You should know: Vikas Shah – Northern tech’s renaissance man

11 Jul, 2016

Tech North Movers & Shakers is a series in which we profile those helping to push the tech sector forward across the North. From notable entrepreneurs to dynamic community leaders, we’ll introduce you to the people you should know across the North of England.

If you spend a lot of time in Manchester, Vikas Shah is one of those people who seems to pop up everywhere.

He’s a serial entrepreneur, the Chair of events and research organisation FutureEverything, a blogger who interviews some of the world’s greatest thinkers, the organiser of events that feature world-class speakers, on the board of the Alliance Manchester Business School, a Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management… the list goes on. Oh and he’s a thoroughly nice chap, too.

Manchester born and raised, Shah became an entrepreneur almost by accident. Aged 14 he started doing freelance graphic design work. By 16, he found himself with employees in London, New York and Sydney.

That business, Ultima, evolved into a full service digital agency handling web design, software development and hosting. When the 2001 dotcom crash hit, it had to wind down but that was just the start of Shah’s journey. He’s since been involved in a number of businesses as an executive or investor, most notably Swiscot, where he’s been CEO since 1999.

Swiscot is a major supplier of textiles for the global hospitality industry. Shah’s father had worked in textiles and advised him not to get into that trade, but he was attracted by the opportunity to embrace technological change. “People think about it as old school but it’s going through as much change as other industries,” he says.

Vikas Shah event
Vikas Shah interviews Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger at an event in Manchester, July 2016

One notable addition to his CV recently has been his position as Chair of FutureEverything. This Manchester-based organisation puts on an annual festival of digital art and culture that has established a strong international profile over the years. It is involved in the CityVerve internet-of-things programme, the EU-backed GROW Observatory programme, and it held a week-long festival in Singapore last year.

Beyond money

Given the breadth of his activities, it’s hard to define Shah in a short, snappy phrase. He sums himself up quite simply as “a business person who writes and teaches.”

How on Earth does he manage to keep all his different plates spinning? “I give all my different causes as much time as needed and it seems to work out.” And ’causes’ is an important word here, as not everything Shah does is in pursuit of profit.

That involves a lot of charity work – he is a trustee of Mustard Tree and Executive Patron of Manchester Cancer Research Centre among other commitments. He does a lot of unpaid work in the business world too. That includes being a member of Manchester Digital‘s council, president of TiE UK North and serving on the Digital Advisory Group of the British Council.

Shah sees himself as having a “Silicon Valley approach to young philanthropy.” Rather than waiting until he’s old to give time and money to good causes, Shah – in his 30s – prefers giving a proportion of his time to making the world a better place while he’s able to make a meaningful difference with his time. That’s similar to how someone like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff operates.

“If you focus your life around money it’s ferociously unfulfilling – there are so many things you can do to indulge the intellectual pursuits you enjoy. I devote a third of time to non-profit stuff.”

Thought Economics

If there’s one stand-out example of why Shah isn’t your average business person, it’s his blog Thought Economics. While he admits that it “started out as a silly little blog,” it’s become a home of interviews with “the world’s leading thinkers.” A quick scan of the website and you’ll see names like Noam Chomsky, Sir Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and ‘father of the internet’ Vint Cerf. Shah can certainly pull in the big names.

“I was annoyed at dumbed down content and was writing about economics and finance and management. I realised I could do more.” After successfully approaching figures like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and astronaut Buzz Aldrin for interviews, he says it “became a bit of a drug. How many people get a chance to sit down with the people who are changing the world?”

Shah says that traffic to the site is growing but he’d never be tempted to run it as a business. Like photography, another of his hobbies, he prefers to run the site without the commercial compromises. “I don’t have to answer to anyone as I’m not a journalist – it’s just really good fun.”

Oh Manchester

So what does Shah think of his home city of Manchester in 2016 at a time when tech entrepreneurship is growing fast there?

“It’s changed a lot but there’s a long way to go. The hype is aeons away from reality. We need to figure out what it is that Manchester is now. There are so many different groups tussling to say it’s the hub for this or that – send out enough press releases and you’ll get coverage.

“Lisbon is an example of somewhere that has changed over time into a meaningful hub with little hype. Manchester needs to be doing more, and with less hype. There’s so much potential here.”

Read next: You should know: Jeff Coghlan – the ‘tech hippy’ making the world more fun

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