Thirty years ago Cherwell help change my life. I wanted to meet Richard Branson – who was much less well known in 1980 than today – to ask advice about how to become an entrepreneur. So a friend (Hugh Osmond) and I asked a colleague who edited the paper if we could interview Branson for publication. It was agreed and we met the bearded one on his houseboat on the Regent’s Canal in Little Venice – curiously only a few streets from where I now live.
It was an inspirational visit – we heard about the Sex Pistols, recording studios and the importance of taking risks to seize your objectives. And it helped us both on the road to self-employment.
Since then attitudes towards entrepreneurs at Oxford University have changed dramatically. In those days students aimed to become management consultants, bankers, advertising executives or train at the BBC once they had graduated. And while they still do, no-one planned to start a business. In fact we started one in our first year by accident. We held boisterous parties in my college rooms, and the Dean threatened to send me down unless they stopped.
So we stumbled upon the idea of using the nightclub in the Westgate Centre then known as Scamps as a student venue on a Monday night, with a different musical theme each week – hence the name, The Era Club. Originally we simply wanted a place so we could carry on meeting girls – and then Hugh suggested that we charge on the door, while the club took the bar money. And instead of hosting a party, we were in business – using zero capital.
I can still recall the moment I arrived half an hour before our first evening: a queue of guests had already formed outside the door. The exhilaration was fantastic, and I knew then that I wanted to build and own companies – the freedom and excitement of creating new ventures, with the satisfaction of seeing them succeed. We ran various clubs in Oxford, and also in Cambridge and Bristol – and even Hollywood, California one summer.
So even when I came down and took up respectable employment for a few years, I moonlighted in various projects at weekends and the evenings, knowing I was merely deferring the inevitable. And when I was 27 I decided that I wanted to control my own destiny: as William Ernest Henley said in his poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”
And that is really my message. That if you want to make a difference, if you want to feel the pride of invention and ownership, if you want to live life to the full, then I know of no better way to achieve that ambition than by embracing capitalism and working for yourself, rather than being a wage-slave for a boss.
Today the university boasts Oxford Entrepreneurs, the largest society of its kind in the world. I came to speak at an event a few years ago, and was hugely impressed by the enthusiasm of the attendees. I am enormously impressed by this level of keenness towards business, and it gives me great hope that Britain will continue to be a source of brilliant new commercial ventures and that Oxford will play a big part in that renaissance.