Change Maker: Life-saving op inspires GenieShares idea

05 July 2021

  • Ex-Royal Marine Commando survived a brain tumour thanks to surgeons
  • The entrepreneur built his first company while studying for an MBA
  • Then oversaw London fintech start-up incubator Level39
  • Created GenieShares to give ordinary people chance to invest in start-ups

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

This ‘law of the instrument’, attributed to US psychologist Abraham Maslow, resonates with Ben Brabyn - as a former officer in the Royal Marine Commandos, his toolkit contained just a hammer and a roll of duct tape.

When he emerged after five years of service, he wanted to broaden his options. After a spell in investment banking, business school seemed a natural choice.

During his Full-time MBA at Warwick Business School, he shifted from thinking how to outflank the Russians to collaborating with them. “I picked up a much more international perspective on the world,” he says.

Relationships matter to Ben - not least because a military career creates tight but enclosed circles. “But my central conviction is that connecting with motivated, energetic people is the stuff of life.”

As an ex-Marine, this can be difficult. He adds: “There comes the day when you hand in your ID, the gates shut behind you and all your meaningful contacts are behind a roll of barbed wire.”

Similarly, he says, ex-offenders suffer the same isolation. And without open networks, individuals can only progress so far. “No matter what skills they may have, there’s no obvious way they can deploy them.”

This first led Ben to seek business guidance from Heropreneurs - a charity he now contributes to as a mentor. Ben says: “I’m passionate about helping people find the best manifestation of their skills, whether they’re individuals or companies.”

Tough mudder: Ben Brabyn training for the Royal Marine Commandos

He helps veteran entrepreneurs and sometimes their family members discuss business plans, forge new contacts and make their new ventures a success.

“You’re a sort of board advisor who doesn’t need paying," he says. 

Skills learned in military service, he realised, are highly transferable. “You learn quickly, you can communicate complex ideas simply and clearly, and deal with volatility - pretty much the requirements for an entrepreneur.”

Ben lobbies for new opportunities for the charity and is proud to have built relationships with WBS and LinkedIn “who do so much to help veterans connect when they emerge”.

He’s founded and sold a business himself - starting one company while studying for his MBA, which made for a tough time. “My customers assumed I was there 24/7,” says Ben. “I also took the opportunity to run for political office and acted in panto too - it was intense.”

If he could have lived several lives in parallel, one of those would have been to continue as a marine. But his career has also led him to roles he’s loved - one of them leading a team of private investment experts to match global investors with innovative UK start-ups within digital, biotech, science and technology sectors - this was at the UKTI Innovation Gateway.

This led him to take charge of a London fintech cluster, Level39 in Canary Wharf, which is home to thousands of entrepreneurs and start-ups and has links to venture capitalists and government departments, and where he worked until March 2020. “I’ve loved these two jobs where I’ve had the opportunity to meet thousands of entrepreneurs around the world.”

This leaves him now torn between the challenge of starting a new business once more, with all the focus and rollercoaster ride this entails, compared to the 'ecosystem-style' roles which see him aiding investors to meet entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs find customers - and he’s currently mulling both avenues. 

Genie sharing: Peter Kelly gives one per cent of his business to unemployed Jade Graygoose

What he doesn’t do is act as a central clearing house for connections - “that’s a system I can’t scale”. Instead he aims to create environments where people can meet, talk and find what they need.

Ben says: “And the outcome of these types of hubs seems to shorten sales cycles, cut costs of finding new customers, increase access to investors and make it easier to recruit and retain the right people.”

But his latest venture - not-for-profit GenieShares - is a radical departure from the complex and technical world of venture capitalists and digital innovation.

“Think of it as a golden ticket from Willy Wonka,” he says.

Founded in 2018, it supports and encourages companies to donate a slice of shares to “ordinary” people who might feel alienated from the wealth of business elites. 

“Entrepreneurs pledge one per cent of their equity, and we help them find a person to receive it,” says Ben. “You get a golden ticket, the knowledge they are doing this for you, or someone who resembles you. We want to close the gap between business and society.”

This aims to emulate the spirit behind the type of post-war saving bond schemes which helped bring the country together with a sense of shared purpose.

Ben adds: “GenieShares grew out of a concern that as the economy returns to growth, the benefits aren’t trickling down to most of the population. Unless more people feel the benefits, that growth will be stopped.”

Entrepreneurs who want to donate can specify which parts of the population they would like to benefit from a gift donation - some would like to see key workers rewarded. Another individual Ben is working with who has family links to Lebanon has chosen to distribute equity in Beirut “which has a claim to have had a worse year than anywhere else on the planet”.

An early donation came from entrepreneur Peter Kelly - an ex-Royal Marine - whose idea for his own business Imployable came to him when he was unemployed and job hunting.

Thankful: Ben Brabyn after the operation to remove a brain tumour

After Peter founded a business helping job seekers, he donated one per cent of equity - worth some £32,000 -  at random to a surprised Plymouth job centre visitor, the then unemployed Jodie Graygoose - who’s now being mentored by Peter's co-founder.

“It’s a way for entrepreneurs to demonstrate their commitment to people they might otherwise not reach,” says Ben. “And candidly, it’s really good PR at a time when entrepreneurs are typically cash poor.”

While he looks for his next role, Ben is committed to developing GenieShares.

He says: “My central conviction is that helping people to make useful connections is the best thing I can do.”

That’s more pertinent than ever in the wake of the pandemic, which has, he believes, been catastrophic for some, “and I think almost everyone has become lonelier”.

He’s heartened by recognition of NHS workers - having experienced their care and expertise first hand a decade earlier, when he underwent surgery to have a large brain tumour removed.

“At the time lots of people said to me ‘of course, this experience is going to change you’,” says Ben. “But actually as a marine, I was already used to the idea of death. It was more the kindness and connectedness of so many people that changed me and has given me so much energy.”

His experience has provided the ultimate motivation “to help those who are isolated - whether it’s because they are ex-offenders, veterans or their circumstances have simply not favoured it. My aim is to help create productive new relationships.”

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