Jane Peake: Inspiring pupils to follow in Mary Tuke’s footsteps

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WHAT a gutsy girl she must have been, that Mary Tuke. Back in 1725, a young Quaker businesswoman in a man’s world, Mary Tuke opened a business in York’s Walmgate which went on to spawn the chocolate dynasty of Rowntrees and the banking giants of Barclays, not to mention two of the country’s independent Quaker schools. I would love to have met her, but no doubt she would set me to work behind the counter rather than waste time in idle chit-chat.

For today’s youngsters there are umpteen more opportunities open to them than when Mary was a girl, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, young Quakers seemed to be starting successful businesses left, right and centre. A good number are still recognisable brands today; Clark’s shoes, Fry’s chocolate and even Barclays and Lloyds banks. For Quakers in those days, business was just about their only option; the professions of Church, State and Law being closed to all non-conformist types. Necessity was then the mother of enterprise, and for Quaker entrepreneurs, whose life-force was known to be one of honesty and integrity, they not only secured social respectability but their huge business fortunes went on to fund many of today’s philanthropic legacies.

So now in 2014, how does a bright young woman rate the idea of a start-up business of her own? Is it even a contender? Or does the very thought of a small business play second fiddle to the social respectability of the professions, and the security of a big employer? Yet how many parents are now fearful of their children’s future career prospects? I know I am.

The old certainty of academic excellence inexorably leading to a secure job with a big company or state sector employer seems to be fast vanishing. It sometimes feels like we are entering a world where our most ethically minded young people, not only bursting with talent and determination to succeed but qualified to the hilt through a good education, are having the rug of automatic well-paid employment pulled out from under their feet.

Are we right to be scared stiff, running for the hills of another university course, or just reconciling ourselves to lower expectations? No, as parents and educators we know we must inspire our children to have courage to go out and find new opportunities, just like Mary Tuke did nearly 300 years ago.

Sometimes it seems that society is sapping young people of their courage and faith in the future, when surely such qualities should be their innate inheritance. Education is the greatest gift we can give our children and it is the job of educators to open doors to new and undreamed of possibilities – including the straightforward pleasure of succeeding through your own enterprise. From governments down, we all need to learn about balancing the books and making a surplus to invest in the future, be it for new stock in the business or our own retirement pension. Mary Tuke opened her business knowing she had to pay for the stock and then persuade people to buy it, and at a profit too. That simple trading transaction never just happens by chance – it needs planning, creativity and hard work; and it needs the courage and vision to succeed. All skills, I would argue, required in every walk of life.

Recently, at the school where I work, a group of students opened a business in the heart of our new flagship Arts Centre building. The Bootham smoothie bar, Smoothie Revolution, took planning and skill; from the students and their teachers, and from their collaboration with local business, Xing, who schooled us in the realities of running a customer focused business. The students were lucky enough to then persuade Yorkshire’s very own living legend of entrepreneurship and business, Sir Ken Morrison, to perform the official opening ceremony. He spoke with clear-sighted understanding, giving praise and encouragement. He cut the ribbon and then got 
stuck in behind the counter, donning a pinny and serving smoothies to the growing crowd of customers. What an example. No drifting off to the head’s office for airified chats with the great and the good – no, Ken Morrison got straight to work, instinctively drawn to the business end of the business.

I think Mary Tuke would be chuffed to see the school founded by her descendants teaching its students such lessons in life. ‘Adventurous and liberating’ is how Bootham School describes its brand of education. I truly hope that through the excitement of this recent launch, and the ongoing challenge of enterprises like Smoothie Revolution, our students get a taste for just how adventurous and liberating running your own business can be.

• Jane Peake is Development Director at Bootham School in York.