Theo Paphitis at the Union: ‘What makes you think that your degree entitles you to a job?’
He pulled no punches
The Union played host to Theo Paphitis, businessman, entrepreneur and ex-Dragon – and worth an estimated £168 million.
In characteristically blunt and down-to-earth style, the multimillionaire quickly established the crux of his speech: “Money is what gets me up in the morning.”
Laughter periodically filled the chamber as he transfixed the crowd’s attention with his off-the-cuff tone and healthy sprinklings of profanity: “When you first make a few bob the first thing you do is buy a big fuck-off mansion, don’t ya?”
However, it was not long before Theo began to tread on controversial territory when interrogated about the recession: “I stick 2 fingers up at [the banks] because they’re all a bunch of shitters. They screwed the country.”
And he was quick to launch a friendly-fire attack on his audience’s position of privilege, asking at one point who had a student loan in the room and “refusing to accept” that the majority of hands that came up were honest.
When the floor opened for audience questions, it wasn’t long before Theo was grilled on the gender question in business.
His answer, thankfully, was unlikely to cause backlash: “The last thing you want to do is compete with women – they’ll wipe their backside with you.”
He may have riled some, though, with his dismissal of paternity leave as “basically taking a holiday.”
The Tab caught up with Theo for a newspaper-exclusive interview after his speech. He arrived in typical ‘laddish’ style with a pint of ale in hand.
Theo, you went to a comprehensive school and did not attend university. Do you think the archetypal private-schooled, privileged from birth Cambridge student is as well prepared to succeed in the real world in the way you have?
We all know that the people who are going to be leaving Oxford and Cambridge are going to be running the country – that’s fact, so there is a privilege there. Fact.
But it’s not one size fits all. At the end of the day it’s about knowledge, the knowledge of what you want to do.
You said in your speech that “having a degree proves absolutely nothing except your ability to consume copious amounts of alcohol”. Do you think this holds true for Cambridge students?
I’d be disappointed…. (laughs) no. When it comes to the Sciences, there’s definitely a very clear pathway into academia. Arts… Arts I’d argue, because you’ll need on-the-job training. But it doesn’t have to be all about university. The University of Life – so long as you go down the right path – can also be good. Although I probably would have enjoyed university.
Why did you send your kids to private school?
Because I wouldn’t want to send my kids to a school like mine – it was horrible! Kids like me there. There’s a natural instinct to give your kids an ability and a chance in life. They went there and they had a great time – their networking was fabulous.
So you think there are more opportunities there?
You mentioned various international banks’ implication in Greece’s economical crisis. What kind of values would you want to see in Cambridge students who’ll be going into positions of financial or political power?
Morality. We all know what’s right or wrong. If it’s too easy, or you’ve made too much too quickly, there’ll be a reason. Either you’ve won the lottery, or you’ve done something that’s probably unfair to somebody.
You were quoted in a Daily Mail article a few years ago as saying that you thought your children ‘couldn’t cope’ without their multimillion pound inheritance. Could you qualify that?
I was being a bit mischievous because Duncan had said he’s not leaving his kids anything. You bring your child into this world, you give them a privileged upbringing and then you say: “OK, I’m pulling the rug, you’re 18 now, you’re on your own”…?
Well, they’re not me, they’ve had totally different drivers. I’ve brought them up totally differently to how I was brought up, purely because I could – and they’re wonderful people. My only ambition for my kids was that when they left school, they’d have the ability to read, write – and be nice people.
In your time you have been involved with La Senza, Contessa and now Doux Avenue. What is the basis for your fixation on lingerie brands?
(laughter) It’s purely the ability to make money from an industry I know. It’s an incredibly difficult business – there are easier ways to make millions. No, I don’t wear [lingerie] myself.