Business brains: supporting start-up success

Are universities doing enough to equip students with the digital skills needed to thrive as entrepreneurs? Hazel Davis explores

Entrepreneurship and innovation are critical fuel for a nation’s economic growth. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) represent 90% of businesses globally – 99.8% in the European Union and 99.9% in the US. They are also a key contributor to GDP. 

And yet, research from professional academy Avado has identified a dramatically widening gap between business needs and people capabilities over the course of the pandemic. 

“What was interesting to us,” says Mark Creighton, Avado’s CEO, “was that many of the capabilities that respondents valued most highly – such as being data-driven, insights-led and innovative – don’t form part of further and higher education curriculums.” 

The process of learning the skills required to become a successful entrepreneur begins with education. The last 12 months have been the most transformative in the global sector’s history – but has entrepreneurship education managed to keep pace with technological change? 

“[Start-ups are] often portrayed as the catalyst for radical innovation but they’re more vulnerable than other incumbents” – Dr Carla Bonina, Surrey Centre of Digital Economy

“Start-ups are facing an important challenge, essentially in digital,” says Dr Carla Bonina, senior lecturer (associate professor) in innovation and entrepreneurship, Core Member, Surrey Centre of Digital Economy at Surrey Business School. “They’re often portrayed as the catalyst for radical innovation but they’re more vulnerable than other incumbents.”

A changing marketplace

The market has changed, says Dr Bonina. “Affordability means you can launch a landing page in a couple of hours with a low budget. But it’s a very different thing, launching an actual company.” She adds, “I don’t see a lot of incentives for start-ups or reduction of barriers. So we see a surge of proposals because of the hype and idea that anyone can become an entrepreneur, especially in a time of crisis. But the reality is you need investment in solving a crisis.”

Digital entrepreneurship is taught with varying degrees of success around the globe. “There are places in France and pockets of Germany where real innovation is taking place,” says Bonina. “Here, you can set up a start-up in a couple of hours, but in Latin America that would be a dream.”

Romania, for example, has been teaching entrepreneurial education in secondary schools since 2002 and its universities integrate the subject into all academic higher education courses. 

The Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities (ACEEU) was set up to promote greater social, economic and cultural impacts through higher education entrepreneurship. The Global League of Entrepreneurial Universities (GLEU) features those higher education institutions that have been externally recognised for entrepreneurship (accredited, awarded or highly ranked) or put emphasis on entrepreneurship in their vision or mission statement. Aston University’s strategic and inclusive cross-institutional approach to supporting businesses, for example, bagged it the Outstanding Entrepreneurial University accolade in the Times Higher Education Awards. 

Making a difference

There are pockets of good practice in the UK, too. Aston Enterprise, the student start-up support body, offers Apollo, a six-week mini-accelerator designed to inspire entrepreneurs to develop business ideas through interactive masterclasses taught by business leaders. But its entrepreneurial skills are taught across the whole institution. Aston Medical School offers a health leadership module delivered in conjunction with Aston Business School, equipping students with the skills to tackle the business elements of a GP surgery.

ScreenSpace is a partnership between MetFilm School and the University of West London, offering BAs in Content, Media and Film Production, and Film and Screen Business. Becky Knapp leads the ‘Be An Entrepreneur’ module. “Ideally a practical course curriculum should have career-focused content in it,” she says, “It’s not just about teaching students skills to pass the course, but to help them after graduation.”

start-up
Image source: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

ScreenSpace third years have been learning how to set up and run their own creative businesses in a field they want to work in, developing and pitching ideas in everything from digital production companies, to branding, to social media management, to facilities companies. “As part of their teaching we’ve worked on CVs, strategy, team-building and interview technique,” says Knapp. “We look at the current marketplace and how they fit into it, with a mind’s eye into looking to the opportunities that the digital skills they’ve learnt from the course give them.” Even if the students don’t want to run a start-up or be entrepreneurs, Knapp says they learn skills about business and create a three- to five-year career development plan. This, she says, “gives a realistic sense of the income and costs, marketing themselves and where to find a job”.

Curriculum must-haves

Roger James Hamilton is a social entrepreneur, futurist, author and co-founder of Genius School – the world’s first global virtual school designed to nurture entrepreneurs. He says there are three actions that all schools and colleges could take to better equip their students with the relevant digital and entrepreneurial skills needed today.

The first, he says, “is partnering with companies and entrepreneurs who have already learnt and are applying the skills the school wants to teach. These partnerships are critical as students will learn what’s most relevant faster from practitioners than via the school’s current faculty. Companies themselves want and need these partnerships to ensure graduates have the skills when they graduate to be employable or entrepreneurial.”

The second is to focus on developing self-awareness skills that ignite each student’s desire to discover the opportunities open to them: “For example, all our students take assessments to discover their purpose, passions and talents, and that inevitably leads to meaningful opportunities that fit their interests and strengths that they didn’t know existed previously.”

The third, Hamilton says, is to see the success of fast-growing edtech companies as collaborators instead of competitors. Genius Group partners with schools and universities to give their students a gateway to global mentors, companies and courses that supplement their education: “We’ve seen students launch start-ups, raise funding, become YouTubers, podcasters and retail investors while still at school and college, building both their confidence and optimism in their path after graduation.” 

“We’ve seen students launch start-ups, raise funding, become YouTubers, podcasters and retail investors while still at school and college, building both their confidence and optimism in their path after graduation” – Roger James Hamilton, Genius School

As technology continues to change the working world, employers will have to take responsibility for accelerating skills that aren’t fulfilled in academic education. Creighton agrees: “Simultaneously, education systems need to adapt to ensure they are equipping people with the right capabilities to succeed.” He adds, “It’s no longer enough to provide people with isolated skills. Every individual needs to develop mindsets and ways of working that support innovation, to give them the best possible chance to thrive in the workplace of the future.” 

“Every individual needs to develop mindsets and ways of working that support innovation, to give them the best possible chance to thrive in the workplace of the future” – Mark Creighton, Avado

Technology now moves at such a fast pace, says Creighton, “that anything other than consistent patterns of ongoing learning will enable individuals to make a powerful contribution to their employer. Great development programmes take all this into account, whilst encouraging participants to collaborate with and learn from each other.” 

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