Lime Legal

Best of homes, worst of homes Jan 2018

Published 01 January 2024

From refugee to City grandee. Entrepreneur Sir Ronald Cohen attributes his professional success to a supportive family

The home you grow up in has a big impact on your life. I was lucky – I was born in a middle-class family in Egypt. We lived on the fifth floor of a block of flats in the centre of Cairo. My father was an entrepreneur and we were comfortably off.

But that all changed after Nasser came to power in the early 1950s – and things got really difficult after the Suez emergency in 1956. My mother, who had a British passport, was placed under house arrest. In the end we had to clear out, leaving everything behind. That’s how in 1957, aged 11, I arrived in Britain as a refugee. I knew a little English but I’d grown up as a French speaker.

It could have been very traumatic – this is the common experience of refugees, forced to move to another country against their will. But it was made easier by my parents who were supportive and portrayed the whole thing as a challenge.

When we arrived in England I started at the Orange Hill grammar school in Burnt Oak, London.

My parents did everything so we didn’t have any feeling we’d been through a traumatic time. It was only in my teens that I realised how difficult things must have been for them.

The way they sheltered us from trouble was one of the things that gave me the confidence to succeed in later life.

Children benefit greatly from the confidence their parents give them. If parents are insecure and show it – and this can happen in temporary accommodation – they impart it on their children, and that is damaging in the long run. A big requirement is a stable home.

We were in B&B accommodation for the first three months in London. Then we rented a flat in Golders Green where there were other refugees from Egypt.

The first thing my parents did when my mother received a few thousand pounds compensation from the government for what she’d been forced to leave behind was to buy a home. It was the best investment they ever made. A family needs to know it has a roof over its head.

I lived there until I went to university. It was a happy place and we had a garden with lots of trees. It is not the fate of every refugee to find themselves in those circumstances.

Family and friends were important. The main message from my mother was to be supportive of each other and view the future as a challenge. She was – still is – a positive person, and my father was hard-working. Those were the values they handed down to us.

It was one for all, all for one – and that kind of support is vital. It’s important for an entrepreneur to feel he has something to fall back on when times are tough, and I had my parents’ example. Support that is unquestioning in its loyalty is of massive value. It gives you the confidence to keep going even though things get difficult.

My parents were my support group, and I doubt if I’d have been very successful without that. My father worked 18 years with me at Apax and did everything to help. It’s like the driver of a Formula 1 car and the support team in place to make sure car is running and change tyres. That’s when it’s most effective.

Lots of immigrants’ families club together – they need to stay united. With a cohesive family backing you, you are able to take risks – which is what the entrepreneur needs to be successful.

All of us are by nature inclined to rise to challenges if they’re put in our way. But if things are too comfortable, there’s no incentive to take risks.

Sir Ronald Cohen is founder of the private equity company, Apax Partners. His book, The Second Bounce of the Ball, is published by Orion.