British-Jamaican chef, musician and entrepreneur Levi Roots came to prominence when he launched his Reggae Reggae Sauce in 2007 following a memorable appearance on BBC2's Dragon's Den.
Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh invested £50,000 in return for a 40% stake. It became one of the most successful businesses on the programme and sold more than a million bottles in the first year. Twice jailed in his early life, Roots (real name Keith Graham) has now built a Caribbean food and drinks empire worth an estimated £30m.
"It was noisy for most of the day in my first job working as an engineer. But on top of all that cacophony came the sound of beautiful laughter. When you step into a working environment and hear that, it just makes you want to enjoy it and give your all.
The boss would have to create that fun environment for the workers. And, even if I can’t remember his name now, I know that we were all a happy bunch of people on that shop floor.
As a young boy back in 1974 there wasn’t much choice like we have now. I was aged 16, had just left school and my older, smarter brother was already working for a company called Selby Engineering in Brixton, south London.
I wore blue dungaree overalls, was paid £16 per week and I took my first wage back to my mum. I had never seen so much money.
I started off as a lathe operator where we made book-binding machines. Everyone was like a comic, no-one had a chip on their shoulder and all the jokes were on you if you didn't make the tea.
I suppose my first inspirational boss was a guy, 30 years later, called Nick who was in charge of Plumbase in Stockwell. I had just fallen out of love with the music business and luckily I saw this job advertised for a warehouse manager. It was all about the eyes with Nick and being able to trust each other, even if my CV didn’t fit the job.
A few years later, it was the key thing which connected Dragons’ Den investor Jones and myself to build this fantastic business [Reggae Reggae Sauce] together. It was being able to look each other in the eye.
It was that trust relationship with Nick as a boss which also allowed me to move on to do the sauce, which I had started to make at home. I left the job as I was ready to launch at the Notting Hill Carnival in 2006, where I sold 4,000 bottles over two days.
I always say that you can either work for a boss or work with a boss. That says a lot about how that connection works when you want to move on and how that boss will treat you. If you have spotted something in one of your workers, give him some length to continue to grow — and that was Nick.
When budding entrepreneurs ask me today what it takes to go to the next level, I always say it is being able to listen, more than you talk.
I was also once told to learn Shakespeare. This came from my greatest mentor of all, who changed me from being Keith Graham the silly boy who couldn’t focus and turned me into Levi Roots, who I am now.
This was when I was locked up for five years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Coming to the end of my sentence, I met a drama teacher called Teresa (I am currently speaking to Dame Judi Dench about her playing Teresa’s role in a film about my life) who came to the prison every month.
If you can find a mentor it can change your life completely; not just in business but someone who can find the best of you. It’s also important to own your mistakes, which was another part of Teresa’s teaching.
I had this chip on my shoulder, that I was from Brixton, growing up in the 1970s with the Riots and the bad side of life which had held me down. Teresa let that all go.
Anyone can get success but you have to become the best of you. There is always somebody else, someone you can trust, who spots that first."
Levi Roots is working with BT and Google on the Get Mentored, Get Growing campaign, which is geared up to help UK SMEs grow and thrive post-pandemic in a digital first world
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