How can universities support atypical entrepreneurs?

With 600,000 new businesses expected to start this year, there’s no better time to be an entrepreneur, says GSM’s Andrew Falconer

Indeed, the entrepreneurship vibe has hit university campuses, with over 260 entrepreneurship and enterprise societies providing inspiration and support to students. Nowadays it’s cooler to be seen at the entrepreneurship society than the bar, but as Universities strive forward on the enterprise agenda, there is a risk of leaving some students, and potential talent, behind. 

I am intrigued by the language of entrepreneurship. Whilst many students actively engage with the entrepreneurship agenda at university, others will graduate and set up businesses without having sought any advice. Being an entrepreneur has kudos – creating a start-up is fashionable. Setting up a business, becoming self-employed, building up franchise, isn’t. But why is this the case? Shouldn’t self-employed plumbers or freelance photographers also be considered entrepreneurs?

Whilst many students actively engage with the entrepreneurship agenda at university, others will graduate and set up businesses without having sought any advice’

There is much to commend in a good student led entrepreneurship society. Students gain access to expert speakers, sometimes hatchery and incubation support, and certainly peer support. A charismatic committee can boost and entice engagement. However, an active student society should not be seen as the only solution to developing entrepreneurship. As with any society, strong personalities can become obstacles, alienating potential atypical entrepreneurs.

Much work has already been done to bring enterprise into the classroom. HEIs are recognizing that enterprise can help develop employability skills. Enterprise is about enabling students to manage uncertainty, to apply academic knowledge and become problem solvers – effectively nurturing intrapreneurship skills. Whilst there are many great examples of this within universities, the challenge has often been developing an entrepreneurial outlook in students from other disciplines who could go on to become atypical entrepreneurs.

So how can HEIs better support atypical entrepreneurs? Here are my top four tips:

1.    Harness existing employability initiatives employability initiatives at universities are great at supporting students taking a traditional career path, but atypical entrepreneurs, who often fall into entrepreneurship later in their careers, may not receive the support they need to make this transition. Rather than reinvent the wheel, HEIs can support atypical entrepreneurs by harnessing existing initiatives to develop entrepreneurial behaviours amongst all students. For example, by finding self-employed designers and agency owners to mentor graphic design students; offering opportunities to shadow entrepreneurs and freelancers; ensuring general employability skills sessions are also tailored to those looking to branch out on their own, focusing on presentation skills, networking and developing resilience.

2.    Identify atypical entrepreneur career paths – using longitudinal studies of alumni career paths, universities can see when a graduate’s entrepreneurial interests typically kick-in. Using this data, careers advisers can tailor their advice for atypical entrepreneurs and produce a checklist of goals that they’ll need to have achieved by a certain point in their career to ensure they are well prepared. Universities can also use this data as an opportunity to reengage with alumni at key points in their careers, and invite them to attend relevant events/workshops that will support their goals.

3.    Map existing and potential opportunities for delivering entrepreneurship education and skills within academic programmes – student-led entrepreneurship societies shouldn’t be the only option advertised to university students. Opportunities are provided by international groups such as Enactus, who work with education leaders to mobilize university students within their own communities, and become socially responsible leaders in the process. There are also programmes that focus on encouraging students in specific fields. CleanTechChallenge is a popular international business planning competition that encourages students to develop their own clean technology ideas.

4.    Identify trends through the destinations of leavers from HE surveys about the types of enterprise alumni create honing in on established areas of interest for enterprising alumni helps universities understand the needs of students, and allows them to distribute extra support in these areas. Technology is known to be a popular area for graduates, but it’s important not to overlook success in retail and service industries too. If career practitioners at universities have a better understanding of the areas most students are likely to contribute to, they will be able to provide more relevant guidance and coaching.

Andrew Falconer is Director of Careers & Employability at GSM London. 

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