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David Beckham
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Famous Business Owners Who Overcame Social Mobility Barriers

The breaking down of social mobility barriers (including those associated with class, disability, ethnicity and gender) will lead us to live in more equal and inclusive (and therefore much happier) communities.


Social mobility in the UK 

The country as a whole scores pretty badly for social mobility and has seen few improvements in recent years. In fact, last year the government’s social mobility adviser and all three of his fellow commissioners walked out due to the lack of progress. And the Social Mobility Commission’s annual report this year highlighted the continued difficulties faced by people in less privileged circumstances looking to enter professional occupations and earn the same as their peers from privileged backgrounds.  


Famous business owners who bucked the trend

But of course, even if you are born into a group at a disadvantage, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to succeed as Informi’s story with Harsha Rathnayake shows. He arrived in the UK from Sri Lanka knowing very little English but today is the CEO of Junk Hunters, a company he started in 2009 that now has an annual turnover of £2 million.

There are also many famous business owners who’ve used their hard work and determination to overcome social mobility barriers. You might be surprised to learn about some of their stories.


David Beckham

David Beckham, OBE


Beckham was born in Leytonstone, into a working-class family – the son of a kitchen fitter and a hairdresser. He had a total obsession with football and was supported by his parents who were avid Manchester United fans and would drive up from London to Old Trafford to watch their games. His success in football was entirely self-made and came from sheer determination, practice and hard work. 

“That was my way of getting through difficult times of low confidence – hard work.”

David Beckham 

Alex Ferguson said of Beckham that he, “practiced with a discipline to achieve an accuracy that other players wouldn’t care about.”

What he achieved:

David Beckham made his first-team debut for Manchester United in 1992, aged 17. Over his 20-year career, he won 19 major trophies and ranked as one of the highest-earning players in football. In 2013, he topped the highest-earning charts having earned more than $50 million that year. 

His success on the pitch as been matched by his off-the-pitch ventures. The ‘David Beckham’ one-man brand is as instantly recognisable as many of the big brands he has teamed up with. David has launched many of his own products as well as having many lucrative endorsement deals including a $160 million lifetime contract with Adidas and a 10-year contract with Pepsi Co.


Lady Michelle Mone, OBE


Michelle had a difficult start to life which was filled with personal and financial struggles. She grew up in the East End of Glasgow and lost her younger brother to spina bifida. When she was 15 her father fell ill and became wheelchair-bound, forcing her to leave school with no qualifications to look for work. But she clearly had natural entrepreneurial flair and a desire to work hard as, by the age of 22, Michelle became the youngest ever Head of Sales and Marketing for Labatts Brewers but was then made redundant two years later. 

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what education you have; if you have a big dream, you can do it.”

Lady (Michelle) Mone, OBE

What she achieved:

Michelle spotted a gap in the lingerie market and was prompted to set up her own business and design the Ultimo bra which was launched in Selfridges in 1999. She sold her majority share in 2014 and is now known as one of the UK’s most famous entrepreneurs with ventures in fashion, beauty, interiors, jewellery, and property. She is worth an estimated £1 billion.

“Michelle is unrelenting in her pursuit of achieving more each day. I truly admire her continual drive and enthusiasm for business and life in general.”

Peter Jones, CBE

Michelle herself would have been classed by the Social Mobility Commission as in a “double disadvantage” group as a woman from a working-class background. The commission found that women from working-class backgrounds were paid 35% less than their affluent male peers within professional occupations. In 2015, Michelle, who had already been awarded an OBE for her outstanding contribution to business, was elevated to the peerage and asked by the Prime Minister to conduct The Mone Review; an insight into helping start-up businesses in deprived areas.


Michael Marks


Michael Marks was a Jewish immigrant from Stonim, Belarus. He arrived in England in 1882 with hardly any money and speaking very little English and moved to Leeds where he became a market pedlar, quickly working his way up to owning a market stall.

What he achieved:

Michael Marks’ business continued to expand and in 1894 he decided he needed a business partner and found Thomas Spencer – Marks & Spencer was born. By 1897 the business had 36 branches and by 1903 Spencer decided to retire with his initial £300 investment now worth £15,000 (the equivalent of over £1.5 million in those days).

Although Marks seems an unlikely candidate as the founder of one of the country’s biggest and most quintessentially British brands, that might not be the case. Research from DueDil released a few years ago showed that immigrants were responsible for starting one in seven of all new UK companies and creating 14% of jobs despite the additional social mobility barriers that they face.


Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson


Branson was born in Blackheath, London in 1950 and had set up his first business by the age of 16 – a magazine called Student. The first issue was launched in 1968 and a year later he was estimated to be worth £50,000. 

But it wasn’t an easy path for Branson who has dyslexia and performed poorly at school, struggling with reading and the interpretation of letters. Understanding of the learning disability when Branson was a youngster was extremely limited and he received no support with it. His headmaster told him that he “would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.” (He was right about both). 

“There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.”

Sir Richard Branson 

Branson has always admitted to having a learning disability but said that he turned it into a positive, telling Fortune magazine that it made him “delegate tasks [he] wasn’t so good at” leaving him free to focus on growing the business. 

What have they achieved? 

What hasn’t Branson achieved? To name just a few of the major things that he has to his name: trains, planes and space mobiles, island owner, world record holder, hotels, healthcare, and telecoms. In 2018, Forbes listed Branson’s estimated net worth at $5.1 billion.

“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.”

Sir Richard Branson 

He’s had his fair share of failures too (Virgin Cola, Virgin Cars and Virgin Clothing to name a few) and is a definite risk-taker. He was briefly jailed for tax evasion in 1971 and his parents re-mortgaged their house to help him pay his fines. In 1992, he sold his Virgin record label to EMI in order to keep Virgin Atlantic Airways afloat. 

“I suppose the secret to bouncing back is not only to be unafraid of failures but to use them as motivational and learning tools.” 

Sir Richard Branson 


For a comprehensive guide to getting your business up and running, download our how to start a business in 20 days eBook.

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Sophie Cross

Sophie Cross is a freelance writer and marketer specialising in business and travel. She is the editor for London Revealed magazine and her clients include Group and Merlin Entertainments.

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