A converted bar in Oldham is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a high-flying American lawyer turned tech entrepreneur – but Gary Stewart has never been afraid to be different.
Raised in New York City’s Bronx after his parents emigrated from Jamaica when he was six, the young Stewart went on to study at Yale University and looked set for a lucrative legal career in the US.
However he turned his back on America in 2000, headed to Europe, entered the world of tech and today finds himself as director of Wayra UK.
Part of telecommunications giant Telefónica’s Open Future_ network, Wayra runs innovation incubators around Europe for promising start-ups which could transform the nature of communication.
Local government pays for the space and the maintenance, and in return Wayra connects the start-ups to a larger network and provides valuable resources such as connections with mentors and investors to help them grow.
“Telefonica is approaching 100 years of existence but understands that a company is only as good as its next killer product and service,” a passionate Stewart says.
“Apple is Apple because it figured out how to do the iPod, then the iPhone. Before that it made small computers which were cute for designers, but that was about it.
“Poor start-ups killed the SMS business, which used to be worth €3 billion a year to Telefónica; we now make absolutely zero because of WhatsApp. We used to make a lot from long-distance calls – now everyone just Facetimes or Skypes.
“But we need to identify these innovations ourselves and then, if we find a company that has the potential to be the next Skype, we have a distribution platform of 312 million customers.
“It’s a win-win because they can come up with the innovation, but they can’t figure out how to scale; we have scale, but can’t always come up with innovation. That’s why we exist.”
The story of how Stewart finds himself at the heart of Wayra is as interesting as the man himself and can be traced back to a conversation with a US professor.
“In America, you have to knock it out the park,” he explains. “You compete to be the best, but then there’s new competition which is even more intense.
“If I’d stayed in America I’d have made loads of money, but I’d just have been unhappy and burnt out very quickly. It’s bull****. You have to stop chasing the next medal. This professor told me: ‘You need to get off the treadmill and live your life.’”
After leaving the US, Stewart continued his legal career, working in cross-border mergers and acquisitions in London and Spain before co-founding tech start-up Nuroa.es in Barcelona in 2005. The property search engine was acquired by a rival in 2016 and Stewart is still involved with the company today.
“Europe is a lot less intense than America,” he explains. “You guys aren’t as cut-throat as Americans. People should have other things that interest them away from making lots of money. Living in Spain, I felt like I was retired!”
Most retirees probably take things easier than Stewart, who joined Wayra in 2011. After three years leading the company’s academies in Barcelona and Madrid, he came to the UK to set up similar operations in London, Cheltenham and Birmingham, which currently support more than 25 companies.
He says the Cheltenham centre is most successful because of its focus on cyber security and proximity to British intelligence organisation GCHQ.
Wayra is opening a centre with former Spurs and Arsenal defender Sol Campbell and Haringey Council in Tottenham, North London, as well as the Open Future_North accelerator in Oldham.