June 13, 2023 · 5 minutes
Headlines over the past 2 years have given the impression that the pandemic was all doom and gloom for business.
While the 2020 lockdowns did decimate the high street, entrepreneurs still managed to set an all-time UK record by creating 770,000 new businesses throughout 2020, reported Business Leader Magazine.
To look at the long-term impacts of Covid, as well as dive into the entrepreneurial and technological trends of the future, Zervant spoke to Aria Babu. She’s a senior researcher with The Entrepreneurs Network, a London-based think tank for the ambitious owners of Britain’s fastest growing businesses and aspirational entrepreneurs.
“Trends that were already changing pre-Covid were accelerated by the pandemic, such as e-commerce, healthcare, remote working and hiring employees from abroad. We saw elderly consumers suddenly figuring out how to do their grocery shopping online. They may never have started if it wasn’t for the lockdowns,” observes Babu.
While the “elderly population online-shopping” trend would have eventually happened, it has arrived decades ahead of time and is not going to stop now that lockdowns have ceased.
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However, she warns that not all the trends brought about by Covid will remain: “There was a big uplift in the number of businesses making hand sanitizer, an increase in cleaning businesses and al fresco restaurants, but these won’t stick around.”
The pandemic also proved that many businesspeople should have been thinking about their risk and flexibility more than they already were, says Babu, who authored a report (PDF) on how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted female entrepreneurs.
“Findings from the 2008 global financial crisis and early evidence from the pandemic found that those who spotted problems on the horizon and responded quickly did quite well. Businesses don’t only need a very well-structured risk protocol but must also be flexible moving forward, and not just regarding coronavirus,” she states.
Babu suspects that green tech will be an area in which the UK government will continue to have a growing interest and believes that entrepreneurs who take advantage will probably end up doing very well. “The UK have also been doing lots of research into health tech and life sciences, which are also likely to keep growing.”
She adds: “Healthcare is going to get so much better over the next couple of decades to the point where we’re going to be healthy in ways that we can’t imagine. It’s something that has come on leaps and bounds during the pandemic because suddenly there was the extra pressure to get mRNA tech better. We’re going to need entrepreneurs and scientists to make this technology viable.”
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AI and 5G are two other key sectors that she sees as continuing to become much bigger stories over the next decade.
“I’m a big advocate of both, since they increase the number of options for businesses. There are many smart people who are concerned about the AI risks, but I am personally optimistic that it will initially be used to make us richer and more innovative, plus we’ll get many helpful and practical applications as it improves,” Babu continues.
She goes on to say that 5G is going to be good for entrepreneurs: “I can’t really imagine many reasons to be concerned unless your business doesn’t innovate and isn’t entrepreneurial. You must change to compete with other businesses. The application of 5G means no restrictions on internet speed or cloud computing capacity. You can have more start-ups doing AI- or data-rich tasks.”
The government’s Covid-19 restrictions devastated bricks-and-mortar stores across the UK in 2020 and with retail moving increasingly online, is there a future for the high street?
“I live in West London where we have many mini high streets and lots of people living in flats around them. You’re never more than a 5–10-minute walk from your nearest pint of milk or nearest pub,” describes Babu.
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However, she states that shops not wanting or not needing space on the high street doesn’t mean that local governments should leave those properties empty and dilapidated: “It’s an opportunity to be flexible and create more housing units and office space, especially since the UK is one of the most expensive countries for both.”
‘Opportunity’ is also the word she uses when asked for policies to encourage more people to become entrepreneurs, especially women. Babu, who is also head of the Female Founders Forum, says the government is genuinely interested in trying to understand why the UK has a lower rate of women starting businesses than Canada or Sweden, for example.
She also suggests making it easier for innovative and high-skilled people to immigrate to the UK because the tech sector is facing a skill shortage, especially in AI and computing.
Finally, she advocates making the government’s New Enterprise Allowance (NEA) scheme more generous with its financial support: “Its predecessor, the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, used to pay more than the Jobseekers’ Allowance, but now it is a lot less generous. If you want people to start more businesses, then you should make sure that they have the resources to do so.”