Launching tomorrow’s young entrepreneurs

A recent MYOB survey found 44 percent of small business owners don’t believe the New Zealand education system enables students to gain the right skills to work in business. This is no surprise to Dr Rachel Wright, who, as the Director of the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, is working to change that with several successful student start-ups.

Business people have been saying for years that, while graduates have great knowledge of their disciplines, they don’t always have the practical skills required to succeed in business, especially when it comes to being innovative and enterprising. Gaining a strong academic grounding is important but needs to be complemented with relevant practical experience. It is important for students to do something real, whether this is an internship, a project for a business, or to work on their own start-up venture. Students don’t always recognise the importance of gaining more practical and transferable skills and thus, it is important for universities and other tertiary institutions to provide courses and opportunities for students throughout their degree to gain these experiences.

Recognising that students may not be as prepared as they could be for the world of work, the University of Canterbury (UC) created the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE) to specifically help students develop capabilities in entrepreneurship and innovation and to apply their academic knowledge in real-life experiences to pick up those valuable transferable skills so sought after by businesses. 

UC offers a range of opportunities for students to apply their academic learning in the real-world and prepare them for our rapidly changing global economy. From UCE’s Summer Start-up programme, bootcamps and internships to workshops, seminars, networking events and competitions, UC provides something for students across all disciplines to gain the right skills and attributes they need to succeed.

Perhaps the most powerful way for students to develop entrepreneurial and innovation capabilities is through supporting them to develop their own business ventures or social enterprises. To encourage this, the Centre for Entrepreneurship at UC runs a year-round student Incubator programme and an intense Summer Start-up programme. Throughout these programmes, students are continually challenged and aided to develop their business skills in thinking about customer problems and solutions, the value proposition of their ideas, and the commercial realities of turning their ideas into sustainable businesses. They also become adept at pitching their ideas to audiences of friends, customers, and potential investors.

The results from these initiatives are already encouraging. Last year’s Summer Start-up programme included 28 different business ideas (this year’s has 36 already), a number of which are in business and growing, such as Hannah Watkinson’s InSitu Photo Project, which has been a focal point in Christchurch’s new BNZ Centre.

Stefan Warnaar’s Peak to Plateau yak-fibre activewear sold out its first range and is about to launch a new one.

Wireless Guard’s Taylor Howatson and Anthony Lefebvre-Allen went from Summer Start-up to Lightning Lab in Auckland before returning to Christchurch to be part of Vodafone’s new Xone business accelerator programme. They’ve just raised $0.5M in investment capital and are heading to Consumer Electronics Show in the United States next year to promote their wireless home security sensor, Hatch.

Samantha Jones and Hannah Duder’s ethical workwear company Little Yellow Bird also graduated from UCE to Lightning Lab business accelerator last year and, now based in Wellington, recently landed Wellington Zoo as a new customer for their custom corporatewear.

But there’s more to creating a successful business than just having an idea and getting the business started. Another common refrain around New Zealand business is that while it’s easy to start businesses, and we do it a lot, we’re not so good at scaling up these businesses and – especially – at taking them beyond our shores.

That’s why I’m proud of the work that we’ve been doing at UC in developing some of New Zealand’s next generation entrepreneurs. People who are going beyond tinkering with a business idea, on to building growing companies, international companies, and serial ventures. People like Guy Horrocks who recently sold his mobile advertising venture Carnival Mobile for an undisclosed multi-million dollar sum. People like Tom Harding who has is building MishGuru into a global company in the burgeoning social media marketing space. And people like George Smith, who enjoyed huge initial success with Glassjar – the first New Zealand company in the top US Accelerator, YCombinator – before realising that it was not the right product for the right market, and is now heading back to the US for his next venture.

Not all business ideas are going to make it: that’s part of the learning. And not all students necessarily want to start their own business. But whether it’s working on an idea, working on their own business or in someone else’s, they take with them a business-thinking approach. This is what entrepreneurship is about, and the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship is about creating that culture and capability in our talented young New Zealanders.

Dr Rachel Wright is the Director of the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE), which focuses on developing New Zealand’s next generation of entrepreneurial talent.