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January 15, 2007 5:50 pm

A novel approach to ensure Europe prospers

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On my way to learn Spanish, almost a decade ago, I picked up Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in Barcelona airport. I read the first sentence – “Who is John Galt?” – and hardly put down the 1,100-page book till I read the last. I missed the opening day of my courses, read through the night, missed dinner and slept in my clothes. Nothing has affected me more than that book (unlike Charles Pretzlik’s critical view of it on this page on January 6/7). 

Rand weaves her philosophy of the power of the individual through the novel. The central premise is that sometimes one has to exit a situation for one’s importance to be fully recognised. In addition, it shows that society without its business leaders and entrepreneurs would crumble. 

Europe’s leaders would do well to find out about John Galt. The Continent (perhaps excluding Britain) basically has no growth story. A society that is not growing, that is not creating, is dying. Europe may have the richest poor people of any region in the world, but you can count on one hand the £1bn companies that have started from scratch over the past 30 years. Fine entrepreneurs went elsewhere to build their dreams. 

There are great entrepreneurs on every continent. But there has been something premeditated, even sinister, about Europe’s ability to smother and quash the ambitions of its entrepreneurs. Why? Well, in France one is taxed on assets whether or not they generate income. Taxes approach 70 per cent of income. There are many examples elsewhere. It is not difficult to connect the dots between government, its lack of accountability and a diminished entrepreneurial sector.

The good news is that economics is trumping politics. The John Galts of the world are winning. The internet, entrepreneurship and the power of the individual are bringing decent living standards to people who previously were given aid and not encouraged to dream big dreams before. These three forces are helping to erase the divisions that have historically separated the world; new global powers are rising. 

Even Europe is changing. Skype – the online telephony business, which Ariadne, the company I run, once advised – has been a sensation. Many other entrepreneurs are forging ahead, refusing to accept that Europe is a grand basket case. The Seb Bishops, the Dominique Vidals, the Martin Varsavskys, the Alastair Lukies, the Christina Domecqs, the Kevin Meaghers – through Espotting, Kelkoo, FON, Monitise, SpinVox, Intamac – are turning the ship around. Slowly, but then all at once, European governments will realise that they are servants of the people, that it is the entrepreneurs who will make their societies grow.

Nick Ogden, the founder of WorldPay and one of Ariadne’s investors, once told me he was most proud of “never missing payroll”. Entrepreneurs know the buck stops with them. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted; it is about persisting and taking total responsibility for a company and your life, both good and bad. This accountability allows societies to thrive.

Today in Europe the stink of entitlement is still pervasive. To reverse that we need radical change. People must take back the ownership of their society by reducing the role of government and making room for enterprise. Ariadne Capital is Atlas Shrugged in reverse. We pool the capital and expertise of our investors to support the next generation of entrepreneurs building the leading businesses of tomorrow. It is a good fight. Many people believe that the conclusion is foregone – that Europe will slowly become a museum with the richest poor people in the world. Until, of course, they become the poorest rich people in the world.

Atlas Shrugged is a book ultimately about ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things for the world. It is about the human spirit and what it can accomplish. People who dislike the book react against the implicit message that people are unequal. How nice it would be if somehow life was fair and egalitarian! But that is impossible. Rather than wishing our problems away, we must grasp that we have the power to choose what to do with our lives. Some of us choose to create and build. Others are intent on taking out of the system whatever they can get.

In 2007, the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, you may well be asked: “Who is John Galt?” The answer is to get the book and read it. Let me know if you find him. I have been looking for him all my life.

The writer is chief executive of Ariadne Capital, a London-based investment and advisory firm. She is the co-founder of First Tuesday, an international network of entrepreneurs

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