Let's hear it for the entrepreneurs

For most Australians, an entrepreneur is in the same league as a used car salesperson, a property developer and a bank CEO. We can name the high (or maybe low) flyers, recount their sins, and tut-tut over how they ripped their ordinary and not-so-ordinary fellow country persons off.

Apart from some recent techies and Dick Smith, it's as if successful entrepreneurs haven't existed in Australia. In most other countries, people study and learn from their entrepreneurs. No wonder we don't see much real innovation in the innovation nation. Google Australian entrepreneurs and you get a rag-bag list of small to large business executives and company directors, but not many people who started their own businesses. Or in other words, entrepreneurs.

Aussie home loans founder John Symond, who disrupted the banks before we knew what disruption was, came from rural NSW, went to 11 schools while working in his parents' fruit shops in the afternoons, and came close to bankruptcy in his first business before he started Aussie in 1992 with a loan from his brother.

Mecca founder Jo Horgan disrupted the retail cosmetics business. The daughter of English migrants, she sold her house to open her first store in South Yarra in 1997. Twenty years later, Mecca has 80 stores, is the dominant online cosmetics retailer and has a turnover of probably $150 million.

Of course, the entrepreneurs who had the greatest impact on Australia were Charles Rasp, who found silver at Broken Hill (and who, authors Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin suggest in their book The Big Fella, was really a German Army deserter) and the other members of the syndicate of seven who went on to launch BHP.

The world's most successful innovation hub is not Silicon Valley, but consists of 63 spots in Australia and three overseas.

For more than 101 years, a small group of Australians have been inventing. Inventing things such as Wi-Fi, plastic bank notes, extended-wear contact lenses and Aerogard. Which is why successive Australian governments have cut the CSIRO's funding because we don't really like people who invent things and start businesses.

Then there's Bruce Small, who invented the Gold Coast and gave Malvern, Victoria, its only international exposure.

Like John Symond, Small went to multiple schools (14) before he left at 13 to become a printer's apprentice. The son of a market gardener who, like his Salvation Army parents, was a dedicated teetotaller, Bruce played in Salvo bands from the age of six. At 25 he bought a bike shop in Melbourne's Malvern, came up with a catchy slogan, "You'd be better on a Malvern Star", hired an upand-coming cycle celeb, Hubert Opperman (later to become minister for immigration), set up a promotional team, toured the world selling bikes and in 1936 took his bike company public.

During World War II, Small took advantage of petrol rationing and defence demand to expand into radio location sets and tent components. His company reached its peak in 1951. When he sold Allied Bruce Small in 1958, the business had grown to a chain of bike shops, six factories, and 1000 franchises selling bicycles and whitegoods.

As usual with Bruce Small, his arrival on the Gold Coast in 1958 was perfectly timed. The council had just changed the name of the area from Town of South Coast to Town of Gold Coast, and a year later the town became a city and the first high rise was built.

Small bought 40ha of mangrove swamps, eventually owning and developing 600ha into his vision of a (Florida) paradise.

After a few fights with council, he ran for mayor on the "Think Big Vote Small" ticket. At 76, he won the state seat of Surfers Paradise and brought his promotional flair to local politics. After a huge storm caused major beach erosion, Small took Meter Maids, Golden Girls and Courtesy Maids in gold bikinis around Australia and South-East Asia to bring tourists back to the Coast.

What's the point of studying and publicising our entrepreneurs like Bruce Small? Today in Australia there's a general despair among average Australians about their future and their kids' futures. The dominant narrative is that disruption, robots and high tech mean that there will be no, or only menial, jobs for kids without a PhD. As the old and new stories of Small, Symond, Horgan and others show, there is another path.

Former successful entrepreneur turned Cambridge academic Chris Coleridge says that there is an "e-gene".

Winning new-business starters have six common characteristics: they come from a difficult background or a broken family; they belong to a minority; they have some disability; they love risk-taking, are incredibly optimistic, and they have a need for achievement more than power and being independent.

Entrepreneurs create twice the number of jobs as do established companies, they drive innovation, they are almost 10 times more likely to be women than the CEOs of existing companies, and digitisation is making it easier rather than harder to be an entrepreneur. So why do we ignore them?

Julie Connolly