A roadshow run by entrepreneurs is firing up Britain's go-getters of the future

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The Independent Online

How do you start a business and make a million? Alex Tew, 23, knows, and recently shared his secret with students from Greenwich Community College, in south-east London.

"You've got to have an objective, and you've got to visualise your end goal," he told them. "You've got to create really strong images in your mind. People say that what you dwell on is what you become. Your brain stores those images and goes to work on them."

His audience was rapt. Here was a young guy, just like them, telling them that it was possible to make a fortune. And doing so with complete authority, because he'd already done it himself.

"I lay on my bed one day," he said, "and I thought, 'How can I become a millionaire?' I knew that whatever I did would have to have a good name, would have to be cheap to set up because I had no money, would have a good story attached to it so it would attract attention, and would be all about making money."

For him, the answer was the Million Dollar Homepage, where he sold advertising space pixel by pixel. "I knew that it was silly enough to work." And money flowed in so fast, he had to leave Nottingham University after just a term to run his new business.

Tew is part of a new Dragon's Den-style roadshow to inspire students to become more entrepreneurial. After launches last month at Thames Valley University and Greenwich College in London, the roadshow will embark on a tour of 18 colleges and universities in the new year.

"This is so important," says Steve Beswick, education director of Microsoft UK, which is sponsoring the show along with Make Your Mark, a charity for young entrepreneurs. "If you look at the skills issue, and where macroeconomics is now moving, the number of unskilled jobs is going to plummet by 2020.

"The UK economy is going to be almost entirely knowledge-based. We have to have the people for this. And it's very important to get these ideas over in further education, as well as in universities, because it's there you've got younger students and unskilled people coming in to retrain."

In the past, Microsoft has sought to develop ICT skills, but is now starting to think about how these can best be used. "We want people to ask: how can I use these ICT skills that I've got innovatively?" says Beswick.

"We want to foster people's creativity and imagination, and to get them thinking about working across different careers. We want people to realise that innovation is within everyone's reach, and to have the confidence to experiment and build on what they know."

Natalie Campbell, of Students! Make Your Mark, points out that students can build their confidence, make new contacts, pay off debts and learn new skills by getting ideas off the ground while they are studying. "And there's so much potential. You can see it their ideas are so great."

Skills Minister David Lammy says: "Anyone who spends any time with young people quickly recognises that they are the ones with the best ideas. By making enterprise and innovation exciting and accessible to students, we will unearth a new generation of hidden entrepreneurs, from all backgrounds, who can turn their ideas into reality."

The Microsoft Ideas Igloo Roadshow centres around a giant igloo, designed to attract students' attention when it arrives on campus. Interested students can then attend workshops led by entrepreneurs, to help them develop and present their ideas. At the end of the day, they pitch them to a panel of judges and the winning idea wins 150, plus the chance to go forward to the national final. The prize is 2,000 and a package of Microsoft products to help them launch their business.

At Greenwich, half a dozen groups of contestants overcame shyness, poor English and other difficulties to develop their ideas and make their pitches. The college serves a deprived and transient population, where many immigrants are trying to carve out a new life, so the challenge of speaking in public, in English, was, for some students, a big one.

But for Jamila Khan, 26, a fashion student from Pakistan, that was the very basis of her idea. Why not tap into children's love of using the computer and develop a storytelling site that they could add to, to develop their English? "I came here at 19, when I got married, and I struggled with my English, even though I'd done it at school," she says. "I found it very hard to write proper sentences in my assignments. So I thought why not develop something that will help children, and that they also love doing."

Other ideas included an environmentally friendly motor garage, weighing scales that could be built into a computer, a college recycling scheme, a chain of specialist tea shops, and a tent-and-sleeping-bag kit for festival-goers.

Among the Greenwich entrepreneurs who were advising were Juliette Wightwick, whose growing juice business Squeeze Me sells frozen fruit for smoothies, and Ralph Braithwaite, who runs a media company. They told students their own stories "I lay awake all night feeling sick when I knew I was going to launch my company," says Juliette and advised them on how to get started.

One student who ended the day vowing that she would pursue her dream was the competition's winner, Grace Orford, 19, a student with autism, ADHD and dyslexia whose passionate pitch for an employment agency offering jobs for people with special needs and mentoring to support them, won over the judges. "Everyone should have the chance of a job," she said, "and I will look at people's strengths, not their weaknesses. I believe this will work. Definitely."

For Tew, spreading the word on entrepreneurship young people is a passion. "They asked me to help with this, and for me it was a no-brainer," he says. "So many people have good ideas, but do nothing about it. Things are starting to go in the right direction, but we still need a kind of sea change, and we need to start doing it much younger.

"All the way through school, no one ever gave me any advice or told me I could set up my own business . The whole education system is just geared towards getting people into jobs. We need to make young people much, much more aware of the opportunities. Some local authorities are trying to do this now by getting entrepreneurs into schools, but they need to do a lot more of it."

His new venture is in the field of social networking. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is his inspiration, "although I'm not really motivated by money. It's nice to have it, but it's not the main thing," he says. "I just love taking something and making it happen."