Tim Campbell grew up in East London and showed the strong entrepreneurial spirit that would see him win series one of The Apprentice in 2005 (before going on to become one of Sir Alan Sugar’s advisors on the show) from an early age. At school, Campbell struggled with authority – but always found ways to make extra money.
In a wide-ranging Letter To My Younger Self interview, Campbell reveals that was part of a DJ Collective as a teenager, putting on parties and club nights to augment his income from his part-time job in McDonald’s – and how he learnt a valuable business lesson when one of his nights was shutdown by the police.
Campbell also explains the influence of his mother on his life and work and how her making-ends-meet determination fed into his life in business, talks about his youthful insecurities, reveals the importance of the local library in expanding his worldview and explains his philosophy of business – and why they should leave the world a better place.
The 16-year-old Tim had a veil of bravado shielding a lot of insecurity. I had huge insecurity about coming from a lower socio-economic background where my mum was working numerous jobs to make ends meet as a single-parent household. I grew up seeing my friends with two parents at home, not understanding why my father wasn’t around. My younger self was also exploring the world of the opposite sex – and pretending I knew everything.
I struggled with authority trying to navigate the world of education. Although education was heralded as the passport to success, I found school frustrating. The process-driven nature of school didn’t suit me and I was endlessly getting into detentions. When I came back to school at 14 or 15 after being excluded for truancy, I was mentored by the most inspirational teacher. Mr Foley was the youngest teacher in the school, this white Irish guy, and the only person who understood how to motivate me. He said if I carried on down that path, I would end up cleaning the streets. And I didn’t want that to be the limit of my success.
Innovation comes from adversity. When I think about the social enterprise movement, so many people we are passionate about supporting come from the hardest places. I was always trying to find ways of generating money because we didn’t have an awful lot. So I was finding little schemes, doing odd jobs, selling stuff in school because at the heart of lots of problems I saw in the world was money.
I was an aspiring DJ in a collective called True Elegance. I’d save up money I earned working in McDonald’s to buy records and three of us would play them at parties and dances and get paid. It’s so cheesy, my DJ name was DJ Archers, after the drink – because they took the mick out of me drinking schnapps and lemonade! We held our first major party before my 16th birthday with more than 400 guests at a club in Romford Road, but it got shut down because we didn’t pay enough for security. We got our mate to be security guard and he let someone in with a gas canister who gassed the place and got us shut down. That was an important lesson in business – don’t scrimp on the important things.
I owe my success to my mum. We lived in East London – my mum, me, and my younger brother and sister. There were really tough moments where my mum was freaking out about whether she would have to give up her house. She taught us to ride bikes but only learned herself when she was in her 40s because she didn’t have time before as she worked so hard. She shielded us from the adversity she faced. But I understand the sacrifices she made, to make sure we got access to education and never went without food – ever – even if it was yesterday’s dinner for breakfast. My mum shaped me as a parent, as an adult male – in terms of how to respect women and not to be toxic in relationships. But also, my mum was an entrepreneur. She just called it making ends meet.
Our escape was reading. Mum used to always take us to the library and get us books and comics. I love the ability to transport yourself through reading – and that really helped keep me sane. I also wanted to be a good partner. I wanted to be a good husband. Looking at what I’d experienced and knowing that wasn’t good, I wanted to break that cycle. Through reading, I got great examples of what ‘good’ would look like.
Before you look for love, you’ve got to love yourself. You’ve got to understand who you are in every season – when you’re happy or sad, rich or poor. Me liking myself has allowed me to be a better partner to my wife, who I’ve been with for 25 years. As we’ve grown over the years we’ve changed as individuals, so the important thing is to keep talking, check in and see where they are now and what they need now to feel fulfilled.
The platform of The Apprentice was massive and overwhelming. But it was unfortunate that people in the media used my win in the first series to highlight negative stereotypes about my history. They went out to find my father, camped outside my house, and my mum was so upset thinking I would be sacked because we were a single-parent household. That sounds mad, but that was the era she grew up in. It taught me people can use stereotypes to hold us down, or we can hold ourselves down. So I would tell my younger self to lean in to using the gifts you have been given.
The question anyone in business should be asking is: does this business make the world better? Every business can be a social enterprise because it should be serving society. On one level, by providing work, it is doing that. But at the deeper, more profound level, is the function of the business actually making the world better?
Alan Sugar is a great mentor for me. He is an East London boy, an immigrant who went from nothing to a company that was bigger than Microsoft at one point. Now, through The Apprentice, he helps businesses turning over millions of pounds and creating jobs. That’s a huge inspiration. People talk about him as a football guy or tech entrepreneur, but at the heart of it he’s a really altruistic philanthropist – rebuilding the theatre in Hackney, working for Great Ormond Street Hospital. He’s created incredible wealth but spread it around in a positive way.
I was always about a mixture of values. Growing up in a Caribbean household the values of thrift and hard work, of getting out what you put in, were second nature. And social justice was really important. So I’ve always been quite broad in my approach, which has been about the self-determination aspect of what you can do as an individual, but needing to make sure there is a safety net for those who fall by the wayside.
My younger self would be most happy with my materialistic successes – because that was his mindset then. But underneath that veil was the need to be fulfilled. I get huge motivation from trying to leave the world a better place and doing my bit. So I’m now chair of governors at the same school that excluded me. We’ve just been rated outstanding by Ofsted – as a comprehensive inner-city school with 90 per cent boys from ethnic communities I’m really proud of the work we do. Young Tim would be too.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be Ian Boatswain. He was the shy one of our group of friends and had just finished his A-levels and gone to Spain to celebrate. He was killed by a drunk driver and it really shook me. When you are young, the the world is your oyster, the future is yours, you feel immortal. I vowed from that moment I wouldn’t waste a single second.
I went through adversities so I can tell other people how to navigate around them from a place of authenticity. The next couple of years are going to be very hard. So my big issue is making sure people are as financially literate as possible so they can help navigate through difficult times like my mum did, and get out the other side.
I don’t know what my mum’s generation were made of, but I look back with such pride that she persevered. I remember a generation who had been invited here to help this country suffering huge amounts of discrimination. We are going to go through a similar time, when resources are tight and people look for scapegoats. I just hope we don’t turn inwards and start alienating personal characteristics when we should be looking at dismantling the class system that divides people.
Coming from the environment I grew up in has served me well. I’m not caught up on materialistic things and the flexibility I have from being able to speak to people from East London as well as the ‘superior’ individuals who had authority over me is a skill I’ve been able to use. So I’d whisper to that young man that he’ll be OK. You’re enough. I’d tell my younger self to stick it out, stay true to who you are, and use your background as a superpower.
The Apprentice is on BBC2 on Thursday nights and available on iPlayer
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