Passed/Failed: An education in the life of James Caan, businessman and Dragons' Den investor
'At 12 I knew I would be an entrepreneur'
Thursday 25 February 2010
James Caan, 49, bought 50 per cent of a dog treadmill business as his first investment for the BBC2 series Dragons' Den. He has recently become chairman of the board of The Big Issue magazine. The Real Deal: My Story from Brick Lane to Dragons' Den is out now in paperback.
I never got the hang of art; amazingly, I happen to have married an artist, a painter. I think I was quite numerate from an early age and I was pretty good at geography and history. We only went to the mosque for the major religious festivals, as my father wasn't a particularly religious man. I don't remember there being an issue when I started attending the local Church of England primary school in Brick Lane.
I was quite shy and I found the school, Christchurch, a bit daunting at first because I had only come over from Pakistan two years before. It was a very small, cute school and I found friends very quickly. I have very happy memories of the teachers.
Forest Gate High School was a co-ed (thank goodness!) comprehensive with 1,000 pupils and I remember feeling incredibly daunted by the giants in the school – the sixth formers. However, I quickly found a group of friends. Even though there were only a handful of other Asian kids at school, I never felt different and never knowingly experienced any prejudice. I have very good memories. I was in the top stream and did just enough to get by. I didn't have the drive for university and excelling in my grades; I found watching my father growing his leather garment business was more rewarding. From the age of 12 I felt my future was going to be entrepreneurship. I went to school in one of my father's jackets, a different one every week, and I would sell them. In one transaction I was doubling my pocket-money of £1.50 a week. I think Dad must have cottoned on to the fact that I was taking a cut because he asked me what I'd sold it for. I was a bit nervous that I'd done something wrong but he laughed. He was absolutely delighted that I was showing a bit of initiative.
I didn't stay long enough to take the O-levels; you could leave at Easter after the mocks. No one from the top stream had ever left early but I knew what I wanted to do; I was going to run my own business some day, so what good would a handful of O-levels do me anyway? I seem to have done OK, but I feel strongly that education is so important. It is better to have education than not to have it. Today I educate 486 children; I fund a school in Pakistan. The only thing I regretted was that in my CV where it said "education" there was something of a blank. In 2002 I did an advanced management program at Harvard Business School. It was incredibly intensive: 7.30 am to 10.30 at night, seven days a week. My fellow students were all graduates and PhDs and studying came naturally to them. I struggled. I would get up at 5.30 every morning to do the homework because I couldn't retain the information otherwise.
Both my daughters got 10 As each in their GCSEs and three As at A-level. In one week last September, both my daughters had just graduated, my wife had just completed her Masters at St Martin's College of Art and I got an honorary doctorate at Leeds. My daughters had to work for their degrees – and I got mine in the post.
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