The City high-flyer who went back to school

A former athletics star and Merrill Lynch banker is turning 'lippy kids at the back of the class' into the entrepreneurs of the future. By Martin Baker
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Where do you start with Derek Browne? He's gone from near-delinquent, borderline drop-out schoolboy to foreign exchange dealer to sports agent to private banker – via a berth in the England athletics team as a triple-jumper.

And now with a hop, a skip and a jump, his latest career manifestation is – don't cringe, because in this case there's some meaning to this brutally overworked phrase – as a social entrepreneur.

I meet the chief executive of Entrepreneurs in Action (EiA) for coffee, sticky buns and a chat at a café in Clapham, where he has just finished doing yet another of what seems to be an endless round of presentations, seminars and coursework. Maybe Browne is tired out by the exertions of the morning, but for a chap who "was always a bit of a talker, a teacher's nightmare at school, the cheeky kid at the back, the one-line specialist", he appears initially somewhat subdued.

But the caffeine, the starch and the conversation quickly revive him (he looks fit and strong, but doesn't like to be reminded of his former status as an athletics star as he tucks into his elevenses – "All that was about five stone ago").

EiA was founded by Browne in 2003 after he left Merrill Lynch's private banking division. It deals with young people (14- to 25-year-olds) and tries to teach them "the mindset for entrepreneurial success".

Initially, many of the youths EiA dealt with were failing or borderline failures (in an academic sense), as Browne himself so very nearly was. "But we're more into the talent space now," he says. "We're all about inspiring minds, inspiring talent. The question is how do we drive economic engagement? How do we get the best out of their talents with an economic outcome?"

Those are good questions. What is it, exactly, that Browne and EiA do? EiA is a private company that creates courses and training schemes, in conjunction with schools, universities and industry. The idea is to tap into the talent of the lippy kids at the back of the class who don't get academic life, and to promote the idea of using their skills in a business context. A recent project is being run with the support of the Young, Gifted and Talented programme.

Some of the courses now sound like rip-offs of The Apprentice, though they pre-date the BBC show. Browne talks of "a classroom-to-boardroom course that seems to really change young people's lives. We take them out of school for a week, put them in teams and give them a business challenge, finishing with a presentation in a boardroom at the end of the week."

With clients and sponsors that include quoted companies such as Serco, and Barclays, Electricité de France and Marks & Spencer, not forgetting A-list institutions such as Cambridge University, Browne has sky-high ambitions for his business. Nevertheless, it remains small for the moment (turnover is pushing the seven-figure mark, and just four of his 40-strong team of associates are full-time).

He and his team have got the computer systems, have codified the courses and are ready to "scale up", says Browne. "I want to run a big business, yes. That's every entrepreneur's dream. I'm a social entrepreneur, and a key measure of success for us is the number of people whose lives we can improve."

Browne is persistently critical of the education system that served him poorly: "The CBI has just said it's pulling out of the new 14-19 diplomas. Consistently, the CBI has said that employers are not getting what they need from the education system. There's a conundrum – we're increasing academic performance on the face of it, but in terms of getting the best out of our biggest resource, we're flagging."

You can see Browne doing for business education what Jamie Oliver did for school dinners (though, one hopes, with better take-up rates). He argues that "at state schools we should bring back competitive sports. I think schools also should be measured not just by academic success. If, say, a school could say it got 30 of its pupils into jobs at IBM, that should be taken into account as a big success.

"You need the right skills, soft skills, people skills, business skills. Lost of kids with great gifts aren't being schooled in leadership and entrepreneurship in the way they should be."

And it's education that will see Browne, himself a Londoner, knocking on the door of Mayor Boris Johnson. He is keen to meet Boris, who can expect a forthright analysis of street crime: "In London, young people say: 'I'm from this area, so this is what's going to happen to me.'

"In some places, they don't have aspirations and they don't have hope. They see people just across the road in the City or another part of town who are going to succeed, and they aren't interested in them. In fact, they despise them and are angered by them. What you have to do is give these young people the skills to compete – self-belief, drive, determination."

By this time, Browne has moved through the gears into overdrive. He's a smart cookie with a good imagination, and what seems to drive him is the awareness (part fear, part anger) of what he might have become if he hadn't managed to talk himself into technical college after doing miserably at GCSE.

And if he hadn't been inspired by Eddie Murphy in the movie Trading Places, he wouldn't have blagged his way on to an HND course, and then into a seat in a foreign exchange trading room (at Barings – he once worked with Nick Leeson).

The gift of the gab and natural ability led the gregarious athlete to spend some time as a sports agent for the likes of the cricketers Phil Tufnell and Chris Lewis, the footballer Efan Ekoku, and several athletes. And then he moved on again to the private banking side of Merrill Lynch, harnessing his people skills and financial expertise.

So now Browne's on a double mission: to build a big business at the EiA, and banish the prospect of other kids making a mess of their lives, as he says he himself could so easily have done. When it comes, Boris would do well to take the call.