Should Enterprise Education Be More Than Business Literacy?

I was approached by a young woman in the Holiday Inn in Garforth yesterday.  She tugged gently at my trousers and asked me if I was interested in buying.

She was clutching a beetroot plant in a wonderfully hand painted plant pot, with a colourful and neatly laminated label saying ‘BEETROOT’.  She must have been six or seven and barely reached waist height.  She had a badge on her that gave me the name of her school and her job title in the social enterprise that they ran.  She was the “Sales Executive”.

She was one of the students from Leeds taking part in a wonderful event called ‘Social Enterprise Takes Off’ organised by the brilliant team of Enterprise Ambassadors at Education Leeds, led with so much enthusiasm, energy and knowledge by Mike Cooper and Chris Marsden.

“Do you want to buy my beetroot?” she asked.

“I would love to” I said, “but tell me, what should I do with it when I go on holiday?”

“That’s not  a problem – just put it in a bag and take it with you!”

“Ok. How much is your beetroot plant?” I asked sensing that she had not really grasped my holiday concerns.


“And do you know how much profit you will make if I buy your plant for £1?”

“Yes, about 80p.”

Sold – in so many ways!

The event was wonderful – not withstanding the slightly tired and dated environs and buffet of the Holiday Inn.  Some great speakers including Magic Man John Hotowka, Beermat Entrepreneur Mike Southon (“some people become entrepreneurs because no-one else will give them job – like my mate Mike Chitty over there” – thanks for that one Mike!), Make Your Mark Ambassador Sabirul Islam (check him out) and Nick Bowen inspirational head teacher of St Benet Biscop RC High school and advocate for Benet Enterprise – a school owned social enterprise into everything from professional theatre production (from scriptwriting to travelling productions) and event management to video making.  They are tapping into the current (and I suspect temporary) rich veins of public funding for all things social enterprise and turning over hundred of thousands each year raising significant funds to improve facilities at the school.  Apparently more skeptical members of staff  ‘were soon won over when they saw the laptops and other kit that the ‘surpluses’ from Benet Enterprises were able to supply‘.  Setting aside the issue of using unpaid pupils and adults paid by the state to compete with local businesses for a minute they are doing some remarkable work.

Mercifully not a Dragon, Failed Apprentice or (not so) Secret Millionaire in sight.  (I have no problem if they bring real substance and experience and engage fully, ‘Yorkshire boy done good’ Carl Hopkins is a great example of this – it is when they just bring their ‘celebrity’ and a carefully honed sales pitch for their latest book/consultancy/educational board game/business development workshop that I struggle.)

But the star attractions were the students working (and I mean WORKING) an exhibition space that felt more like a Mediterranean souk than a fusty business exhibition.  As soon as I got my wallet out to exchange my pound for my beetroot I was beset by passionate sales executives hawking fair trade chocolate, handmade wooden signs (“any design, any wood you like”) and glassware. Young people selling with energy and passion, plants, books, woodwork, plastics, ‘stone’ plant troughs made from polystyrene.  Young people who clearly loved their businesses and their products.  Contrast this with the (almost uniformly) sombre, conservative and impassionate business exhibitors at the Chartered Institute of Housing a few miles up the road in Harrogate.

I have no doubt that work of the Enterprise Ambassadors from Education Leeds and the hard working pupils and teachers who make these things happen will lead to a much more business literate generation in the future.  And that matters.

However there is more to excellent ‘enterprise education’ than business literacy and great teamwork.

It is about understanding passion and potential whether that lies in ‘business’, ‘ballet’, ‘beatboxing’ or ‘beetroot’.

It is about belief in ‘self’ as an active agent in shaping the future and building a better life, society and world.

It is about the power of education and the development and realisation of potential in whatever Ken Robinson refers to as your ‘Element’.  And the point of engagement for that, indeed the vehicle for the fulfillment of that, might not be ‘business’.

So it is time for a broader conception of the enterprising student.  It is not about the next generation of entrepreneurs but about the next generation of cellists, authors, policemen and women, nurses, gardeners, mathematicians, politicians and bankers.  About the next generation full stop.

Everyone should have the opportunity to become ‘business literate’ by the time they leave full time education.  But primarily, fundamentally and at their very heart they need to be enterprising, creative, innovative, bold and self confident – and this might have little or nothing to do with entrepreneurship and business literacy.

As I write this sat at my kitchen table I am looking out the door at my beetroot plant in its brightly hand painted pot.  There is a part of me wondering about their costings and worrying that, like so many social enterprises, they have missed or chosen to hide, some of their real costs of production.

But there is a much, much larger part of me that hopes and prays that the young ‘sales executive’ has learned much more than just how to spot opportunities to turn a profit.  That she has learned more about herself and what she could become.  About her self interest and her power to realise her potential and how she might really be able to make the difference that she wants to see in the world.

It is these lessons that we enterprise educators should be teaching.

I am a freelance trainer, consultant, thinker, speaker and writer on the subjects of enterprise, entrepreneurship, management and leadership If you would like to work with Mike then please get in touch.  mikeatmichaelchittydotcodotuk

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  1. great post! wish more would think the way you do and help the kids sell beetroots. From tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I reckon it is all about inspiring a can-do/possibilities/opportunities mind-set.

    I do have to stick up for Rachel Elnaugh, the former Dragon who came to speak at our e-factor expo – she was great, inspiring and talked about the realities of business, good and bad. AND I was lucky enough to chat to the lovely and hilarious James from the apprentice the morning after he was booted out on the show and asked him what advice he would have for people who dreamed of being self-employed but who daren’t take the plunge. He said know your onions and work your way up if necessary to really know the business. I thought this was a good bit of advice, though the other side to that is that sometimes you can have the business sense to not know your onions that well technically in terms of the product, but you can make it happen anyway. Obviously there are different onions, requiring different levels of knowledge.

    See you soon,


    • That IS top advice from James! know your onions and serve your time! As I said if they ‘engage’ rather than pronounce platitudes from the platform many of them can be excellent value.

      Looking forward to coming back to Grimsby. We getting some training dates lined up?

      Love to e-factorites. Or should that be e-factoristas?


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