Family-run gems company from Thailand, a Greek construction firm and a leather goods venture in mainland China. These are among the exotic backgrounds of the first cohort to join a new one-year MSc entrepreneurship course at the University of Surrey; which in common with other universities is finding the go-it-alone spirit riding high. The UK is now the acknowledged leader in the field of entrepreneurship studies, says Surrey’s programme leader Dr Spinder Dhaliwal and demand for courses among both British and foreign students is soaring. “The subject is more high profile here than anywhere else in the world and we are definitely seen as ahead of the game,” she says.
Although studying how to become a Stelios, a Sugar or a Branson might sound too theoretical to be of real use, these courses are intensely practical. Most universities offering entrepreneurship at postgraduate level have well-developed incubation units for would-be tycoons and the majority of courses rely on local firms to offer students real-life scenarios with which to grapple. Nor do you have to be entirely bottom-line focused in order to find this field of study of use. Surrey, for example offers tailor-made modules for creative entrepreneurs such as artists and designers, as well as the more mainstream elements such as finance and business plan writing. Dhaliwal believes that while ambitious graduates were once expected to either join a profession such as engineering, medicine or law or immerse themselves in the world of the multinational corporation, the choices have opened up. “For the many young people without a clear-cut profession in mind or with misgivings about the corporate mindset, running your own business and controlling your own destiny has never looked so possible,” she says.
The figures speak for themselves. As many as 17 million Britons are currently sitting on a tangible business idea and far from being armchair entrepreneurs, almost one third of them plan to do something about it within the next 12 months, says recent research from the website <&bh"http://www.startups.co.uk">www.startups.co.uk<&eh> It finds that TV shows such as Dragon’s Den and new role models such as Karan Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer, have unleashed a growing appetite for entrepreneurship among the under-35s; particularly those based in London and the South-east. Nearly one-fifth of young entrepreneurs who have set up their venture in the last five years say they were inspired by reality TV.
While the instinct to go-it-alone is clearly stronger in some people than in others, Dhaliwal argues that the building blocks of successful entrepreneurship are not innate and can be taught. “All of us have met people who have suddenly lost their job or partner and are forced to be more entrepreneurial. That so many people instinctively learn how to think on their feet and survive in the most dire of financial circumstances suggests to me that the ability to run your own business is not necessarily something you are born with,” she says. While Dhaliwal believes many of her students will realise their dreams, others may find that becoming a mogul isn’t an option. “There will be people who will follow our course only to find that they are too cautious to become entrepreneurs, but the skills they will have learned along the way – such as creativity, independence and problem-solving – are eminently transferable. “I have no doubt that anyone with an MSc in entrepreneurship will be welcomed by the big corporations with open arms. Just as long as they don’t rock the boat too much.”
The question of whether or not the entrepreneurship spark can be taught or not is not the key issue, according to Professor Jay Mitra, head of the School of Entrepreneurship and Business at the University of Essex, who believes that his courses are as much about life skills as about business start-ups. “While only a tiny minority of our students will go on to run their own firms for any length of time, I believe that we are teaching people to capture the essence of entrepreneurship and to deploy it in both their professional and personal lives,” says Mitra, who apart from his academic credentials has also set up two ventures of his own. “Not only do you need to be taught the elements of entrepreneurship if you are to enter the fray yourself, you also need it simply to make the best of your own creative flair and carve out a fulfilled and happy life for yourself.” Mitra adds: “By learning to have an entrepreneurial mindset, you will do your job at corporation X or Y better than your more cautious colleagues and will be more able to cope with inevitable bouts of organisational change.”
A good example of that spirit of enterprise among postgraduates is Jonathan English, who completed an MSc in entrepreneurship at Nottingham University three years ago. His first degree was a BSc in biology. Now 26, his university reunion events company is expected to reach a turnover of £100,000 this year and he and his two partners are now able to pay themselves a modest salary; something he describes as a “turning point.” “Although I enjoyed my biology course, I didn’t want to be a scientist in a lab all day,” says English. “I’ve always been inspired by business stories – particularly ones where the entrepreneur has had to show real perseverance in pushing the company forward – and the Masters course gave me real hands-on experience of what business problem-solving is all about. “I don’t rule out going to work for someone else if the company fails to thrive, but at this stage, I have every confidence,” he adds.
‘I don’t think I could be happy working for someone else’
In conjunction with a partner, Jonathan Busby, 23 (above), started his first company – an IT consultancy for student unions – while studying for his BSc in chemistry and management at Nottingham University. The company continued trading while he studied for his MSc in entrepreneurship at the same campus. Nine months on, Busby’s first venture – started, he says, primarily for “beer money” – has been joined by a second company, this time a security systems firm.
“I applied to some graduate trainee schemes after I had finished my first degree and I got through to some final rounds, but I hated the idea of being a tiny cog in an enormous machine. Although I wouldn’t say I’m a rebel, I need variety and freedom and running my own businesses gives me all of that. Most of the people on my course were risk-takers and many of them felt the same way I did about corporate life. The MSc was practical rather than theoretical and the fact that I only had to study for half of the week was really appealing because I was able to spend the rest of my time running my firm. Although the studying was intense, we were invited to solve real business problems for local firms and I even produced a workable business plan for my own company as part of the course. With my first venture doing a turnover of £5,000 a month and my second up to £2,000 a month, I am solvent and self-sufficient and for the first time, I feel that we are on target. Having discovered entrepreneurship, I don’t think I could ever be happy working for someone else.”