The great contradiction at the heart of the technology industry is that while the barriers to entry are almost non-existent, the barriers to success are almost insurmountable.
The revolution in open-source technology, and the proliferation of blogs and YouTube videos made by those who are willing to share their expertise for free, means that anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can easily learn the basics of coding, set up a website, create GIFs, memes and other shareable media at almost no cost.
But the same factors that make the industry so accessible, also make it incredibly hard to make money. When so many people are willing to share their expertise for free, only those ideas and products which are truly new and innovative will ever be profitable for their creators. And while one individual may be able to come up with an idea for the next Google, or Amazon, or Facebook, actually turning that idea into a reality will take years of time and effort, requiring the help of a large team of developers, designers and other software experts – all of which adds up to vast sums of money that will need to be spent before the product can even be brought to market. Which is where the venture capitalists come in – ambitious young tech entrepreneurs will desperately compete for the backing of these cash-rich investors, desperate to convince them that their product is the next big thing and worth the risk that the investors will need to take.
Thus it was at a venture capital summit in London, in 2011, that Jennifer Arcuri first met Boris Johnson. According to her, she heard him speak, saw the way the crowd reacted to him, and immediately bowled over to him to introduce herself and invite him to speak at a conference that she was planning to organise a short while later.
There is no denying Ms Arcuri is a force of nature. In her extraordinary interview with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain, from the moment she started her story of how she first met Boris Johnson, to the end of the interview almost an hour later, Piers and Susanna barely managed to get a word in as she regaled the viewers with her account of how she didn’t really expect him to turn up at that first event but after he did, she somehow managed to convince him to speak at three other events over the next few years, including, in her words
“this fantastic Google hangout with two other events at the same time … He loved it! In fact, he text [sic] me after the event saying “that was the most awesome day, thank you so much for producing that.” Because he really didn’t understand what a Google hangout was.”
Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it is not at all hard to imagine how Johnson would have been charmed by her, perhaps even recognising a kindred spirit, and allowing himself to be badgered into speaking at her events. Not to mention, as she explained to Piers and Susanna,
“The Google hangout page was off the chart with traffic and we had lots of views.. Coming to my events.. took all of 10 minutes – and they made him look like a rock star within the tech community. THAT’s why he came.”
Ms Arcuri, of course, is not a tech geek. But what she appears to be, is a talented and enthusiastic events organizer – and there is plenty of space within the industry for someone with that particular skillset. As she explained to Piers, when he very rudely suggested that the only reason Boris Johnson was speaking at the events was because of his relationship with her,
“No, he’s doing them because – no. I produce really good, sexy, chic, on-point, thought-leading events. And that’s what Innotech was. There was no other event series like Innotech. None. There were lots of other tech events but we brought in policymakers, and that was very different”
The Google hangout she refers to is still available online, and I watched it earlier today. Hugo Rifkind, in the Times, refers to it as “the purest tech wonk waffle” – betraying a staggering ignorance not only of technology, but also of venture capitalism, business and even politics. For it is not at all “tech wonk waffle” – it is Boris Johnson asking a group of assembled industry experts, some of whom were in the room with him and others speaking via video link from San Francisco and Los Angeles, why London had not yet managed to produce a Google or other tech giant and what London needed to do in order to be able to foster the sort of tech talent that was already so prevalent in Silicon Valley. What Johnson’s presence at that event shows is not a man bowled over by a blonde bimbo, as our media would have us believe, but a man who, in his capacity as Mayor of London, was passionate about the possibilities of technology and particularly keen on figuring out what he could do to enable tech entrepreneurship in London.
In recent years, London has come to be recognised as the fintech capital of the world. The fact that between 2008 and 2016, London had a Mayor who was so interested in tech innovation, and so dedicated to ensuring that he did everything he could to foster that innovation within his own city, cannot be coincidental.
The thing about technology, and innovation, is that in order to succeed requires a great deal of faith and a healthy attitude to risk. Boris Johnson has always had the positive, go-get-it attitude that is willing to take a risk in pursuit of a great reward – and Jennifer Arcuri very much appears to be cut from the same cloth. But our Remain-supporting, risk-averse media establishment, not only hate Boris for his determination to actually deliver Brexit, but are also deeply suspicious of the entire tech industry – an industry they don’t particularly understand, that they associate primarily with conspiracy theories about social media manipulation of voters that they believe led to votes for Brexit and Trump. So of course when they look at Boris Johnson’s association with Jennifer Arcuri, and the fact that she went on to attend trade missions alongside Johnson, and receive grants from an organisation set up by Johnson to promote London, they fail to imagine how the relationship could not have involved sex, or an abuse of Johnson’s position as Mayor. And what better way to try to derail Brexit, than to discredit Johnson with the whiff of a sex-for-favours scandal at this crucial point in the process?
