepreneurialism, ambition and all the issues that Real Business has championed for over the past 12 years.
I won’t bore you by rehashing their arguments at length: The Apprentice isn’t real business; commerce is more complex than that; they’re all only in it for the publicity etc etc etc. Businesspeople, they droan, have more to worry about than the toings and froings of a miscellaneous bunch of wannabes.
What these dullards don’t understand is that, for the past three decades, generations of existing and aspiring entrepreneurs have struggled for credibility and visibility in an overwhelmingly City-focused business environment.
For 30 years and more, the UK entrepreneurial economy (if that isn’t too pompous a phrase) has lacked a focal point for its endeavours; a platform from which its contribution to wealth-creation and economic growth can fully be understood. The full-page entrepreneur profiles, the TV programmes dedicated to entrepreneurialism, the policy debates about independent wealth-creation are all very new to Britain. And, frankly, in a squeaky-bum time for the economy (to adapt Sir Alex Ferguson), entrepreneurship could easily be packed off to the back row – cf, the Capital Gains Tax fiasco.
Sure, I acknowledge that Sir Alan’s great entrepreneurial days are probably behind him; that his business’s growth is these days sustained by property price rises rather than his trading skills (no-one mention the Emailer!).
But Sir Alan and The Apprentice are, thankfully, not some naturalistic representation of business life; David Attenborough creeping through the bushes to reveal a manic Lee (although, actually, that sounds quite fun).
The real purpose of such programmes is to sustain and encourage a generation of aspiring entrepreneurial people like Shaz who really believe that, with a fair wind and regardless of colour, creed or background, they too can build a "business empire" and change the trajectory of their lives. The Apprentice, and others, give Shaz and her friends a focal point for conversation; make them realise that they’re part of a bigger social change that’s pushing Britain into exciting, unexplored new directions.
Britain needs young people to consider entrepreneurial endeavour and to feel encouraged in that choice. Shaz cares who wins. And so do we.
PS: in tonight’s episode, Clare, Lee and Lucinda were brilliant. Raef stuck his neck out and made a high-risk wedding dress selection and was massively vindicated. And Sara Dhada got the boot for being the sales equivalent of a misaligned machine gun.
Good riddance to her – and to the sneerers.
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