What would Michael Young do?

I’ve been thinking about Michael Young a lot recently. Not least because it’s all change at the Young Foundation with the appointment of Helen Goulden as Chief Executive there which is great news. But when we topped 90 ventures supported at Bethnal Green Ventures, I remembered that people say Michael helped to create that number of organisations.

Perhaps it’s easier these days to start a new venture as technology allows you to prototype and test services in a way that wasn’t possible for much of Michael’s life. According to one (tongue in cheek) account of Michael’s method, it doesn’t sound like it was too hard though:

“So here’s what you do: you spot a problem, imagine a solution and give it a working title. Then you write to everyone who might conceivably have an interest in it, and many who don’t; produce a paper taking in the resulting comments, without once losing sight of the original notion; form a steering committee; set up a charitable trust or a company limited by guarantee (preferably both); meet someone by chance on a train outside Basingstoke and invite him or her to become the unpaid director of the new organization; launch the new body at a press conference, couple this with an article in the Guardian, carpet-bomb the charitable foundations with grant applications, stick with the fledgling organisation for precisely as long as is necessary and then push it out of the crow’s nest to make room for the other six institutions which you are waiting to hatch that week.”

Michael was notoriously single-minded and tricky to work with but he always tried to make sure there was a strong link with the people who might benefit from the organisations he created. It was no accident that the Institute for Community Studies wasn’t an ivory towered university or shiny research park in the green belt, it was in Bethnal Green. Michael’s introduction to starting to work there always stays in my mind:

“The fog became thicker as I crossed the canal from Bow and by the time I left the housing office I could not see on the ground … I abandoned the old London taxi … and that was when the enquiry began. Waiting until I heard some steps, I put my first question: I asked the way to the nearest Tube station. ‘Search me, mate,’ came back the voice, curiously loud in the fog. Then a woman spoke from nearer me. ‘The Tube? Yes, dearie, you go straight on till you get to the traffic lights. You turn left and you’ll see it right in front of you. What a game, eh?’ With the help of other faceless friends, I felt my way, tapping my foot against the kerbstones as I went. I am still tapping. So I know when the enquiry began. What I am much less clear about is why. What brought me to the housing office? So far as I can remember, the point of departure for my journey into the fog was an interest in the social services, particularly in housing.”

I worry that it’s too easy for us at BGV to be disconnected from the people who benefit from the ventures we help get going. I spend a lot of time with the ventures we invest in but I know I should really be spending more time with the people who face the problems they’re trying to solve. That’s a bit harder in Bethnal Green than when Michael was based here. I’ve never seen a ‘pea-souper’ and while there is still a great deal of poverty, it’s becoming a very different place.

Michael made another contribution that is often misunderstood. He coined the term ‘meritocracy’ and his book ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ is a very strong part of the narrative in Europe and the US at the moment, and even more so in the tech industry. But Michael thought a pure meritocracy was an insidious thing. He abhorred the idea of a society based on a narrow notion of merit where the winners see their success as validating themselves (and not based on luck which is more often the case), and the failures of others as just being about their shortcomings rather than based on problems beyond their control.

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