Caleb French is an eighteen-year-old college student in London. Like many people his age, he’s focusing on schoolwork and planning his future. He’s also an entrepreneur, managing to found a digital marketing company, AJNC Advertising, around his studies. When he’s out of school, he wants to skip university to focus on building the business. If that doesn’t work, he’ll probably have a new start-up idea and give that a try.
Caleb’s entrepreneurial spirit lines up well with many assumptions to do with Gen Z. He’s creative, focused and hardworking. But there’s another aspect to his life that provides fuel in the tank for his career. Caleb went to school close to Grenfell Tower and is a part of the community there. The experience of the tragedy made him more resolute in fulfilling his potential.
“I lost people close to me during the Grenfell fire, so it was a difficult time,” he explains. “But it’s made me even more determined to be a successful entrepreneur. I’m not just working hard for me and my family - I’m doing it for the people we lost too. I’m lucky enough to have this opportunity and I’m going to make the most of my future.”
Caleb’s story demonstrates an overlooked feature of trauma. Sometimes a life-altering event can provide the catalyst for personal growth. It can instill a sense of renewed purpose, momentum, and clarity to the lives of people it touches. There is evidence that life’s most shocking personal moments can (sometimes, but by no means universally) contribute to our greatest achievements.
This idea is explored in Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, a book by Jim Rendon. In it, the author makes the case that while traumatic events cause enormous suffering, they can also lead to meteoric positive personal change. For instance, Rendon cites research undertaken in the 1980s by psychologists at the University of North Carolina. A study of over 600 trauma survivors showed that while their lives had changed in negative ways, a majority reported feelings of increased inner strength, a greater closeness with friends and family, and a more palpable sense of meaning.
When we support communities through tragedies like Grenfell and create the conditions for individuals to thrive afterwards, society gets stronger. One person who understands this well is Steven Bartlett, the entrepreneur, investor and star of the BBC show Dragon’s Den.
Bartlett has begun a mentoring initiative for Grenfell survivors who are – or want to become – entrepreneurs. This involves one-to-one coaching sessions, advice and leveraging his considerable book of contacts to get ahead. Caleb, for instance, has been shadowing him for the last month.
“This is what entrepreneurship means,” says Bartlett. “An empowering medium to build a better life. So often starting a business means building a ladder to a new situation – and this has definitely been true in my life.”
The plan is in partnership with a leading carmaker, which has donated two EV vans to the Grenfell community. These will be free to use for things like deliveries, staff outings, and general logistics. The vans will be available for use by Grenfell Athletic Football Club, too.
When it comes to the effect of trauma on entrepreneurship, Bartlett thinks this is only one dimension capable of spurring us on. “At one stage I thought that in order to be wildly successful, you had to have some form of trauma,” he says. “But you can be driven by good and bad things. My own ambition is linked to insecurity, that drive for validation. You can also be driven – for instance – by a desire to pay back a parent’s love, the opposite of trauma.”
Experiencing a personal tragedy isn’t a fast route to success in business, obviously. But with the right conditions, coaching and support, it can be a longer journey towards personal growth.