The Duke of York’s project to support UK entrepreneurs has very quickly gone from strength to strength. Ingrid Seward spoke with him recently about this royal success story
It looked as if 2015 was going to be a difficult year for the Duke of York when he was dragged into another scandal involving a former friend. Having issued a statement denying his involvement he remained at his home, Royal Lodge, until the end of January when he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was an important moment for him. He needed to be seen as strong and trustworthy in order to regain the respect of the business community he was addressing. He wisely allowed TV cameras into his conference so he could briefly address the world himself.
‘I just wish to reiterate and to reaffirm the statements which have already been made on my behalf by Buckingham Palace,’ he said. ‘My focus is on my work.’
His focus was indeed on his work and has been ever since. Fully vindicated, instead of being bitter about the injustice the Duke got on with his life and concentrated on making a success of his latest venture, Pitch@Palace. The Davos reception was important to him, as it had given three of his young entrepreneurs, finalists in an earlier Pitch@Palace event, the chance to speak to the assembled international tycoons.
The Duke of York founded Pitch@Palace to support young people or entrepreneurs who had clever ideas and inventions but neither enough finance nor the right contacts to move forward with them. The Duke’s idea was to invite investors and inventors to St James’s Palace for a series of receptions where they could showcase their ideas under the umbrella of the Prince Andrew Charitable Trust. Having passed the initial selection process at a bootcamp, a number of the winners pitched their ideas to an audience for a final selection and were connected with potential supporters who included financiers, mentors or key business contacts.
The Duke has never been known for his ability to schmooze with people, as it was not something he had been brought up to do. On the contrary, it was always others trying to curry favour with him, so the role reversal was alien to him. But after years as an international trade envoy he now has the ability to remain royal and yet be able to network – not for himself but for others. He has perfected the art of saying exactly the right things to the right people and along the way has evolved into a fearless public speaker.
‘I am eternally grateful,’ he said of the support for his idea. ‘I couldn’t do it on my own but I have the ability to bring everybody together.’
‘There are two simple rules entrepreneurs must make,’ he explained. ‘Ask the audience for something specific and the audience must take at least one call from an entrepreneur.’
Everyone in the audience of mostly businessmen is given a special app to download on to their smartphone, so networking can be done this way as well as in person.
Pitch@Palace 1.0 took place at St James’s Palace in April 2014, with Andrew introducing the evening from a podium in one of the state rooms. He had been working with 36 businesses from across the United Kingdom selected by 12 partner organisations. Twelve entrepreneurs from the 36 were chosen to pitch their businesses to an audience of investors, venture capitalists, prospective mentors and CEOs. Each contender was allowed three minutes to do so, with trumpeters from the Scots Guards on standby to drown them out if they exceeded the time limit. It was an immediate success.
The Duke of York has evolved into a fearless public speaker
The second event was held in November 2014, and the third in March 2015. The most recent, Pitch@Palace 4.0 in November 2015, focused on ‘Smart Cities and The Internet of Things, with a specific emphasis upon products and services that are helping to create a smarter world’.
It is greatly to the Duke of York’s credit that it has worked so well. ‘I had to maximise what I could do,’ he told me when I attended the latest event, ‘so I acted as an accelerant in bringing everybody together.’
Supporting her former husband was a svelte Sarah, Duchess of York, who was about to travel to India to take part in a rickshaw race to raise money for the elephant charity of the late Mark Shand (brother of the Duchess of Cornwall). She appeared to be very much part of the Duke’s work and moved around the room chatting to executives and entrepreneurs. She has always been brilliant with people, remembering their names, the names of their children and what they do. Her late mother, Susie Barrantes, also had this kind of memory and could even recall telephone numbers from years before.
Princess Beatrice was also present, home from New York where, she explained to me, she is working in finance. She was helping her father by chatting animatedly to the participants and was sporting enough to try out one of the inventions – a flooring that harnesses the energy of footsteps. The technology, created by the pioneering technology company Pavegen, has already been installed in over 100 projects in more than 30 countries, in railway stations, shopping centres, airports and public spaces. Installed at St James’s Palace like a paved carpet, it lit up when trodden on, which gave a very good idea of what uses it has.
Another extraordinary idea is the BabyLifeBox. The brainwave of students at Imperial College London, this is a low-cost baby incubator for developing countries, providing basic facilities for the child’s survival in a fold-down box operated with batteries. Chief Executive Officer Malav Sanghavi was looking for investors and was planning to approach UNICEF and the Bill Gates Foundation. They were placed third. The winners, a company called Knyttan, made clothing with a 3D printer and created things on demand. Hal Watts, their CEO, was wearing a merino wool sweater that had taken 90 minutes to make.
Pitch@Palace would not be possible without the Duke of York’s grasp of pioneering technology
‘I am immensely proud of the achievements of the entrepreneurs in the Pitch@Palace programme,’ Andrew said in his closing speech. ‘They have shone a light on the diversity and imagination across the country, clearly demonstrating that pursuing an idea or dream can be realised with knowledge and determination.’
Pitch@Palace would not be possible without the Duke of York’s grasp of pioneering technology, which needs to be understood to be believed. The results are easy to see; getting to grips with how they are created and how they work is harder. Andrew understands exactly what is going on. He was always the person his family consulted when they couldn’t work their phone, computer or television remote control, and he would always record the racing for the Queen or sort out her videos in the days before digital technology. Although he left the Royal Navy over 20 years ago the technical skills required to fly helicopters or master a ship have stood him in good stead and he keeps up with the latest trends.
‘I’m not the judge, only the messenger,’ he reminded us in his opening address. He is a successful messenger and what he is doing is genuinely making a difference.
‘It is just one of many projects that the Duke is involved in to encourage entrepreneurship amongst your people,’ Professor Bob Cryan, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, told me. ‘The Duke has been Patron of the University of Huddersfield for a number of years and in July he became our Chancellor.
‘He is tremendously supportive, kind and considerate. When I mentioned our desire to give all of our students work experience he arranged for two of them to become interns in his office and live at Buckingham Palace. What a life-changing experience for them!’
Further information: www.pitchatpalace.com
Ingrid Seward is editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and the author of The Queen’s Speech, recently published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20.
This article appears in the latest edition of Majesty magazine. To read more articles about the royal family, visit Majesty