close close

Unis must discover, encourage students’ entrepreneurial smarts

“Every young person in the 1980s wanted to be a rock star and today young people want to be entrepreneurs.” So writes career strategy consultant Janet Matta in a recent Crossroads report published by non-profit group StartupAus.

Matta says that while many students are attracted by the desire for self-determination, freedom and deriving meaning from the work that entrepreneurship offers, there are still numerous barriers, including access to mentors and financial support while starting a venture.

The report, written by Colin Kinner on behalf of the national tech start-up community, sets out an action plan for growth and maturation of the Australian start-up ecosystem, identifying key policy areas that require government intervention and recommending specific actions that should be taken to accelerate the growth of the tech sector.

Of particular interest to the education sector this year is the recommendation for a reassessment of school and university curriculums at all levels.

It calls for comprehensive entrepreneurship programs to be implemented in universities to expose large numbers of students to start-ups and entrepreneurship.

This is a welcome shift in thinking from previous years. Last year the recommendations were nowhere near as extensive, calling for university researchers to merely support entrepreneurial behaviour. It said that while there were some good programs exposing students to start-ups and entrepreneurship, “academic culture does not embrace entrepreneurship and risk-taking”.

This year’s report reflects the spirit of the times and the sense of urgency to recognise that, as Paul Bassat says in the foreword, “Our future prosperity will be a function of the dedication, ingenuity and resilience of our great innovators.” The report’s call to implement entrepreneurship pro­grams in all universities shows a confidence in the role univer­sities play.

Another important aspect of this year’s report is that it has relevance not just for the support of tech sector start-ups but more broadly for the skilled workforce that Australia needs, with a focus on the entrepreneurial perspective rather than narrow entrepreneurial skills.

An entrepreneurial perspective can equally provide value in a large corporation or a small and medium-sized enterprise as well as a start-up. At the University of Technology Sydney we are supporting this by enabling the experience and development of an entrepreneurial perspective to as many of our students as possible with our focus on the development of attributes for individuals as opposed to simply the number of companies created.

We all know the stereotype of the modern entrepreneur: an individual in their early 20s, a university dropout who has miraculously developed a multimillion-dollar app in his parents’ garage. The image stems from the famous stories: Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. But the reality for most successful entrepreneurs is different.

Most actually reach success in their 30s and 40s. The late, great director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said School of Business, Oxford University, Pamela Hartigan, said: “You cannot be an entrepreneur if you have not understood the problem you are trying to solve.”

Entrepreneur and UTS PhD graduate in aerospace engineering Mahya Knox says the experience of doctoral study gave her a confidence she wouldn’t have had otherwise. The 26-year-old runs an online maths tutoring business called Learned Hub.\r\n\r\nHer vision is for everyone to be able to learn and see the beauty of mathematics. She believes she has the best chance of having that impact through entrepreneurship. This year Knox completed the UTS Hatchery+ accelerator program and, with the help of mentors, added features to her business such as the ability for users to take a photo of their maths problem and receive a step-by-step video solution within minutes.\r\n\r\nSince completing the Hatchery+ program, she has employed staff and attracted attention from potential investors. The business wouldn’t be possible without Knox’s domain knowledge. “Obviously for me in teaching maths, having the education in maths is very important,” she says.

Her story also confirms the report recommendations regarding the importance of domain knowledge and to immerse Australian university students in Silicon Valley and other such hubs. Knox has just returned from Silicon Valley after being selected as one of 20 (from more than 300 applicants) to take part in Start-Up Catalyst’s Youth Mission.

“The best part of the trip was realising they’re just people like me. They don’t have any special powers,” she says. Knox says a quote by Steve Jobs comes to mind, “Everything in the world was made up by people who are no smarter than you.”

The 2016 Crossroads report recognises it takes a village to build a start-up ecosystem and that universities are an integral part of that village.

At UTS, we know that key to our success is our ability to reach out and partner with the entrepreneurial community. The proximity and active engagement of vibrant universities and a critical mass of entrepreneurial enterprises is the single key success factor in successful and spontaneous entrepreneurship precincts around the world.

Based as we are in the start-up hub of Ultimo-Pyrmont, UTS is a key player in the emergence of Sydney’s, and Australia’s, leading entrepreneurship precinct.

The report marks a shift in thinking, a broadening of access to entrepreneurships and start-ups. Of course, not every young person who dreams of becoming an entrepreneur will make it. Like all those others in the 80s who wanted to be rock stars, there was a period where I too wanted to be a musician. Truth be told, I wasn’t particularly talented so was never going to set the world alight with my virtuosity.

But the experience of mastering an instrument, being immersed in music, changed my perspective forever. Music represented a different way of thinking that helped me throughout my career in science, industry and academe. Having an entrepreneurial mindset also provides a different way of looking at the world. While not everyone can be a rock star or entrepreneur like Elon Musk, many can benefit from exposure to entrepreneurial thinking, and many jobs of the ­future will require it.