Renewed focus on enterprise

Business schools are aiming to help develop more start-ups, says Stephen Hoare

It was a love affair that blossomed over a set of spreadsheets. MBA alumni Michael Toxvaerd and Sarah Willingham met in 2005 when she approached her alma mater Cranfield School of Management to second a student to a live consultancy exercise for her burgeoning restaurant chain. The two subsequently married and formed a strong business partnership.

You may have heard of their latest venture, Letssave Aimed at helping people juggling jobs, family and mortgages, the comparison website founded in July 2012 is soon to be made available as a smartphone app. A revenue stream is generated when people click on one of the site's many recommended links to service providers such as insurance companies and price comparison websites.

Willingham is the force behind the marketing and the message. Building on the success of her restaurant business, which at its height included niche London eateries The Bombay Bicycle Club, The Real Greek and hamburger restaurant Tootsies, she turned TV celebrity. Headhunted to co-present BBC series The Restaurant with chef Raymond Blanc, Willingham proved to be a natural performer in front of the camera. With her no-nonsense northern humour, Willingham was quickly signed up for regular guest appearances on The Apprentice spin-off shows – You're Hired! and You're Fired! – as well as a slot as the money-saving expert on ITV's This Morning.

Starting an enterprise is an ambition aspired to by an increasing number of MBAs. The effort of raising money and finding backers can spell years of round-the-clock hard work, but the reward in seeing your idea develop into a product with a profitable market offers more than mere financial reward – it can open the doors to an exciting new lifestyle.

The important role played by small business and a strong demand from students has encouraged business schools like LBS, Warwick, Cass and Cranfield to include entrepreneurship as an integral part of their MBA. So far, Nottingham Business School is the only top UK school to teach it as a core module. Their entrepreneurship education programme attracts students from all over the world. "We are unique in the way we engage business practitioners in simulated entrepreneurial learning environments," says Chris Mahon, director of Nottingham's MBA in entrepreneurship. "Students learn by engaging with the complexities of business."

Cranfield's revamped MBA is set to challenge this when it is launched later this year. "We are delighted that entrepreneurship will form a core part of our new MBA syllabus," says Dr Stephanie Hussels, lecturer in entrepreneurship at Cranfield. At Cranfield, MBA students follow the entrepreneurial life cycle, covering topics from idea generation, to growing, financing and selling a business. As part of this journey the MBAs not only work on case studies, they also have the opportunity to develop a business idea, which they then pitch to a panel of angel investors at the end of the course.

Both Toxvaerd and Willingham maintain strong links with Cranfield, and such contacts are set to play an ever more important part of the MBA syllabus. "Throughout their MBA, students are given the opportunity to learn from experienced industry experts as well as meeting experienced entrepreneurs at VentureDay – Cranfield's annual entrepreneurship conference – or pitch their ventures at the annual Cranfield Business Angel Network," says Hussels.

UK business schools would agree that the time is also right for a deeper focus on enterprise. In the process of re-designing its MBA, Warwick Business School (WBS) is investing heavily in new expertise. With the help of ESRC research council funding, WBS has just announced the opening of its new £3.2m Research Centre for Enterprise and Innovation. "We've hired a new breed of professor specialising in entrepreneurship," says WBS dean Mark Taylor. "We call them professors of practice and their role is to interact with students and inspire new academic research."

For Willingham, the decision to set up her website came after she sold her stake in the restaurant chain to focus more on her family. She didn't need to look far for inspiration. "As a mum of four, I run my household like a business juggling nursery, child minder and the school run. I have a domestic profit and loss account and a balance sheet," she says.

Willingham's TV experience also gave her the ability to boil a complicated message down: a lesson for all businesses.

Students follow entrepreneurial life cycles, from idea generation to selling a business

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