Comment: Apprentice entrepreneurs should turn off TV

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A UTUMN has returned, and so once again The Apprentice is back with us. Those who care to can tune in on Tuesday evening and watch the latest crop of executive wannabes plot, toil and contrive their way into a chance of going into business with the estimable Lord Alan Sugar.

The programme is approaching 
its tenth anniversary, having first aired in February 2005. It came 
hard on the heels of Dragons’ Den, which debuted in January of the same year.

The two quickly combined to create a juggernaut that many at the time welcomed. No longer stodgy and tiresome, the world of business became a provocative combination of personality, intrigue and cut-throat competition. More people than ever, it seemed, were attuned to the ethos of commerce and entrepreneurship.

So the acolytes swelled in number, but at what expense? Geared to entertain, these programmes are business as pantomime – as one writer put it, “a combustible mix of reality show and soap opera with a pinch of business”.

Which is not a problem in and of itself. Like the doughty, brash nitwits who keep pouring into the Big Brother house, contestants on The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den know what they’re signing up for. It’s not as if it’s Season One, after all.

But a decade on and signs are emerging of deeper repercussions. Many of those who came of age during this period believe the parody to be reality. They look at these aggressive, bigger-than-life characters and think “That’s not me” – and turn their attention elsewhere.

Many of these young people can, of course, successfully set up in business. When they choose to opt out, the economy loses a little bit more of its lifeblood.

Fiona Godsman of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) – which helps students set up in businesses – says there is no doubt the Dragons’ Den stereotypes are offputting for many young people. SIE is tackling this with a focus on social innovation, which Godsman says has brought in many more applicants than would otherwise be the case.

Young Enterprise Scotland (Yes) works closely with SIE in the country’s colleges and universities and is also endeavouring to clear up misconceptions about who is “the right sort of person” to go into business.

Last month it launched “Your Enterprise Journey”, a questionnaire focused on important personality traits for entrepreneurial success. Available to schools and centres of higher education across the country, hundreds of young people in Aberdeen, Linwood, Lochaber, Orkney and Stirling have already been assessed.

Geoff Leask, chief executive of Yes, says no entrepreneur has all of the traits needed to succeed. The key is to identify weaknesses and seek support from others in those areas.

That’s the stuff of proper business – jabbing fingers and growling “You’re fired” is the realm of entertainers. «