The HEInnovate webinar held on the 23rd September 2021 hosted a panel discussion, exploring different practices for the promotion of student entrepreneurship. Four panellists shared their expertise and insights on promoting student entrepreneurship, focusing on how to enhance the impact of student entrepreneurship. The panellists gave examples of how students can foster entrepreneurship, explored good practices, discussed the main challenges of promoting student entrepreneurship and looked more deeply at issues such as how to go beyond focusing on the educational aspects of entrepreneurship and support student start-up creation.
The webinar attracted an international audience of around 170 people and was moderated by Steve Stevens, Manager of DO!, the student entrepreneurship programme at the University of Ghent, Belgium. After introductions, panellists described their current projects, leaving them space for an enthusiastic and engaging discussion.
The first panellist was Aleksi Päkkilä, Head of International Relations at Aaltoes, which is one of Europe's most prominent entrepreneurship societies, working for the past 12 years towards the development of the start-up ecosystem in Finland. Along with providing mentoring networks and showing entrepreneurship as a viable career option, Aleksi, in his role at Aaltoes, builds partnerships with international HE institutions creating opportunities for student entrepreneurs around the world to meet and learn from each other.
The second panellist was Milena Stoycheva, CEO of JA Bulgaria, Co-founder and Member of the Advisory Board at The Edge: R&BD, and Visiting Professor with the EIT Digital Master School in I&E (Innovation and Entrepreneurship). Milena delivers courses in innovation, business development and digital transformation and as an entrepreneur herself, stresses the importance of education and creating opportunities for young dreamers to develop their talents as entrepreneurs.
The third panellist was Jeroen De Wit, CEO and co-founder of Teamleader, a Belgian scale-up that offers work management software. Jeroen launched his first company in 2008 while studying at university, making him the perfect example of what it means to start the journey as a student entrepreneur.
The final panellist was Wouter Von Morgen, part of the Student Board of YES!Delft Students, the student organisation of the tech-incubator at TU Delft, Netherlands. Like Aleksi, Wouter is also a student and through Yes!Delft Students, he supports other students to take up the entrepreneurship career by offering guidance, organising events and activities to take the student start-up to the next level.
Entrepreneurship is a journey.
The first part of the discussion focused on entrepreneurship whilst studying. The panellists acknowledged that promoting student entrepreneurship early on is crucial. In order to showcase entrepreneurship as a viable career path, the panellists highlighted the importance of providing access to opportunities on campus as well as wider opportunities through access to, and use of, surrounding tech parks, incubators and pre-accelerators. There is also a need to encourage the development of the entrepreneurial mindset alongside building skills which support the development of ideas and how to run a business. Entrepreneurship cultivates valuable skills for professional as well as personal development.
Wouter highlighted how through studying and doing projects linked to today’s problems, students come up with ideas all the time, and so making students aware of entrepreneurship as soon as possible during their university career is key.
Then and now – Attitudes towards entrepreneurship at university
Jeroen spoke of his experiences as a student where the idea of creating your own company while studying was less well supported, with the prevailing sentiment amongst academics and the support community that the focus of a student should be on studying. Jeroen noted how things have now moved on and changed for the better. Students have many more opportunities to express their entrepreneurial ambitions and are equally well supported by structures that bring students entrepreneurs together, alongside access to wider support networks.
Creating a status for “student entrepreneur” is another way of helping to influence students to choose entrepreneurship. There are now many more universities which promote entrepreneurship, through recognition schemes, and rewards such as prize money. This motivates students’ to be successful as an entrepreneur whilst continuing to study, making the balance between a career and their education more possible.
Entrepreneurship ignites in the community
Entrepreneurship is not a one-person job. Though it may spark from individual talent, entrepreneurship is a team game. Universities can play a fundamental role in fostering an entrepreneurial community where companies, students, professors and start-ups all come together. Wouter explained how they organise 70+ events per year as part of Yes!Delft Students; Aleksi spoke about the engaged Aaltoes Alumni network and Milena described the EU-XCEL project, which provides an opportunity for a number of European HEIs to come together to support and promote student entrepreneurship.
Milena called for the creation of entrepreneurship communities in different regions as well as the need for an international collaborative community of entrepreneurs, stressing how “the basis for an innovation ecosystem is built on communities of practice that support each other.”
A solid community of like-minded people who share the same goals and face similar challenges creates natural connections, provides support and stimulates mutual learning, especially if the community is a diverse one. Aleksi pointed out how, when a community is multidisciplinary, the mix of students from different fields of study creates a good grounding for new ideas and new companies.
Some tips for promoting entrepreneurship
Questions from the audience raised some of the challenges of promoting student entrepreneurship. Below are some of the questions and the advice given from our experts:
- How can you promote entrepreneurship in smaller communities, without universities in their town?
Similar to how Covid forced us to adopt different solutions, primarily in relation to hosting events and courses online, these different solutions can also be adapted to smaller communities, creating a space where people can come to learn first and then form teams.
- How do we deal with students whose start up is not working? Should we let them fail or save them?
Having people who are prepared to coach students whilst they are at university is really helpful as it shows them the university is behind them and they are supported.
- What activities have you found to be most successful in encouraging early-stage students to view entrepreneurial behaviour as useful/relevant to them, particularly students from non-business-related disciplines?
They need to be encouraged to learn and to reach outside of their bubbles / comfort zones. There are many ways of supporting this to happen such as applying for international projects which bring students from different universities (and disciplines) together, or through engaging with other associations which have global networks which can be accessed for your students.
Here’s to the fools.
In conclusion, Milena drew attention to the article in the Harvard Business Review stating that the average age of a successful entrepreneur is 45,as failing is part of the game and entrepreneurship is a journey.
Failing is a great learning experience that prepares entrepreneurs for their next adventure. Jeroen noted how entrepreneurship comes with taking risks, but he welcomed the positive change seen in government programmes that provide support to people that are willing to invest and might face loss. Entrepreneurship is inspiring but is also tough. The earlier students become engaged in entrepreneurship opportunities, the more alert they can be to the right signals, and when the time comes, they will succeed.
You can find the recording of the webinar here.