Record-breaking artist and successful technology entrepreneur gives University of Leicester graduates advice for life

A tech entrepreneur-turned-artist has returned to the University of Leicester to receive an honorary degree.

After graduating with an LLB in Law in 2004, Sam Barnett enjoyed a meteoric rise in business which included founding a technology start-up and being named Entrepreneur of the Year at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards. 

Today (Wednesday 19 July), Sam returned to Leicester to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Science at a graduation ceremony, held at De Montfort Hall.

Sam Barnett receives Honorary Doctorate of Science at graduation ceremony

After receiving his award, Sam had the following words of advice for graduating students.

He said: “I graduated from Leicester, in this very hall, 20 years ago, and that was a day that was filled with great anticipation and excitement – but also a great deal of anxiety.

“As I was stood outside this hall, with everybody milling around with their friends and parents, everybody was asking ‘what are you going to do, what are you going to be?’. I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know, but everyone around me seemed to have a plan. 

“I had been rejected for every law training contract I’d applied for, and I failed a pre-entry test to become a tax advisor. What I have learned along the way is that failure really sucks, but it lets you figure out who you are. I later realised I would have been a terrible tax advisor and a terrible lawyer.

“Throughout my 20s and 30s I made decisions based on money and status, but in reality, I was incredibly unhappy. Finally, I found my happiness by becoming an artist and early this year I was commissioned by the BBC to paint the King for his Coronation. 

“I encourage you all, as you embark on your adventure, to experiment wildly, to learn new things about yourself, to fail spectacularly and to follow your curiosity. I wish you all the luck in the world.”

Sam founded Struq, a company personalising online advertising to the interests of the user, in 2008. The business grew across Europe, South America and the USA, winning many awards including Best Tech Start-Up at the Telegraph Awards 2012 and Most Innovative Company in Europe at the Entrepreneur Country Awards 2011.

In 2014, following continued growth, Struq was acquired by Quantcast, a big data and machine learning business in analytics and advertising. Sam worked in several roles for Quantcast, becoming its Chief Product Officer, and was responsible for some of the most widely used technology tools on the internet. In 2014 he was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards. 

Sam left Quantcast in August 2019 and relocated with his family from the USA to London where he became President and Partner at Entrepreneur First, a venture capital fund investing in the world’s best technology talent to build start-ups from scratch.  

In May 2020, during the pandemic, Sam organised the World’s Biggest Art Lesson: 45,611 people took part in an online art lesson and set a world record recognised by Guinness World Records. 

In 2021, Sam left the world of technology to concentrate on being a full-time artist, with a passion for portrait art and breaking world records. In May 2023 he was commissioned by the BBC to create an official portrait of King Charles III. Sam created the Royally Big Portrait, a giant digital portrait of King Charles III, made up of thousands of individual portraits of the King drawn by children across the UK with world record breaking 16,000 drawings forming the final piece: the most contributions ever to a piece of art. The work was unveiled on the world’s biggest digital screen at Outernet in London in May and was visited by more than 2 million people in just 8 days. It was auctioned by Christie’s and raised £52,000 for Children in Need with the view to celebrate every child’s creativity and develop their self-belief to achieve and find their own path. It can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery later in 2023.

Sam officially opened Brookfield, our new School of Business campus, in January 2022 as part of the University’s centenary celebrations.