Roger Trapp: Business doesn't have to have an American accent

For all our attempts to be as enterprising as the US, the European model suits us better
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The Independent Online

Moreover, we are rapidly approaching National Enterprise Week. If this has passed you by, the second such week takes place from 14 to 20 November and is - to quote from the promotional literature - "a celebration of enterprise in all its forms, with hundreds of activities and events across the UK". Last year's campaign saw 158,000 people attending 1,172 events run by 481 organisations and was hailed by none other than Mr Brown. " That an idea that started with only a few people and little financial support should become in such a short time such a big campaign involving thousands across the country is itself a tribute to the spirit of enterprise, " he said. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he. But you could also argue that if enterprise was so prevalent it would not need some sort of Notting Hill Carnival-type event to celebrate it.

Leave such arguments aside, though. The event about to happen is an impressive coming together of what seems like just about every organisation in the area that you might have heard of (and a few more besides). It is part of the "Make Your Mark - start talking ideas" campaign, which "aims to foster a culture of enterprise among people in their teens and twenties" and is backed by a coalition of businesses, charities, education bodies and the Government. The idea is to inspire young people to be "enterprising in the broadest sense".

And the means? Well, to judge from last year, it is the usual mix of workshops, talks by "role models", and general networking by people who are already, to some degree at least, enterprising. Indeed, such events are wonderful opportunities for any organisation with any aspiration to be seen as innovative, enterprising, forward-thinking (in other words, anything that is good about business) to put themselves forward. Hence the crowded list of bodies involved.

As for what of real use the event is to young people embarking on careers, the so-called target audience, is really hard to say, at least in the short term.

Something tangible that has come out of last year's event, however, is " The Enterprise Report", recently published by Enterprise Insight, co-ordinator of the "Make Your Mark" campaign. Although much of the content will hardly surprise anybody with any exposure to " enterprise", the hard facts contained in it make some pretty tough reading - not least, one suspects, for Mr Brown, who has paid so much attention to enterprise.

A few statistics: our entrepreneurship rate is 6.3 per cent - compared with 11.3 per cent in the US; when people are asked whether they would prefer self-employment or employment, 46 per cent in the UK say self-employment. This figure is only just ahead of the EU average of 45 per cent and way behind the 61 per cent in the US; people in the UK have a high fear of failure, with 33 per cent saying such fears would stop them starting a business, compared with 21 per cent in the US.

Furthermore, British people are less likely to know an entrepreneur than those in the United States.

You get the picture. For all the talk about enterprise, it is still seen as something of a minority sport. In other words, self-employment is something many people might consider if all else fails (an attitude that perhaps still owes something to the initiatives designed to reduce the unemployment figures back in the 1980s) rather than being part of the lifeblood of the nation in the way that it is in the US.

This obsession with the US is in danger of getting us nowhere. We are misled into thinking that because we (for the most part) share a common language, we have a lot in common. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should have made watchers of the television news aware that this is not really true. The US is still in lots of ways a pioneering nation where, for many, enterprise is not an option - it is the only option. Without the safety net of European social security, people have to make a go of it. And if at first you do not succeed you have to try again.

This might explain why British enterprise levels are little different from those in continental Europe - for all our attempts to characterise ourselves as more businesslike than our fellow members of the EU.

What we really need to do is spend less time pretending that everybody has what it takes to be an entrepreneur and more on making business as a whole more attractive. Because, as the Enterprise Week material makes clear, enterprise can take place in a normal workplace too - and many of the best growing businesses are spawned from those that are already established.

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