This is the age of the entrepreneur. A survey last year found that more than half of British teenagers would like to run their own business and the latest reports suggest a growing number of university students have similar ambitions. The most recent Higher Education Funding Council for England figures show that over 2,350 businesses were started in the 2009/10 academic year by recent or new graduates, 12% more than in the previous year. Faced with a tough employment market and increased competition over graduate jobs, it seems many students are turning to entrepreneurship as a way of securing their future after graduation.
Universities are waking up to this rise in entrepreneurship, with increasing numbers setting up enterprise societies and business incubators to support fledgling student businesses. In 2010, there were only twelve of these in universities across the country, but in the last two years that number has risen to 86. They provide their students with advice and facilities to help them plan, set up and run their own enterprises. Bristol University’s Basecamp programme is currently incubating 15 businesses, ranging from a social media website to a company planning to sell liquid-nitrogen-chilled ice-cream. At Essex University, students have been commissioned by Waitrose to help ex-service personnel back into work. While at Barking and Dagenham College, a café launched and run by students has generated £120,000 a year.
…provides students with free business tools to help develop their entrepreneurial ideas…
Support and investment is also available from organisations outside of the universities. Venture Wales is a business support organisation that delivers Graduate Start-Up Support on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government. Anyone who is thinking of setting up a business in Wales can access this support free of charge, provided they have graduated within the last five years or are currently in Further or Higher Education. FIG, which stands for ‘Find, Invest, Grow’, is a website that provides students with free business tools to help develop their entrepreneurial ideas and analyse their business plans. FIG also helps to fund young entrepreneurs by connecting them to a network of investors willing to provide ‘seed investment’ to students and recent graduates. So far, £2.1m has been invested in nine companies across a range of sectors.
Entrepreneurship is not only a good way for students to protect themselves against a bleak jobs market; it also makes them stand out from other graduates. “It is getting harder for employers to distinguish between the mass of degree qualifications in the jobs market at the moment,” says Sonja Stockton, head of recruitment at accountancy firm PwC. As a result, the firm has set up a scheme called Inspired Talent which looks for applicants who demonstrate commercial aptitude. According to Bart Clarysse, who holds a chair in entrepreneurship at Imperial College business school, gaining entrepreneurial experience while at university is “even more valuable” to some prospective employers than doing an MBA.
…graduates should consider gaining a few years of experience through a job or internship before launching their business idea…
However, starting your own business is not easy and not all new enterprises are successful. Both Toby Reid and Simon McCann have had to suffer seeing their businesses fail only a few years after they were launched. But they have learned lessons from the experience. Reid suggests that graduates should consider gaining a few years of experience through a job or internship before launching their business idea. McCann disagrees and says that graduates should not be put off starting their own enterprise, but recommends that they seek advice from their university or a mentoring scheme. But he warns, “Being self-employed is tough. If you want to take three holidays a year, drive a BMW and go out every week, then being an entrepreneur is not for you.”