Why I argued with Lord Sugar about Serena Williams

Tony Goodwin is founder, group CEO and chairman of Antal International, a global management and recruitment company, and one of the fastest-growing business service organisations in China, Eastern Europe and India. Antal has more than 120 offices in over 30 countries, and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013.

Picture the scene. It’s 2003 and Sir Alan Sugar (the ‘Lord’ bit came later) is on stage in front of 350 London Business School and Manchester alumni MBA graduates.

My friend, the event organiser, hadn’t been able to find anyone to interview Sir Alan, so he’d called me. “You don’t mind a confrontational interview, do you Tony?” he asked.

A few hours later I was running my questions to Sir Alan past Nick Hewer, his PR man at the time.

On stage I opened with: “Sir Alan, do you think entrepreneurs and business leaders are born or made? Is it nature or nurture?”

I then used the analogy of the Williams sisters in tennis, explaining how Richard Williams, their father, had coached them from the age of five, which begs the question as to whether Serena and Venus are born tennis stars, or whether they reached the top because of their father’s training?

After mulling my analogy over, Alan said: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What are you trying to say?”

I said: “What I’m asking is: are top entrepreneurs created through nature or nurture? Have all these people who’ve just got MBAs just wasted their time and money?”

Sir Alan came back with a one word answer: “Yes.”

I actually agreed with him more at the time than I do today, although I didn’t agree with 100 per cent even then.

Today I believe business skills can be honed, nurtured and brought on. Sure, some people – as in sport – have innate ability, but even that innate ability should be nurtured, encouraged and mentored.

In countries where few opportunities and little support for entrepreneurs exist – where the nurture is lacking, if you will – you find few entrepreneurs. But in places like the UK and US, where we constantly highlight and encourage new businesses, you find lots of entrepreneurs. For me, that goes some way to proving Alan Sugar wrong because it shows that if the environment is barren, entrepreneurs – whether born with the suitable skills or not – do not thrive.

In business there are grades of entrepreneur and business leader – from the corner shop owner to the tech billionaire founder to the Big Four managing partner – and what we must do is encourage all to work hard and succeed, whether through MBAs, awards programmes or general recognition, congratulation and celebration.

Not all entrepreneurs and business leaders are born. It’s not black or white. It’s not all or nothing. It’s about desire, education, mentoring, training and development. We can’t say to ambitious, enthusiastic people early on in their careers: “You just haven’t got it. Give up now.”

And that’s why I argued with Lord Sugar about Serena Williams.