With the number of student entrepreneurs growing almost 10 times over the past decade, how beneficial is it to start a business while studying?
With one hand, she was jotting some notes down in her notebook and with the other she was checking her phone. It was already 5pm and she was still at University.
Hurrying up, she packed her bags and left the classroom when she heard her phone ring. It was a journalist who wanted to schedule an interview with her regarding her start-up enterprise – Local Spoon.
“Interviews are good PR for us as start-up entrepreneurs,” said Diana Alice Florescu, founder of Local Spoon, an online market place using geo-location and matching algorithms (AI) to connect restaurants with local customers through bespoke flash, off-peak deals and discounted leftovers. “Firstly, they are cost effective and secondly they are a great means to reach out to our target audience. These tips were given to us at University and I am glad I got to make use of them while I am still here,” said the Masters in Marketing and Retail student from the University College London, UK.
Florescu is just one of the many student entrepreneurs who have addressed economic and social problems through their niche start-ups. According to HESA, experts in higher education and data analysis, in 2007 – 2008 universities had reported a total of 1977 start-ups from fresh graduates. By 2014, the rate increased to 4603 with over 10,000 active graduate start-ups.
University being the best place to start a business
Although students with an entrepreneurial mind have come more into picture, the fact that universities and teaching institutions have also become engines of economic growth by embedding ‘third-stream’ activities cannot be denied.
“To be honest, I wanted to get my hands dirty and try out a new venture when I can afford to fail,” said Florescu. “If I would have started my business after I left university, the risk would have been greater. Right now, I don’t have a lot of responsibilities either so there could have not been a better time for me to have started my venture.”
The thought of universities being the best place to start business is further supported by Steven West, Vice-Chancellor, University of West England. The first reason he gives is that universities offer students a pool of connections and networks that they can utilise. Considering UK is the hub of education and learning, people hailing from different parts of the world come together and through interaction with them, there is a strong possibility of either recognising a new problem that hasn’t been addressed or finding a solution to an existing problem. The second reason is that universities also provide a lot of facilities and technical expertise that students need to develop and test their ideas with. Thirdly, universities are now taking over high-impact enterprise initiatives for students which not only helps in developing their skills but also helps in raising necessary funding.
“We have taken this one step further with a BA Business (Team Entrepreneurship) at UWE Bristol – where students work in a high-tech hub rather than a classroom,” says West. “They have coaching sessions and workshops rather than compulsory lectures – and it is running a real business that drives the students’ learning.”
Though student start-ups in 2014 employed almost 18,500 people and generated a turnover of £475m, the growth has come from the number of firms and not their size. Students are seen setting up small businesses employing only few people, restricting their scale of operations.
Furthermore, absolute levels of student entrepreneurship remain fairly low and lag behind the US. A study showed that only one in 17 young people in the UK are ‘actively engaged’ in early stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to one in 10 in the US.
The good news, however, is that the average survival rate of each business has increased to three years which means that the initiatives are being supported, appreciated and welcomed by a larger audience.
Institutional support – a great help
Ryan Robinson, 29, a PhD student at the Imperial College of London has recently been selected by Forbes for ‘Top 30 under 30’ for his various business initiatives. Aeropowder, an initiative where waste bird feathers are used for developing high-performance and environment friendly products, has been one of his most talked about start-up.
“My friend Elena Dieckmann who is also the co-founder of Aeropowder was working on a student project in late 2015 when this idea struck her,” says Ryan Robinson. “During that time, we pitched our idea to the Mayor of London’s Law Carbon Entrepreneur Competition and won it. As a result, we established our company on 2016.”
Following that, Robinson pitched his project to various student entrepreneurship supporting institutions like Innovate UK and Varsity Pitch by NACUE. The awards have helped Robinson raise funds for the venture and its promotion.
“The world in general has experienced a lot of economic instability over the past decade. Even jobs that traditionally seemed to come with life-long guarantees have become scarce. This has pushed students towards being entrepreneurs. And why not? They are young, they have a budget and they have a lot of opportunities,” says Robin Silcock, Events Manager at National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs (NACUE).
NACUE started over seven years ago, with a group of individuals who wanted to help students develop ideas that leave a lasting impact on the society. Today, they are working with colleges and Universities across the UK, majority of which are based in England. Varsity Pitch and Student Enterprise Conference are two of their popular events. Varsity Pitch, in particular, is where the winning team gets £10000 for funding their projects, along with expert monitoring from established individuals and more.
Following similar lines is the Cardiff University Student Enterprise & Start-up which provides one to one help and support to both local and international students from the University. They focus on developing entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills amongst their members where the former focus on establishing a firm and the latter focuses on developing new ideas in a particular job.
“There is a need for skilled employees so it becomes all the more important to develop skills that students can use in both the sectors,” says Iheanyl Ibe, Enterprise officer at Cardiff University Enterprise & Start-ups. “We offer all kind of support from mentoring, to developing a business plan, providing free office space, reaching out to clients and executing a project. We can be reached via emails or through our social media channels anytime.”
Working with 3000-5000 students on an average a year, the Cardiff University Student Enterprise & Start-ups have been known for continuously supporting their members, even after they have left the country. Ibe says: “We have students from India and China who have gone back but are still in touch with us. The business plans that we helped them prepare have been brought to life, making our efforts successful. We are just the start, they are the future.”