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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Student entrepreneurs

Published By: The Independent - 06 Dec 2007

FE students encouraged to become more entrepreneurial

How do you start a business and make a million? Twenty three-year-old Alex Tew knows, and recently shared his secret with students from Greenwich Community College, in south-east London.

“You’ve got to have an objective, and you’ve got to visualise your end goal,” he told them. “You’ve got to create really strong images in your mind. People say that what you dwell on is what you become. Your brain stores those images and goes to work on them.”

His audience was rapt. Here was a young guy, just like them, telling them it was possible to make a fortune. And doing so with complete authority, because he’d already done it himself.

“I lay on my bed one day,” he said, “and I thought, ‘how can I become a millionaire?’ I knew that whatever I did would to have a good name, would have to be cheap to set up because I had no money, would have a good story attached to it so it would attract attention, and would be all about making money.”

For him the answer was the Million Dollar Homepage, where he sold advertising space pixel by pixel. “I knew that it was silly enough to work.” And money flowed in so fast he had to leave Nottingham University after just a term to run his new business.
Tew was talking to students as part of a new national Dragon’s Den-style roadshow designed to inspire university and college students to become more entrepreneurial. After two successful London launches last month, at Thames Valley University and Greenwich College, the roadshow will embark on a tour of 18 colleges and universities in the new year.

“This is so important,” says Steve Beswick, education director of Microsoft UK, which is sponsoring the show in partnership with Make Your Mark, a charity that encourages young people to become more entrepreneurial. “If you look at the skills issue, and how macroeconomics are now moving, the number of unskilled jobs is going to plummet by 2020 from millions to 600,000. The UK economy is going to be almost entirely knowledge-based. We have to the people for this. And it’s very important to get these ideas over in further education, as well as in universities, because it’s there that you’ve got younger students and unskilled people coming in to retrain.”

Microsoft has traditionally sought to develop people’s ICT skills, but is now starting to think about how these can best be used. “We want people to ask: how can I use these ICT skills that I’ve got innovatively? We want to foster people’s creativity and imagination, and to get them thinking about working across different boundaries. We want people realise that innovation is within everyone’s reach, and to encourage them to think in new ways and have the confidence to experiment and build on what they know.”

Natalie Campbell, of Students! Make Your Mark, points out that students can build their confidence, make new contacts, pay off debts and learn new skills by getting ideas off the ground while they are studying. “And there’s so much potential. You can see it,” she says. “Their ideas are so great.”
“Anyone who spends any time with young people quickly recognises that they are the ones with the best ideas,” says Skills Minister David Lammy. “By making enterprise and innovation exciting and accessible to students in this way, we will unearth a new generation of hidden entrepreneurs, from all backgrounds, who can turn their ideas into reality.”

The Microsoft Ideas Igloo Roadshow centres around a giant, inflatable igloo, designed to attract students’ attention when it arrives on campus. Interested students can then spend the day attending workshops led by local entrepreneurs and other specialists, to help them develop and present their ideas. At the end of the day they pitch them to a panel of judges and the winning idea wins £150, plus the chance to go forward to the national final and win £2,000 and a package of Microsoft products to help them launch their business.

At Greenwich half a dozen groups of contestants overcame shyness, poor English and other difficulties to develop their ideas and make their pitches. The college serves a deprived and highly mobile area of the capital, where many immigrants are trying to carve out a new life, so the challenge of speaking in public, in English was, for some students, a big one.

But for 26-year-old Jamila Khan, from Pakistan, who is studying fashion, that was very the basis of her idea. Why not tap into children’s love of using the computer and develop a story-telling site that they could add to, in order to develop their English? “I came here at 19, when I got married, and I struggled with my English even though I’d done it at school. I found it very hard to write proper sentences in my assignments. So I thought why not develop something that will help kids, and that they also love doing.”

Other ideas included an environmentally-friendly motor garage, weighing scales that could be built into a computer, a college recycling scheme, a chain of specialist tea shops, and a tent-and-sleeping-bag kit for festival goers, that could be bought online and picked up at the venue.

Advising and helping were local entrepreneurs Juliette Wightwick, whose rapidly-expanding juice business Squeeze Me sells packets of frozen fruit for smoothies, and Ralph Braithwaite, who runs a media company. They told students their own stories – “I lay awake all night feeling sick, when I knew I was going to launch my company,” says Juliette -- and advised them on how to refine their ideas and get started.

One student who ended the day vowing that she would go ahead was the competition’s winner, 19-year-old Grace Orford, a student with multiple difficulties – “I’ve got autism, ADHD and dyslexia”– whose passionate pitch for an employment agency offering jobs for people with special needs and mentoring to support them, won round the judges. “Everyone should have the chance of a job,” she told them, “and I will look at people’s strengths, not their weaknesses. I believe this will work. Definitely.”

For Tew, spreading the word on entrepreneurship among young people is a passion. “They asked me to help with this, and for me it was a no-brainer. So many people have good ideas, but then do nothing about it. Things are starting to go in the right direction, but we still need a kind of sea change, and we need to start doing it much younger. All the way through school, no-one ever gave me any advice or told me I could set up my own business. The whole education system is just geared towards getting people into jobs. We need to make young people much, much more aware of the opportunities. Some local authorities are trying to do this now by getting entrepreneurs into schools but they need to do a lot more of it.”

His current venture is in the field of social networking. The mega-successful Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is his inspiration. “Although I’m not really motivated by money. It’s nice to have it, but that’s not the main thing. I just love taking something and making it happen.”