A business support group for graduate entrepreneurs

I run a network called SENSE as part of my enterprise role at Solent University.

Unusually, SENSE is exclusively for graduate entrepreneurs, and our members include accountants, fashion designers, architects, filmmakers and even a chocolatier. I describe the network as a ‘business support group’ – if a member has a problem, it’s likely that someone else has faced it before and can help them out. We have regular guest speakers who talk about their experiences and share particular skills, such as email marketing or writing a press release.

Collectively we’re developing and growing SENSE, and we’re learning about what makes a network like this helpful, inspiring and different to other support on offer.

Freelance journalist Karen Woods recently wrote a particular good article describing what we’re trying to build. It’s published behind a corporate intranet, but I’ve reproduced it below:

Talking SENSE about entrepreneurship

Starting your own business is exciting and challenging and the rewards could be large – but it isn’t easy. Students at Southampton Solent are encouraged to aim for the heights through a range of innovative programmes, some even offer funding to help get businesses off the ground. And graduates setting out for the first time in self-employment are not forgotten.

Key to the support on offer is the SENSE Network, a regular meeting place for graduates, staff and friends of the University. Entrepreneurs-in-residence Greg Sandford and Tom Saunders have been there themselves, know how tough it can be and that it’s good to talk. Each month, a speaker addresses an important business issue such as marketing, finance, social media or intellectual property, topics are frequently chosen by the graduates themselves and there is always plenty of time to share experiences.

Greg is a freelance communications manager, establishing his own business in 2012 after leading change and internal comms for several strategic projects at the University of Southampton; in an earlier high profile assignment, he was an early intern for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007/8. “There is great deal of energy at Southampton Solent and tremendous interest in innovation and I’m pleased to be part of it,” he says. “Our students are driven to succeed and I enjoy supporting them at this crucial time in their careers.”

Around the table at SENSE in April were fledgling entrepreneurs in publishing, hair and beauty, clothing, graphic design and photography, all listening to Southampton Solent’s Head of Employability and Enterprise Rosy Jones talking about how to grow a business, and sharing the story of Isle of Wight brothers Rob and Mark, who started out in 2009 in a shed in Cowes with £200 and now run the flourishing ethical and sustainable clothes company Rapanui – one of Sir Richard Branson’s top 50 eco companies.

Rosy is proud that hundreds of graduates have successfully set up their own companies: “I love those little moments when the students and graduates understand the theories I’m talking about and apply them to the business.” She has worked with young entrepreneurs of all kinds in the region and was named Enterprise Society Champion in 2013 to recognise her passion, innovation and leadership.

“It’s great meeting people with the same kind of issues,” says chocolate maker and Solent graduate Jamie Oliver Kemp. “Some are just starting, others have been doing it for years, but there’s always something new to learn that can benefit your business and build your confidence. Being an entrepreneur isn’t a nine-to-five job and sometimes it can be hard to keep motivated but Greg, Tom and the former students who go along to SENSE meetings are very supportive.”