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Can you learn to be an entrepreneur?

19th May 2021
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The impact of covid-19 on the UK economy has been devastating. There’s been massive business closures, job losses and deepening inequality. But at the same time, another trend has slowly emerged; entrepreneurship. In 2020 in fact, there was a record-breaking 770,000 new businesses created, with online and mail-order being the most popular. 

But, is this simply an impact caused by covid-19, or has entrepreneurship been an ever-increasing trend, that has simply been accelerated by the pandemic? The figures suggest the latter, with entrepreneurship becoming a much more sought-after and viable option for skilled workers. And though the stereotypical image of an entrepreneur tends to a young, tech-savvy graduate, the average age of an entrepreneur in the UK is actually 40 years old. So, is there more to be done at a further education and University level to encourage fresh graduates to see entepreneurship as not just an aspiration, but an achievable goal. 

We spoke with Marek Tokarski (MT), a Senior Enterprise Manager in the Careers & Enterprise Centre at Durham University, about entrepreneurship amongst students and fresh graduates, and how to foster this entrepreneurial spirit at an early stage amongst students. In Marek’s role at the University he provides strategic leadership for student enterprise and entrepreneurship, and is directlyinvolved  in helping students develop enterprising capabilities and launch new ventures. The University have also recently launched the Hazan Venture Lab – a space for entrepreneurial students and graduates to connect, collaborate and form a community at the University.

Entrepreneurship is becoming much more talked about at a student level – have you seen a rise in the interest of entrepreneurship over the last few years?

MT: Yes, absolutely. Entrepreneurship is viewed more favourably as a career choice by students, supported by a growing number of inspirational case studies showing how fulfilling life as an entrepreneur can be. The above is reflected by the 80% increase in the number of startups supported to launch at Durham University in the 2019/20 academic year compared to the previous year. 

What key areas or industry do you see a huge rise in entrepreneurship in recently?

MT: Developments in technology has made it easier and cheaper than ever before to launch a tech based startup. We see a lot of students looking at how they can use tech to solve problems in the world. We’ve also been extremely encouraged by the number of students launching businesses based on scientific innovations, often using knowledge that they have gained through their studies at Durham University. It’s inspiring to see startups with ambitious plans to positively impact the world in a variety of sectors including; construction materials, agriculture and space technology. 

Can you train someone to be an entrepreneur, or is it more offer them the skillset to do so?

MT: It’s our belief that entrepreneurs learn the most from their experiences rather than what we can teach them. Sure, we can teach them the basics but the intention is that they apply this learning in the ‘real world’ and go on their own journey from there. Our role at Durham University is to, first of all, encourage students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and consider how they could use their skills and knowledge to make the world a better place. For those who decide to do this through starting a new venture, we’re here to guide them, help them reflect on their experiences and use their learning to make informed decisions about the next actions to take.

What are the key things a budding entrepreneur needs to know, or have organised, before launching the venture?

MT: I believe it’s very important for aspiring entrepreneurs to fully explore the problem that they are trying to solve. They need to have clarity on who the prospective customer is, the problem they have and the importance of this problem to the prospective customer. This will give them a solid foundation on which they can base their startup on. From this point, founders should keep an open mind about what the most effective solution is, commit to taking action, testing ideas and apply their learning to move forward. 

How can a University help to develop entrepreneurs? Should all subjects have lessons in entrepreneurship?

MT: As much as I would love to see it happen, I don’t think it practical for all subjects to teach entrepreneurship. However, I do think there is a place in all subject areas to include enterprise, defined by QAA(2018) as: ‘the generation and application of ideas, which are set within practical situations during a project or undertaking’. Having students develop skills in creativity, problem solving and idea generation, initiative and practical action around their subject area is extremely important. 

Are there other ways universities can foster entrepreneurship, not just through teaching?

MT: Yes, most universities in the UK provide extra-curricular support for aspirant entrepreneurs to explore their own ideas and to launch and grow new ventures. Startup coaching sessions provide students with support to help them reflect on experiences and determine their next steps, as well as providing an element of accountability. Early stage grant funding can be essential in helping students to explore and validate their ideas. Networking events and co-working spaces enable students to join a community of likeminded individuals from which they can gain inspiration, knowledge and new connections. 

How important are mentors to entrepreneurs in the launch stage?

MT: The right mentors provide extremely valuable support to early-stage entrepreneurs. They can come from a variety of backgrounds too. Most are successful entrepreneurs who can help through sharing the experience having been on a similar journey. However, industry mentors can provide tremendous insight into their sector and open doors to potential opportunities. Investors and specialist advisers can also provide highly valuable inputs to support emerging entrepreneurs on their journey. 

Do you believe there is a ‘right time’ to become an entrepreneur – is it later in life when you have experience or early in your career with traditionally less responsibilities?

MT: I think if you wait for the perfect time, it will never come. There will always be a reason to put it off or wish you had started something earlier in life. My message to young people is not to scale back their ambitions because they consider themselves young and inexperienced. Adam Grant in his book ‘Originals’ shows how many great innovations and new ventures come from what he describes as ‘young geniuses’. Thankfully, we have a growing number of case studies at Durham University to inspire students to think big about what is possible. 

What one piece of advice would you give someone who is looking to launch a business?

MT: Don’t rush into launching your business, take some time to analyse the problem you want to solve and work out the best way to arrive at the best possible solution. That said, it’s important to commit to action and not to overplan. You’ll learn quickest from doing. Once you understand the problem, get out there, test your ideas and use your learning to inform your next steps.

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