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Five Thousand Mile Journey from EMBA to Social Entrepreneur

For sports-obsessed Cranfield alumnus, sleep became an “optional extra” as he moved from a company directorship to extreme kayaking and charitable ventures

In the last two years Richard Harpham has spent more than 120 days on kayaking voyages, braving arctic and equatorial waters for weeks at a time. This sounds strange even to him. He had expected to be well up the corporate career ladder by now back when he was studying on the Executive MBA at Cranfield back in 2000.

So far on The Big 5 Kayak Challenge, Richard and his team have covered nearly 5,000 miles to raise money for the Muscular Help Foundation and other charities. The expeditions to date include a kayak and cycle journey from London to Marrakech, as well as paddling from Vancouver Island to Alaska. You can see a video of the Alaska trip here:

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Richard also acted as the manager of ‘The Snow Leopard’, the only Ghanaian skier at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and has started so many ventures and projects that he’s on the verge of losing count.

It’s hard to imagine now that Richard was once a typical EMBA high-achiever who spent his life in the office.

“For ten years I’d had one day off and never worked less than 60 hours a week,” he says.

He started off interning for a technology consultancy and shot up the ladder. By the time he was 24, he was in charge of 50 employees, and at 27 he became National Director of the company. In the seven years he worked there, the company's revenue rose from £1.5m to £7m and became profitable.

It was during this time that he chose to do his MBA at Cranfield, where he says he gained the skills, tools and confidence “to deliver.”

This no doubt helped his ascent to his next position as Regional Director of a £250m turnover subsidiary of a FTSE 100 company. But despite his success, things weren’t quite right.

“There was a ‘so what’ feeling about all the professional work I did, especially towards the end. I was leading a London Underground privatisation bid, a huge project. But there was something unsatisfying.”

When he was pushed out of his job, Richard decided it was time to think his priorities over.

“I went on a 100 mile walk alone in the countryside to get my head clear. Before long it hit me that I didn’t ever want to go back to that lifestyle.”

“In the end I decided I was going to change the world of sport.”

So he set up a sports equipment store with an accompanying sports network and news website. This wasn’t to last, but when it went bust he was left with a wealth of connections and the urge to do more.

“I was always driven thinking I could make a difference,” he says. “And I was always worried about missing out on sport.

"Throughout my MBA [at Cranfield] I was surviving Thatcher-style, on three to four hours of sleep a night. I was so desperate to keep up with rugby, climbing and kayaking that sleep became the optional extra.”

Richard realised he could combine his tireless commitment to sport with his urge to do good. So he assembled a team of like-minded people and was off.

“I decided it was time to stop writing about others peoples’ adventures and start having my own.”

“Within five weeks of deciding to do this, we were in the water on the first expedition.”

In 2009 alone, they raised £8,000 for the Muscular Help Foundation. Richard hopes to go back to Alaska this June. “There’s unfinished business. We still have five more expeditions to go and there’s a lot to do.”

Richard has supported his lifestyle by doing two days of paid consulting work each week on dry land. The rest of his time is spent on sport, volunteering his skills for worthy causes and working on his own projects.

His current projects are Inspired Life CIC, a speakers bureau specialising in role model figures, and Canoe Trail, a company which tailors guided kayak tours of British waterways for private clients.

Book Richard and other speakers through Inspired Life CIC