In this HEInnovate webinar, representatives of Higher Education institutions and micro and small businesses met to share their experiences and discuss different ideas about how best to provide support to micro and small enterprises. The debate revolved around how the notion and mentality of starting micro and small business and ensuring continuity to family businesses has evolved over time, highlighting current needs and reflecting on how the academic world could help to address these.
The contributors to the webinar were:
- Katja Kraškovic, CEO and Dean of GEA College, Faculty of Entrepreneurship in Slovenia. GEA College (which is a HEInnovate case study) has a strong focus on internationalisation and has launched a new MBA programme and opened a business Incubator.
- Dr. Salvatore Tomaselli, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Palermo, Italy, and Scientific Coordinator of the Erasmus+ funded project SPRING (support aimed at family businesses).
- Stefan Moritz, Managing Director of European Entrepreneurs Association - CEA-PME, who has lengthy experience of EU-funded economic development projects with international networks.
To start a micro or small business means facing challenges that are very different from the past. All three panellists deepened our understanding of these challenges, with a specific focus on family businesses. There are 14 million family businesses across the various Member States, contributing to GNP, employment (accounting for 6% of total employment) and innovation; it is therefore important to be aware of, and try and address the current needs of family businesses.
Tomaselli presented SPRING, an EU funded project entirely dedicated to supporting the survival and growth of EU-based family businesses. SPRING is an umbrella organisation involving both academic institutions and non-academic organisations, which started in 2019 and will end at the end of 2021. Harnessing the power of different types of expertise, it provides resources of strategic value such as training, mentoring, support and guidance to help family businesses to fulfil their potential. Tomaselli explained that these current needs and challenges include supporting businesses to ensure business continuity, helping businesses to grow sustainably, and giving them informed advice with regards to taxation.
Kraškovic reported how the mentality of those starting (or taking over) a micro or small business has changed over time. The main issue today is how equipped the younger generation are in being able to take over their family’s businesses. Many companies encounter difficulties or even fail when they are passed from generation to generation. Statistical data on these transitional periods for businesses are now being analysed and studied to provide more focused support to help businesses weather these challenges: Higher Education is also playing a role through Faculty incubators and spin-offs, and is including entrepreneurs among the teaching staff. Kraškovic indicated, however, that there is more work to be done to effect change and to foster an entrepreneurial mindset, a change that should start earlier, she argued, by including entrepreneurship in school curricula.
Moritz directs the European Entrepreneurs Association (EEA) and in recent years has witnessed the radical changes undergone by micro and small businesses – changes that have been further accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has acted as a filip for family businesses to acquire a website, something that very few of them had before. Family businesses have encountered problems with remote working because of the difficulty in filling the skills gap. Moritz reported that the EEA has responded to these challenges with a project to train staff in data management with publicly available tools from Jan 2021.
Tomaselli, too, reflected on how the generational handover of businesses has changed over time. He recalled that until the 80s, the issues were to convince parents to respect the will of their children about whether or not to enter the family business, and that entrepreneurs did not have sufficient managerial knowledge. In the 90s, the flourishing of business schools and economics degrees solved the latter issue, but this more formal business education focused more on management rather than entrepreneurialism: the younger generation came out of these schools as better business managers, but at the expense of being good entrepreneurs.
There was a heated debate on the role of higher education in supporting micro and small enterprises. Tomaselli praised the role of academia in encouraging the creation of higher education incubators as places to mix up existing businesses and new ventures to create opportunities for innovation. An audience member gave an example of how the academic incubator hosted by the University of Palermo started off a local ecosystem that created a good synergy for the development of the city.
The crux of the debate was about whether entrepreneurship could be taught academically. Moritz was of the view that entrepreneurship could not be learnt at school, having seen how a great number of entrepreneurs started off by applying technical knowhow at work, which formed the basis for their later entrepreneurial ideas. This was certainly the case in Germany, where vocational training is strong because of their dual educational system.
Tomaselli made the important point that the concept of entrepreneurship should extend to cultural, intellectual and social entreprises. At Palermo Univeristy, for example, they trained Humanities students, who had little knowledge or initial interest in business, to become teachers and who were challenged to think and act entrepreneurially. The programme was very successful and mixing these students with others from different backgrounds resulted in a deeply enriching and transformational experience.
The need to “cross-fertilise” disciplines and knowledge was a theme running throughout the debate, with an audience member calling for a new approach to teaching that moves away from one that is split along particular disciplines, but rather consists of integrating experiential learning and relevant knowledge (the latter is much advocated by Unesco). There are horizontal competences such as environment, entrepreneurship, and digitalisation that should be taught across all curricula so as to give the right tools to students.
Despite the difference of views expressed in the debate, there was broad agreement that although entrepreneurs can emerge via different routes and from different contexts, they all share the defining characteristics of ambition, self-motivation and an appetite for risk and continuous challenge – characteristics that can be enhanced by education and facilitated by policies.
This was a participatory webinar with a number of enriching interventions from the audience. There was a consensus that a challenge for higher education institutions teaching entrepreneurship is the siloed teaching style, which continues to dominate. This style acts as a barrier for HE to be able to support entrepreneurs of micro and small businesses with relevant knowledge and experiential learning. Palermo is a good example of how higher education incubators can have a positive impact on the local ecosystem. Programmes which promote cross-fertilisation across disciplines, such as the programme bringing students of different backgrounds together to become teachers with an entreprenurial approach, are showing the way forward, as is the SPRING PROJECT, where the academic world and the non-academic world adjust their languages and approaches to create a culture of entrepreneurialism.
You can watch the edited recording of the webinar here.