This summer marked the end of my three year stint as Entrepreneur-in-residence at Southampton Solent University – an occasional role that saw me supporting students and graduates who had started, or wanted to start, their own businesses.
I say ‘occasional’ because, by definition, Entrepreneurs-in-residence run their own businesses and develop new projects at the same time. I spent, on average, two days per month at the University.
I’ve been involved with enterprise education activities for more than a decade, but when I went freelance with my communications work in 2012, I realised I had the opportunity to package up my experiences, professionalise what I had to offer and set aside time for it each month.
In 2013, I was approached by Southampton Solent and asked to work alongside their enterprise team to develop and grow a network for graduate entrepreneurs. I blogged about the network – called SENSE – last year.
Initially this group revolved around monthly meetings, with a guest speaker who would either share a skill or their own story. The monthly sessions are still important, but an online network has developed, too, allowing members to share ideas and successes, and arrange their own meet-ups and events.
This definitely wasn’t easy. In fact, it was a lesson in continuous improvement. I was constantly trying to judge what makes a network like this relevant to its members and how to support very different businesses – many established, others just starting up. I trialled a number of channels to manage and communicate with the group – Facebook remained the most effective.
Working closely with the in-house enterprise team meant that I was able to identify and flag alumni that were still eligible for the University’s funding scheme, or those that would make good mentors and speakers.
I learnt a huge amount working with these smart and ambitious graduates, including:
- When you’re running your own business, you can’t always identify or articulate what support you need. The role of the mentor or the adviser is to re-frame the question.
- Although we encourage students and graduates to prepare a business plan for funding panels, etc., there’s no substitute for just getting started with an idea.
- SENSE members run a range of businesses, but regardless of whether it’s an architect, a product designer, a photographer or even a chocolatier, everyone faces similar challenges.
- Established business owners needn’t feel out of place in a room full of early stage start-ups, in fact they often enjoy sharing the benefit of their experiences.
- Sometimes the biggest barrier to creating a really successful business is just a little bit of confidence.
I’ll be keeping in touch with my SENSE friends and can’t wait to see how their businesses develop and thrive over the years ahead.
Enterprise Education has become a growing part of my work over the last few years and I have some exciting new projects in the pipeline. I’m always interested in the enterprise programmes being run by local colleges and universities, so if I can help, do get in touch.