Sandy Kennedy is reluctant to call himself an entrepreneur.
“I realize that’s ironic when you think about what I do,” he admits.
The chief executive of Entrepreneurial Scotland is back in the office after weeks travelling in Asia and the United States and is feeling patriotic.
“People are looking at us enviously,” he says. “The growing culture we have here of entrepreneurialism, and the support that has, means we have a real opportunity.”
The organisation – shortly to celebrate its first anniversary since the Saltire Foundation and Entrepreneurial Exchange merged – has just sent 26 people to Babson College in Massachussetts on its Saltire Fellows programme. This year it is 35% women; last year there were more women than men. The alumni, over 100 of them, are a powerful network drawn from all industries and all sectors – private, public and third sector.
“Our ambition is to make Scotland the most entrepreneurial society in the world,” Sandy says. “I realize that’s a bold statement but we need a step change. We need to foster an entrepreneurial mindset. We did actually have it in the late 19th and early 20th century here in Scotland, so really we’re just going back to that.”
Sandy was the first ever employee of The Saltire Foundation, as it used to be, and comes from a trading family and worked in his parents’ shops from the age of 14. After getting good grades at school he was encouraged to study law at university and found himself in London. “I was working on fancy mergers and acquisitions, but frankly I was bored out my skull!” he laughs.
Moving into venture capital made him happier, but it was the business owners who fascinated him, so when he moved back to Scotland he set up a business from scratch. It became part of a bigger business and he ran that too.
“So I suppose I am an entrepreneur,” he admits. “In Scotland we have this humility, and I think that can be a very powerful thing when it’s paired with perspective and confidence. It allows you to keep driving forward and not believe your own hype. You go from being good at something to being brilliant at it. Being entrepreneurial is a behaviour. It’s looking at an environment and saying ‘there is a better way to do this and I’m going to work out the answer and then I’m going to get the people and resources together to do it’. I think Scots have unique characteristics and skills. We have a small enough market that you can get people into the room quickly to solve a problem. However we are not big enough to serve most companies’ growth ambitions, so people have to think internationally from the start.”
Talking to children and young people about the concept usually begins with the same names – Richard Branson, Sir Tom Hunter – but he is often surprised by the attitudes and questions. While primary school children are imaginative and open, those at secondary school are more interested in starting salaries and where they might learn how to be an entrepreneur.
“One 11 year old said, ‘People are entrepreneurs because they see the world in a different way and they see opportunities others don’t’. I was amazed,” he says.
“Secondary school children are more concerned about the element of risk – we’re driving that innate curiosity out of them at some stage.”
His concerns are the decreasing interest in subjects like science and maths that are vital for so many industries then, at a later stage, the support that is needed at the growth stage of a company. Where Entrepreneurial Scotland really comes into its own, he believes, is in the network it offers entrepreneurs at both the start-up and established stages.
“By its nature, being an entrepreneur is lonely,” he explains. “You are the driving force, the one getting things moving. If you’re not there, it doesn’t really function without you – until you get to the management team stage. I’ve had members come to me privately and admit they wouldn’t be in business without the support of our organisation. The friendship and understanding offered by their peers is invaluable.”
He accepts that the very definition of entrepreneur varies from person to person. The perception is that they start with nothing and create something new using a mix of charisma and passion. In reality, the definition is much broader – and much more accessible.
“People might say, ‘Oh, I just run a business’ but it’s the mindset that’s the important bit. I do believe it’s about seeing opportunity,” he said.
“When I first started saying ‘We want Scotland to be the most entrepreneurial society in the world’ I said it in true Scottish fashion – humbly. I kind of whispered it. But the more influential people I’ve spoken to about it, the more I’ve heard them say well, of course we can, it’s just what we do when we get there.”