In 2017 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research how cities attract and integrate immigrant entrepreneurs. Over two years, I travelled to 25 cities in Europe and North America to learn how various ecosystems had developed over time to support entrepreneurs and one pattern became clear – universities played an increasingly important role in nurturing entrepreneurship for both domestic and international students.
Last year, as Covid-19 and Brexit took hold in the UK, young people were hit particularly hard, with internships and graduate jobs disappearing and youth unemployment rising to levels not seen since the 1980s. Given ongoing uncertainty in the labour market, universities will play an ever more critical role in equipping students with the entrepreneurial skills needed to survive in a post Covid-19 world.
71% of millennials recognise that entrepreneurial skills – such as taking risks, resilience and adaptability – are important traits, but far fewer feel confident in these skills. Many students are anxious about their futures and want to be able to take charge of their own destinies, and so the demand for entrepreneurship courses has been increasing over the past five years. In parallel, entrepreneurship education has repeatedly been shown to boost confidence, employability and the longer-term success of businesses.
Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with students and alumni at the London School of Economics to support the development of their start-up enterprises. As part of this role, I have been able to work on the design and launch of a six-month student accelerator programme to equip student and alumni entrepreneurs with the skills that they need. However, two days before we were due to launch the programme in a physical space, the world went into lockdown, leading us to create a fully virtual accelerator programme instead.
Although our young entrepreneurs had to deal with a global pandemic, they managed to adapt quickly. Many launched digital versions of their business in a matter of weeks, and continued to build and pitch ideas. I saw how much more confident they became in just six months and was impressed by how the community of peer entrepreneurs came together to make a lasting impact. Despite the pandemic, our entrepreneurs hired 37 new people, including other university students who had lost their internships and jobs due to Covid-19.
After seeing the first-hand benefits of university entrepreneurial programmes, I have discovered that there are several actions that we can take to help mitigate the ongoing impact of the pandemic for students in the short and long term. Here are my recommendations:
- Universities to provide all students with access and exposure to entrepreneurial skills. Given the level of disruption to entire industries, not just because of the pandemic but also due to emerging technology, most jobs will require an innovative and entrepreneurial attitude. Combining an entrepreneurial mindset and competence with excellence, within students’ main degree discipline studies, will equip them with the ability to manage both employment and self-employment more effectively.
- Students should seek out ways to develop entrepreneurial skills as the job market remains uncertain. Top entrepreneurial skills demanded by today’s employers include sales leadership, people management, creativity, adaptability and persuasion. Students can seek out ways to develop these skills, whether that’s by starting and building a new venture, working with a start-up or joining the university entrepreneurial society. Not only will this allow them to learn the basic skills of building a business, it will differentiate them from the crowd in the post-pandemic job market.
- Make it easy for international students to start businesses in the UK. Leading on from my Fellowship work on immigrant entrepreneurship, I discovered that 1 in 7 UK companies were started by immigrants, many of whom arrived here as students. As Brexit puts pressure on UK universities, it is essential that international students feel supported in their entrepreneurial ambitions and that there is a path to help them build a business in the UK. Encouragingly, positive amendments to start-up visas for international students are on the way, but universities can also help by providing legal clinics that advise on the entrepreneurial visa options and on how to build a business in the UK.
My hope is that all university students are empowered with the entrepreneurial mindset and skills to work for themselves, should they choose to, especially as job opportunities remain uncertain at the moment. Social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunis once said, “All human beings are born entrepreneurs. Some get a chance to unleash that capacity. Some never got the chance or never knew that he or she has that capacity.” As my Fellowship research revealed, universities will be pivotal to unleashing that capacity.