Britain's got talent

Stephen Sykes | 13 years ago

Calling all environmental entrepreneurs: you’re in the perfect time and place to profit yourselves – and the planet.

It is an interesting fact that several of the wealthiest people in world history were born within a decade of one other in the 19th century, during the boom years of steel, rail, coal and oil. The individuals in question – including Andrew Carnegie (November 1835-August 1919) and John D Rockefeller (July 1839-May 1937) – were doubtless highly exceptional, talented people, but there can be no denying that serendipity played a part in the growth of their phenomenal riches.

As the Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out so convincingly in his 2008 book, Outliers, some of the most financially successful people throughout history have had the good fortune to be born at the right time and in the right place – in Rockefeller’s case, the (then) workshop of the world, the United States, during a phase of rapid industrialisation. Such people were excellently well placed to take full advantage when demand for their products/services was growing exponentially with the emergence of a new society: a more mobile population, requiring bigger buildings and factories and a local energy supply to fuel economic growth.

When the history of the 21st century, and the development of a new, more sustainable, low-carbon society, comes to be written, one wonders how many environmental business entrepreneurs will feature in the list of the super-rich? Which  individuals will be remembered as those who pursued the opportunity and took the risk – and were in the right place at the right time?

Even in these economically straitened times, opportunities abound to develop enterprises that address the environmental challenges that society faces around the world, such as carbon sequestration, renewables, brownfield regeneration and clean water. (Ironically, some of these enterprises will be engaged in addressing the carbon and contamination legacies of the very multibillionaires who made their fortunes from the carbon-heavy, pollution- and wealth-creating industrial activities of the 19th and 20th centuries.) So it seems probable that, among the current generation of environmental business people in the UK, US and Europe, some will not only have the chance to reap phenomenal wealth, but also to feel good about it, because they’ll be helping to tackle some of societies’ most pressing environmental problems.

What will be the driving characteristics of these environmental entrepreneurs? The winners will most probably, over the past 20 years or so, have accumulated excellent experience of managing environmental issues. They will have strong environmental technical/legal understanding, matched by commercial acumen. They will have developed superb business skills in order to generate or identify opportunities, and to move quickly to exploit them. They will have been working in the environmental and/or renewable energy sectors for some time, and will have global experience, especially in relation to the big and emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil and Russia.

Some of these entrepreneurs will have learnt their trade in the UK. These gifted people may have cut their teeth in the environmental service and professional sectors (a number of global environmental consultancies are run by Britons who first started working in the environmental field in the UK in the 1980s/early 1990s – right place, right time), but are likely to profit from selling high-value products for which there is massive global demand.  They need faith in their convictions, capital to get started and the ability to pick good, loyal teams. And to have been born in the right place, at the right time…

About the author

Stephen Sykes

Stephen is an entrepreneur. He has built businesses in the following sectors: data, insurance, remediation and consulting.  With a background in environmental law, Stephen is the Chair of the UK Environmental Law Association, director of the Castle Debates and a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck's Centre for Innovation Management Research.