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Editor’s Note: Sir Tom Hunter was knighted in 2005 for services to entrepreneurship and philanthropy. A long-term advocate of “giving back,” Tom has championed the cause of philanthropy in Europe. The son of a local shop owner, Tom started his first business selling sports shoes from the back of a van with a £5,000 loan from his dad, building this business into Europe’s largest independent sports retailer and eventually selling it in 1998 for £290 million. Tom and his wife, Lady Marion Hunter, went on to establish The Hunter Foundation (THF). At the core of their philanthropy are two key principles – that philanthropy is not a substitute for government investment and that the poorest of the poor require a “hand up,” not a “hand out.”
Last month, Hunter was awarded the Carnegie Medal Add now
Tell me a little bit about the founding of the Hunter Foundation. What motivated its creation, and what was its original purpose?
As a family we’d always given back so we had history there, but we really only got serious about philanthropy when I sold my first business in 1998 for a great deal of money. As we were concluding the deal on a long list of considerations given to me by the advisers was establishing a Foundation, which was an efficient way of ring-fencing our giving. So we allocated £10M there and then as a starting point. But in 1998, £10m was a lot of money to me (and still is), so I thought hold on, we’d better get serious about this, so we constituted the Foundation with a focus on education and entrepreneurship, but with enough ‘wriggle room’ as we would say to allow us to dip in to other opportunities. I then spent a lot of time educating myself for a new role as a philanthropist and ended up focusing on venture philanthropy. Vartan Gregorian was and remains a huge inspiration to the direction of travel we’ve taken.
As a champion of philanthropy in Europe, how would you describe the current landscape of “giving back” in the region?
I’d say we’re where the U.S. was twenty years ago, there are quite a few pioneers but we are some distance from mainstreaming philanthropy as something most wealthy people consider at the very least. The good news is there are a lot of relatively young entrepreneurs who’ve made substantial money and are now committing to philanthropy, which I believe will move Europe forward in leaps and bounds.
What is the proper role of philanthropy in society, and when does the government need to step in?
In our view philanthropy is akin to risk capital. Governments in general hate taking risks and have a horrendous fear of failure. The truth is if we do what we have always done, societies hardest problems will never be solved and Government, in general, will keep applying sticking plasters not solutions. So our philosophy on Government is this: we’ll take or share the risk, pilot innovation, prove it works, then you can adopt it in Government and deliver those solutions at scale.
As someone who is passionate about entrepreneurship, what are some ways in which you’re trying to advance the research, thinking and practice of this discipline, and what kind of impact are you having?
Firstly we endowed the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde to apply world class thinking and research to both how we develop more entrepreneurs and to understand what makes them successful—then apply that knowledge. Through the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which the Centre is part of, we’ve also benchmarked where nations are in the league tables and to a degree, why.
Hence by understanding the challenges, we are now a few steps down a long road in trying to, in Scotland at least, move from a culture that fears failure and is very inherently dependent upon the state, to a culture that believes in a can-do attitude and applies that can-do mentality not just to building business but to education, government, health and so on.
In terms of impact, I’d say its early days but we’ve moved enterprise and entrepreneurship a lot further up the political agenda than it was when we started out. More important than that, I see the young people in schools come alive with enterprise education and I know this isn’t my agenda, its theirs.
What’s next for the Hunter Foundation, and what are some issues or endeavors that you’re looking forward to over the coming years?
On the immediate horizon is the vote on Scottish Independence and I feel deeply uncomfortable that those who’ve not made up their minds (me included) have very little evidence on which to make the biggest decision this country has taken in 300 years. Hence, we’re mulling how we can inject some semblance of evidence-led debate there to inform, not influence, that debate.
In Rwanda, we’re also currently developing a hybrid social enterprise that blends capitalism and social benefit whereby we’re investing in a food oil manufacturing facility that will work with farmers (100,000+) to produce for the factory. Our profits will be reinvested for the common good but our co-investors are all firmly there for the profit; I guess its a Yunus+ model and it will be interesting to see how that develops.
Medium to long term I absolutely believe two things. Firstly that we can find a solution to poverty both in the Western and developing worlds. Secondly I also believe Scotland could lead a second enlightenment, we led the first, so why not?
More down to earth, we have the data set so now my ambition is to get Scotland to the top division in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor country list – a hard challenge but a good one to have. In Africa, I look forward to continuing our exciting partnership with former President Clinton (Clinton Hunter Development Initiative) working with President Kagame of Rwanda, where we are helping, in a very small way, to enable Rwanda’s vision for their country to be delivered.
My view is if you can dream it you can do it, optimism prevails when you know you can get things done, and we will.