DEPENDING on your outlook on Brexit, it is reasonable to characterise London’s deputy mayor for business, Rajesh Agrawal, as either positioned to drive the capital’s commercial and business interests into an exciting new era for “global Britain”, or as the person responsible for limiting the damage and cleaning up the mess after Britain leaves the EU.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that despite campaigning to remain within the bloc, and being appointed to his role by mayor Sadiq Khan before the June 2016 vote took place – albeit a mere six days prior – Brexit already has, and will continue to have a defining and all-encompassing impact on Agrawal’s role. It is the former fintech entrepreneur’s assignment to support London’s business community during the UK’s Brexit negotiations. He is also chair of London and Partners, promoting the capital overseas.
Brexit might mean Brexit for Theresa May and the Conservatives, but for Labour supporting Agrawal and the mayor, it’s very much a case of protecting jobs and growth in the capital, as well as reassuring a somewhat jittery city that these aims are being met, as the negotiations roll on.
Speaking exclusively to the GG2 Power List, Agrawal is both philosophical and practical about the road which lies ahead. “Brexit was a surprise to me but it happened and yes, it was a shock. I campaigned to remain, Sadiq campaigned to remain and actually, London voted to remain too, but we are where we are.
“London is one of the world’s leading cities for business. It’s built on very strong foundations of innovation and entrepreneurship, and is also a world-class financial hub. This will not change with Brexit. Brexit in all scenarios, especially the way the government is handling it, is not looking good but I have full confidence in London and its ability. If you look at the tech sector, for example, London companies have attracted over £4 billion in investments since the vote. That’s more than any other tech hub in Europe.
“Even speaking to family businesses, I’m reassured, as they look at the referendum result pragmatically and are taking important decisions about the future in a clear and calm manner. It’s a case of keep calm and carry on. Of course, businesses are preparing for all sorts of eventualities but it’s very clear that London is a phenomenal and very resilient city, and it will continue to thrive.”
The capital certainly has demonstrated resilience and not just financially. London has witnessed the Grenfell Tower fire and a number of terrorist attacks since Agrawal took up his post, but Londoners have continued to band together.
Agrawal was born in Indore, India, in 1977. After completing a master’s degree in business administration, he worked for a web design company in Chandigarh, where he earned `5,000 (£50) a month. In his early 20s, the now-family man, who is married to wife Charu and has two daughters, sold his motorbike to pay for a one-way ticket to London. That was in 2001 and was the first time he had been outside India.
After a job at a small foreign exchange company, Agrawal, along with business partner Paresh Davdra, founded foreign exchange company RationalFX in 2005. The pair grew the commercial foreign exchange company from a two-person enterprise operating out of a small office in Brighton, into a multi-million-pound business, later relocating to London and opening offices in Birmingham, France and Spain.
The company, whose founding principles were based on offering superior exchange rates and customer service than the banks, introduced the UK’s first online currency exchange system for private individuals in its first year of trading.
Rational FX reported a turnover of £1.3bn in 2015, while three years earlier, Agrawal himself had appeared in the Sunday Times Rich List, having amassed a £90 million fortune.
The previous year, Agrawal had launched Xendpay, set up with the aim of reducing the cost of international remittances. Xendpay was the first free money transfer service funded by the payment of small and entirely discretionary fees.
Prior to becoming deputy mayor for business, long-time Labour supporter Agrawal had been an economic adviser to Khan during his 2016 mayoral election campaign. The swapping of a multi-million business career for the cut and thrust of City Hall may appear an odd choice, but Agrawal insists he is all the richer for it.
“I love what I do and if you love doing something, you have the opportunity to really excel. I come from a business background, so I’ve seen the whole journey. Now, in my current role, I spend a lot of my time talking to businesses of all different sizes and across different sectors and I really thoroughly enjoy that.
“Part of my job is to promote London worldwide and I absolutely love that. I’m like a travelling salesman. I travel around the world and sell London. I think this city has given me so much and this is my opportunity to give something back.
“One of the reasons I went into politics was to make a difference in society. As an entrepreneur, I tried to make a difference and change society for the better. What I like about being in politics and being in government, is that you can do this on a very large scale.
“London’s GDP alone is more than 80 or 90 per cent of some EU countries. So, the ability to have an impact in this role is fantastic and that is what I love most about it.”
Asked if anything came as a surprise in the transition from the commercial to the political world, Agrawal explains, “Aside from Brexit, which came six days after my appointment, we also all hear about the bureaucracy that is prevalent in the government. It was no real surprise but just to see the extent of it sometimes is an eye opener.
“When you’re running your own business, you take decisions very quickly. With government, there are many more stakeholders and so at times, the speed at which things progress is not good. The good thing is that Sadiq Khan is the mayor and with me as the deputy mayor, we are really trying to cut down bureaucracy in City Hall in order to make the decision-making process much faster.”
Agrawal has been a patron of youth-focused charity, the Prince’s Trust, for a number of years, as well as the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. He was appointed chair of Oxfam’s Enterprise Development Programme in 2015.