Interview with Stefan Allesch-Taylor

The entrepreneur and philanthropist on not going to university, student start-up mistakes and Brexit

October 19, 2017

Stefan Allesch-Taylor is a financier, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He has co-founded, or invested in, more than 40 companies across 15 countries over the past 25 years and helped to co-found and lead several charities operating in the UK and Africa, including Pump Aid and the Central London Rough Sleepers Committee. He is King’s College London’s first professor of the practice of entrepreneurship.

Where and when were you born? 
I was born in St Albans in Hertfordshire in 1969.

How has this shaped who you are? 
I was born there but left within a day. I’ve been very lucky in terms of my formative years. I grew up in a very poor area of Portsmouth, but, aged 11, was sent to Giggleswick School, a public school in deepest North Yorkshire. This has given me a profound understanding of both sides of the economic divide in this country.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Credit isn’t money you don’t have to pay back.

You didn’t attend university but were a millionaire by the age of 27. Why should aspiring entrepreneurs go to university, rather than straight into work?
The ability to study a subject in depth, to demonstrate to your future employer (or your investors for that matter) that you have this ability, is extremely important. As is embracing all the university has to offer both intellectually and in practical terms regarding the workplaces that student might be interested in joining.

What are the best and worst things about your job at King’s?
The opportunity to impart my 25 years of experience in business (for "experience" read "mistakes") to a new generation of business leaders in the hope that they can avoid the more obvious pitfalls into which so many of us have fallen. I am also forever learning so much about myself from the King’s20 cohort, which are the 20 student start-ups selected from more than 160 candidates each year for the King’s Accelerator support scheme. It’s a privilege to have this job for that reason alone. 

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That entrepreneurship can’t be taught. Total nonsense.

What advice do you give to your students?
It’s a never-ending flow of advice as I lecture and train students for a year during the launch of their businesses. One of the key things is a) understand that it’s your job to make the case to investors and not the other way around and b) maintain a fluid battle strategy. It’s absolutely OK to change your mind and your strategy when creating or running a business – in fact, it’s the one great advantage you have over those huge companies you admire so much.

What is the most common mistake made by student entrepreneurs?
Being rigid in their strategy in the face of evidence shouting “change your course!” And assuming that, because they may be inventors, they are also business-minded. You need to learn to be business-minded – it’s a lot more than common sense. 

Tell us about an investment you’ve made in a student business. Why did you get involved with that project?
You would think that with my background I’d be quietly backing the best-in-class start-ups. Sadly not. We established the Allesch-Taylor scholarships for the most promising start-ups to win. So I don’t invest in any. I give the money to the best businesses to help get them off the ground. Last year we made awards to 12 student businesses and by having real money in them, it focused students’ minds – and mine – during our ensuing discussions.

You are almost seven feet tall. Has your height helped or hindered your career ambitions?
Well, I always wanted to be a jockey so my life has been one huge disappointment.

What keeps you awake at night?
Brexit.

What do you do for fun?
Like most entrepreneurs, work is fun and fun is work. But, if you push me, I’ll tell you that I have a live radio show [on online Soho Radio] and I make films.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not going to university.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Provide more support for universities to help create new businesses and then scale them. With more than 50 per cent of the UK’s GDP deriving from small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and just under 50 per cent of the UK’s private sector workforce employed in SMEs, much more should be done to help them grow. No national network of institutions is better placed to assist in this than universities.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
There are actually five "Stefan’s Rules", but I’m not telling you them. I’ll give you one out of the five for the flavour – “never bother with anyone that doesn’t bother with you”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Alain Fuchs has been elected the new president of PSL Research University Paris. The current president of CNRS, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, which has a budget of around €3.3 billion (£3 billion) and employs 32,000 permanent staff, will take office at PSL – Paris Sciences et Lettres, which was formed in 2010 – on 24 October. Professor Fuchs takes over at PSL – France’s highest ranked institution in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings at 72nd – from interim president Marc Mézard, director of École Normale Supérieure, after previous permanent incumbent Thierry Coulhon was appointed an adviser to French president Emmanuel Macron in June.

Rob Woodward, chief executive officer of STV Group plc, is to become the new chair of Glasgow Caledonian University’s court, its governing body. Mr Woodward, who is stepping down as head of the Scottish broadcaster in December, will take up his new role in February. He will take over from current chair Hazel Brooke, who has held the role for 10 years. GCU’s vice-chancellor Pamela Gillies said Mr Woodward’s “extensive experience of governance in higher education … coupled with his business acumen and demonstrable commitment to helping transform the lives and opportunities of our young people” meant he was “perfectly suited to chairing GCU over the coming years.”

Judy Clements has stepped down as chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the UK sector’s main ombudsman. Ms Clements joined the OIA as its head and independent adjudicator in April 2016. Ben Elger, a former chief executive at Reading University Students’ Union, has become interim chief executive, while Felicity Mitchell, deputy adjudicator since 2009, steps up to become interim adjudicator.

Christy Johnson has become vice-principal at Plymouth College of Art. The Californian artist and educator was most recently professor and chair of the art department at Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle, having previously spent 18 years in the UK at University for the Creative Arts, in Kent.

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