But if you actually read beyond the innuendo about the dance pole in Ms Arcuri’s flat, and the fact that Johnson was an occasional visitor to that flat, which doubled as her office (as Ms Arcuri points out, it is pretty common for tech entrepreneurs to save on costs by setting up office space in their flats), there has been surprisingly little evidence of any impropriety. Ms Arcuri flat-out denies that Johnson had anything to do with her being allowed to go on those trade missions, or that he had any say in the grants that her company received. As she explained in the interview, she may not have met the supposed criteria for being allowed to go on the trade missions, but she clearly had the chutzpah to apply anyway, and did a good enough job of selling herself to the team who make the decisions about who gets to go, that she was invited to join. Similarly, the fact that she took the initiative to apply for the grants, and that her application was successful, is a reflection of her own abilities to convince those awarding the grants, that she was a worthy recipient.
If any evidence does emerge that shows that Johnson personally intervened to get her invited onto those missions, or to get her the grants, then he certainly will have questions to answer – but no actual evidence has thus far been mentioned; all we have had has been innuendo and quotes from supposed ‘friends’ of Jennifer Arcuri, which have been firmly denied by Ms Arcuri herself, who insists those people are not her friends. And yes, there was her extraordinary response, when confronted by a journalist from the Mirror, in which she spoke about “If I was banging the dude and there was some kind of like trail, or sex tape, but there’s nothing” – but frankly, given the photograph accompanying those words shows the journalist clearly accosted her in a shopping mall, I find it hard to condemn her for her off-the-cuff response.
The media are making much of the fact that she refused to deny that she and Johnson had an affair, on the basis that any answer she gave to the question would be ‘weaponised’ against Johnson. “How can you weaponise ‘no’?” many of our papers have asked. “Surely, if she simply denied it, that would be the end of it”.
But of course that wouldn’t be the end of it. It was absolutely clear from that interview, and it’s clear from much of the press coverage, that the media have already made up their minds about what happened, and no amount of denials would change their minds. And it is very easy to weaponise ‘no’ with a simple follow-up question along the lines of “So if it wasn’t sexual then exactly what type of hold DID you have over the Mayor of London?” Gossip and innuendo require regular feeding, and the only way to eventually shut them down is for her to refuse to answer any questions about a relationship that may or may not have occurred.
Ultimately, whether or not they had a sexual relationship is neither here nor there. Johnson either did, or didn’t, intervene on her behalf – if he did, the reasons why are irrelevant, and if he didn’t, then the only people who could realistically have any interest in whether or not they had an affair, are his ex-wife to whom he was married at the time, and his children.
It’s hard not to wonder how this story would have played out if Arcuri had been not an attractive young blonde woman with a dance pole in her flat, but a charismatic young man with a pull-up bar and a foosball table in his flat. Would we instead be reading a profile of this incredible young man who had the nerve to introduce himself to the Mayor of London and who had convinced him to speak at his events? Would we be invited to believe that this young man’s success was entirely his own doing, that his presence at trade events and his securing of grants was an indication that he was an up-and-coming young entrepreneur, one who is skilled at making contacts and who, while he has not yet managed to make a profit, is definitely one to watch?
One thing is for sure. Nobody would ever ask a man this question, which Piers Morgan presumably saw no issues with asking Ms Arcuri:
“When a man that powerful comes to speak for a student four times – a very glamorous student if you don’t mind me saying – I mean did you think that maybe his interest lay slightly more than just professional?”
Ms Arcuri’s response was a masterclass in restraint:
“I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I know you mean no disrespect, but I think it’s a little bit unfortunate when a woman looks a certain way and is able to be successful – in however small that might be, and then she is questioned for that success based on the way she looks. I always made sure that Boris got a win out of my events…..Every event he came to had a strategic advantage for him at the time in which we were producing the event, so every one had a very specific message.”
I may be alone in my interpretation of that interview, and in my reading of the overall situation. But watching the interview, I couldn’t help being charmed by Ms Arcuri, and impressed at her handling of what was at times, frankly, an incredibly sexist and downright rude line of questioning. As she pointed out, the fact that her companies have not yet made money is not necessarily a reflection on her abilities as a businesswoman – Amazon took fourteen years to become profitable, Facebook took five years, and Uber is yet to show a profit. What all of the tech giants have in common is that they are run by people who are passionate about what they do, who don’t give up at the slightest setback and who keep fighting for the success that they know is just around the corner. Ms Arcuri, it seems to me, has those qualities in spades. Somehow, I suspect, she will eventually achieve her success – and while she may have Boris Johnson to thank for raising the profile of her earlier events, I suspect she will have very little trouble finding other, equally successful and well-known, participants for future events. Or, she may decide to cash in on her sudden notoriety, get herself a well-paid book deal and use the cash for a completely new venture. Either way, I, for one, wish her all the luck in the world.