London’s Deputy Mayor for Business Rajesh Agrawal sees room for a deeper collaboration between the UK and Israel when it comes to the areas of food tech, climate tech, fin tech and AI.
And while he has only seen the start-up nation from afar, Agrawal has set his sights on viewing it closer up before too long.
Speaking exclusively to the Jewish News, Agrawal said: “I would love to take a (trade) delegation to Israel. Covid put things on hold for travel but as soon as I get the opportunity I will, I am very keen.”
Indian-born Agrawal, 46, has been in his role since Sadiq Khan was appointed Mayor of London in 2016.
He said: “I have spoken to many visiting entrepreneurs from Israel and I see huge areas for collaboration between Israel and London. I would love to see more in the areas of food and climate tech as we look to more sustainable ways of living, and there are also big opportunities of collaboration in fintech and AI.
“And so many in the Jewish community in London and the UK have strong ties with Israel – they are the living bridge and play a very important role in bringing the two countries together. We must use them to do so.”
Born in Indore, Agrawal comes from very humble beginnings. “We didn’t have beds in our house until I was about eight or 10. We would sleep on the floor. But I had a good education.” Agrawal’s first full-time job after school was selling website design. It paid 5,000 Rupees a month (around £50). He lived in the slums of Mumbai at the time.
In 2001, aged 24, Agrawal got the opportunity to move to London for a job working in a foreign exchange company. He sold his motorbike to buy a one-way ticket. “It was my first time out of India and my first time on a plane. I didn’t know anyone in the UK but I saw it as a great opportunity that I wanted to grab with both hands.
“Yet despite it being my first time here (in the UK), I didn’t feel like a stranger. London welcomed me with open arms.” He set up home in a bedsit in Harrow.
After three years, Agrawal decided to branch out with his friend Paresh Davdra. “I used to send money back home and realised that small businesses and individuals sending money abroad were getting ripped off. I thought that if we could create a technology that made it cheaper and easier for people to send money abroad then there is a very big market for it.”
He quit his job, and with no money in the bank and a visa that was soon to run out, he asked the bank for a £10,000 start-up loan, but was firmly rejected. “So I went back to the bank and said: “I’ve been thinking about it, and you are right, it was a stupid idea. I’ve decided to give that up and buy a car instead.” The bank agreed and handed over £20,000, which the duo used to launch RationalFX in 2005 (Agrawal didn’t buy the car).
RationalFX grew to become one of the world’s leading foreign exchange and international payments company, which has handled more than $12 billion in international payments in over 50 currencies.
Mild-mannered, ambitious and affable, Agrawal, while passionate about business also had political aspirations. “I was always more interested in changing the world and making it a better place through social change.” He got involved in more charity work including for The Prince’s Trust, Oxfam and the Cherie Blaire foundation – all which involved helping different groups of entrepreneurs. “But I realised that if I wanted to bring change on a big scale, I needed to get involved in politics and policy.”
In 2016, he left RationalFX and worked with Sadiq Khan on his mayoral campaign that year. Agrawal, who is also co-chair of the Labour Friends of India, recalls of the Conservative candidate’s campaign: “It was a very divisive and difficult campaign. He (Sadiq Khan) won and that is testimony to London’s openness as a city. It was a hope over hate kind of win.”
He has remained by Khan’s side for the past seven years championing London’s business community. He co-chairs the Jobs & Skills Business Partnership, responsible for advising the Mayor on how to improve and better align skills provision and is deputy to the Mayor on the London Economic Action Partnership (LEAP), the local enterprise partnership for London.
The father-of-two daughters, Agrawal believes London’s openness to immigration and the contribution of immigrants is the “greatest strength London has and should be celebrated.
“London is a city built on immigration. Nearly 40 per cent of the population was born outside of the UK. It is this talent that is making London thrive – it is the fastest growing economy in the UK.”
Earlier this year (in March), he led a (trade) mission to India – now the largest overseas investor in London – up from 4th largest when Agrawal became Deputy Mayor.
An early supporter of the Asian Jewish Business Network, he identifies many key similarities between the two communities and their entrepreneurial nature. “First of all, their background in immigration in this country and by nature, immigrants are people that have left their comfort zone to start a new life somewhere else, which shows they are risk takers.
“Second, both communities have a strong focus on education. I am a big believer that education plays a very important role. I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have a good education.
“And thirdly, the strong sense of family – having this makes you more resilient and responsible, such as looking after siblings or other family members.”
Agrawal is optimistic about London’s economic prospects, despite a very challenging backdrop. But then he’s no stranger to overcoming challenges. During his tenure he has seen Brexit, the pandemic, inflation rises due to the War in Ukraine and a fast-moving carousel of prime ministers (five). “I am very proud that despite huge challenges we have kept the flag flying and helped businesses grow, and brought record investment. Hospitality and tourism are thriving again. Record numbers of people went to concerts and cinema this summer. London is back with a big bang.”
When Agrawal might get to carry out a delegation to Israel will somewhat depend on what happens in the Mayoral elections in May. Will he continue in his role if Sadiq gets in? “Well, that’s up to Sadiq. I love it so far. We often debate who has the best job in the world. I think I do. I love every moment of it, and who knows what the future holds, but I know the country needs a big change in gears.
“We are standing at a crossroad, emerging technologies present huge opportunities but also huge challenges, but we have to tackle it head on.”
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.