Professor Fiona Robson is the head of School of Social Sciences and Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University Dubai
Traditionally, studying for a university degree may not have been seen as the first-choice pathway for would-be entrepreneurs, in fact, many successful entrepreneurs talk about the ‘university of life’ as an alternative. However, as universities moved forwards and recognised the importance of small and medium-sized businesses as well as entrepreneurs, a wide range of programmes and courses are now available. Perhaps universities still have an unfair reputation for being more about theory than practice, but for many institutions, things have progressed hugely. It is now common for tasks such as putting together a business plan to be a way to assess an academic course.
Some students may never have considered becoming an entrepreneur, particularly if no one in their family has followed this path. Universities may, therefore, help to raise awareness about post-graduation opportunities beyond working for an organisation. A university business school education also gives students good insights into all the different aspects of business, including marketing, finance, and HR. Future entrepreneurs do not need to become experts in all areas, but they should have a good understanding of the key functional areas. There will also be some courses that are of high practical value, for example, in calculating costs and preparing a balance sheet.
Being part of a university cohort exposes entrepreneurs-to-be to different views and experiences, classes are usually full of diverse people, which provides a great opportunity for the first stages of market research. Universities provide a safe environment for trying things out, whether it is an idea for a new product or service or just practising a pitch. Students will be able to get constructive feedback from different groups, such as lecturers, peers, and university alumni. Through university courses, students can also benefit from the expertise of academics. It is becoming very common for lecturers to come from a range of backgrounds, including professional practice and/or being an entrepreneur. This leaves them well-placed to support students with idea generation and ask some of the critical questions.
Having a good business idea and plan is not enough, entrepreneurs need a wide range of soft skills. Highly developed communication skills that can be adapted for different audiences are important, including being able to listen and take onboard feedback that they receive. Developing strong self-awareness is also hugely beneficial and may help budding entrepreneurs to identify the gaps in their skills and think about collaborating with others. Students often worry about having to deliver presentations but, in later life, are usually grateful for the lessons that they learned.
Business schools in particular, may be able to provide access to some specialist services and/or resources for students interested in setting up on their own, for example, in understanding legislation that would be pertinent to their proposed project. Incubators are becoming increasingly popular in universities, they provide an opportunity for students to get expert support in taking their proposals from the initial idea stage. There may be funding available, for example, to support the production of a prototype.
Universities are usually very well-connected places both regionally and internationally, with thousands of alumni to seek support from as well as their membership in local networks. While many students find the idea of networking to be daunting, it can bring rewards. It is also now more commonplace for mentors to be provided to undergraduate students, future entrepreneurs can then learn from the successes and mistakes of others. Funders or business angels often visit universities as an efficient way of seeing different types of businesses they could invest their money in, this provides a very exciting platform for students to show off their ideas and receive feedback.
To conclude, universities can provide an excellent platform for students to be introduced to entrepreneurship and be successfully supported to make their dreams into reality.