A Visionary, a Colleague, a Friend: A Tribute to Professor David Smallbone

Wednesday, April, 22, 2020 By Dr. Ayman El Tarabishy

A Visionary, a Colleague, a Friend: A Tribute to Professor David Smallbone

Wednesday, April, 22, 2020 By Dr. Ayman El Tarabishy

It seems nearly impossible to describe the essence of someone’s life work in words. Yet, in order to honor Professor David Smallbone properly, it seemed only fitting that we tried. A man that captured everyone’s attention when he spoke, he compelled and challenged us. We gathered together as colleagues to share stories and work through the remembrance of our beloved friend.

            Opening up the session, David Storey described David Smallbone as an “exceptional character.” He continued by saying that his exceptionalness was derived from his untraditional background as a small business researcher. David Smallbone began by teaching geography at a secondary school. While working in the history department at Middlesex University, Smallbone’s interests involved small businesses in rural environments. After David Storey and Professor David A. Kirby, Holder of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion assisted Smallbone in his transition from the history department to the business school, David Smallbone found himself working alongside David North. Said to be a “formidable research Dinamo,” Smallbone and North thoroughly changed the small business world in the UK.

            Professor David Smallbone’s interests revolved around the factors that influence business performance, transitioning from his geographical roots in the history department, he began to research factors other than simple location and moved towards examining the trends of ethnicity and international movement for small businesses. David Storey remembered this clear evolution as Smallbone searched for an understanding of the environments within which businesses operated. In this way, David Smallbone often studied the relationship between policy and the State in regards to entrepreneurship. David became very interested in the hows and whys of economies transitioning from communist regimes to more market economies.

            Friederike Welter recalled meeting Professor Smallbone at a conference in Bulgaria in 1995. At the time, a junior researcher, she made an effort to emphasize David’s large network of colleagues and friends that he had built in Central and Eastern Europe. In every single one of his projects, David was adamant that the curated research is shared not only in journals but also with policymakers. While working in Central and Eastern Europe, David provided mentoring to many researchers, which ultimately led to their decisions to stay in academia.

            Robert Blackburn remembered David to be mentally just as sharp, even at the end of his life. A colleague from Kingston College, he recalled his relationship with David as verging on competitive when he arrived in 2004. David was incredibly collegiate. He arrived first in the morning and was always the last to leave at night. His dedication to his work was matched by his innate nature to succeed. Smallbone was said to have a judgment that “could cut through the bullshit,” meaning that he was able to “measure a situation and then act or react accordingly.” David’s professionalism and hard work demonstrated a great example for younger people in his field. Professor David Curby describes Professor Smallbone as the most earnest and conscientious colleague he ever came across.

            One day, David asked Professor Curby, which were the best conferences to go to, to which Professor Curby responded ICSB and ECSB. Not only did David attend these conferences; however, he also ended up being the president of both organizations. Professor Curby finished by stating, “I’ll miss him, the community will miss him, and certainly, British academia will miss him.”

            Reflecting on my time with David Smallbone, I have a very specific memory of meeting David in London for an ICSB conference with Dell. We were attending a lecture given by Michael Dell when, suddenly, David interrupted Michael and began correcting him. As I imagined the terminus of our ICSB/Dell partnership, I looked around the room to find everyone, including Michael Dell, listening intently to David. After the lecture, Michael Dell’s team reported to us how much they appreciated David’s comments.

           Robert Blackburn described a morning conversation on the phone with David. After a night out, both men fell asleep on their train rides home. Robert’s train, luckily, had a scheduled cleaning, which led him almost directly home, whereas David’s train led him so far away that he had to find a taxi to make his way home in the early hours of the morning. David Storey described Smallbone’s incredible dedication as an Arsenal fan. Storey described, “everything has to start with David being unfortunate to be an Arsenal supporter.” Unfortunately for Storey, however, Arsenal won that particular football game that they attended together, and Smallbone never let Storey forget it. Arsenal was Smallbone’s main passion aside from his family and work. Lastly, Friederike premised her story by stating that David would have told it better. They were in Ukraine in the mid-1990s at a bar-less hotel. Suddenly after persuading the receptionist to give them each a beer,  a group of firefighters ran through the front doors. At the time, Friederike and David took this as a sign that they might have had too much to drink and that it was time to call it a night, only finding out later that there was just a small kitchen fire somewhere in the hotel.

            It was not only his ability to master research topics but more so to do his work effectively while breaking down barriers in British academia and within the domain of international entrepreneurship research that made David Smallbone’s work so impressive and worthy. Following the words from his friends and colleagues, I offered up the idea to create an award that will annually honor Professor Smalbone’s legacy. As an exemplar for future generations, this award will hopefully embody David’s active spirit. Professor Smallbone contributed not solely to academia, but also to people. His research was centered and motivated by his genuine care of the person. It is this attribute that guided his interests in policy and state infrastructure. David, despite his international research, was very locally focused, meaning that he never forgot the grassroots work that must be upheld to develop important  research. Updates on this award will be coming soon.

            Professor David Smallbone, thank you for your example and contributions. We seek to uphold your legacy by continuing the exemplary that you left for us to follow.

Reference video: ICSB Family pays Tribute to Professor David Smallbone

Written by: Ayman El Tarabishy, Deputy Chair, Department of Management, GW School of Business, ICSB Executive Director