'Don't listen to too many old people'

14th October 2011 at 01:00
Lastminute.com founder wows some sceptical pupils

"I doubt you know who I am," the slight, blonde woman at the front of the school hall says.

Rows of pupils stare back blankly, in mute confirmation. "But you might have heard of my website," the woman continues. "Lastminute.com."

The woman - bright-eyed, slightly dishevelled - is Martha Lane Fox, early internet entrepreneur and founder of Lucky Voice, the Japanese-style karaoke chain.

Her visit to Queen Elizabeth girls' school, in Hertfordshire, is part of the Speakers for Schools scheme, launched this week. Set up by BBC business editor, Robert Peston, and sponsored by TES, the scheme will send more than 700 politicians, CEOs, scientists, academics and artists to address pupils in state schools.

"I had no idea who she was," says Year 10 pupil Lucy Buchanan of her school's allocated speaker. "I came in thinking, she'd probably be another one where we'd have to listen, and get bored."

"One of the first things I'd say," Ms Lane Fox begins, "is that you shouldn't listen too much to people like me."

Nonetheless, she knows what will make them pay attention. She talks about her initial failure to find a backer for Lastminute.com: "We sent our business plans to three people. Two were immediate nos; one went to the wrong address." She admits to faking testimonials before the website had any genuine customers: "I was a bit naughty with my friends, but they forgave me if I gave them free stuff."

And she sprinkles her talk with references to her mum, her boyfriend, the near-fatal car accident in 2004 that left her walking with a stick.

When, during the question-and-answer session, a teacher asks her about "some of the problems with the internet", she asks simply: "like what?" The teacher rambles awkwardly, talking about "filters" and "inappropriate content". Finally, Ms Lane Fox puts her out of her misery, responding directly to the issue of online porn; giggles ripple through the hall.

But, despite the apparent guilelessness, she hammers home her key points: "Don't listen to too many old people; don't take no for an answer; if you fall out of a car, don't give up."

However she is no you-can-do-it-if-you-only-want-it-enough motivational speaker. "I'm cogniscent that I'm very lucky," she says of her ability to take professional risks. "Some people don't have that choice, they just have to get a job. But entrepreneurs need people around them. You don't have to be the one starting the business. You can be working with them."

"She's still got her feet on the ground," remarks assistant head Sue Livock, as pupils file out. "She's echoing the message that we're trying to give girls: that they should be the best they can be. But they have teachers talking at them all the time. From a real-life person, in business and successful, it carries real impact."

Whether or not pupils have heard of the speaker is irrelevant, she adds: "With a celebrity, they have a lot of prejudged ideas. But the girls are able to listen and to decide for themselves that she's somebody worth listening to. It widens their horizons."

As Ms Lane Fox leaves the school hall, Lucy Buchanan and her classmate, Charlotte Evans, run after her: they want to see if she will give them work experience. "She's the best talker that we've ever had in school," says Charlotte, Lucy nodding by her side.

"I'm very scared of failure. But she's definitely changed my perception. You don't give up at the first hurdle. As long as you have the willingness and the determination, you may make it. Maybe not the first time, but the second or third or fourth."



Among those on the books of Speakers for Schools

- David Cameron (prime minister)

- Nick Clegg (deputy prime minister)

- Ed Miliband (Opposition leader)

- George Alagiah (BBC news)

- Robert Peston (BBC news)

- William Boyd (author)

- Trevor Phillips (chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission)

- Lord Rees (astronomer royal)

- Dame Marjorie Scardino (CEO, Pearson)

- Andy Haldane (executive director, financial stability, Bank of England).

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