10th December 2015

For the University of Leeds, the start to this academic year (2015-16) has been the most amazing celebration of the work we have put into developing a holistic enterprise offering across the university over the last 10 years.

From successful spin-outs and brilliant student start-ups to innovative credit-bearing modules, we are delighted that our continued passion for providing the best enterprise support to all has now been recognised with the ‘Duke of York Award for University Entrepreneurship’ at the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards and the Times Higher Education ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ award. If that wasn’t enough, Professor. Nigel Lockett (our Director of Enterprise Learning) also scooped a prestigious National Teaching Fellowship and Kairen Skelley (Head of the University’s student start-up service, SPARK) was named as the Higher Education Enterprise Champion at the National Enterprise Educator Awards. All this follows hot on the heels of our Small Business Charter Gold award, which recognised the work we are doing to support staff, student and external organisations and how joined up these different areas of the University are.

Right now, our University enterprise scene is vibrant, exciting and full of possibilities. We’re already actively looking for the next opportunity! Sounds good, right? But it hasn’t always been the case. We know as well as anyone that creating a distinctive enterprise offer in a university can be fraught with challenges. As such, I thought it would be useful to share with you my opinion on the secrets of our success:

  1. Focus on sustainability

For me, this is the most important aspect of creating a team of people that can share a long-term vision. Building any kind of offering within a university setting takes time and commitment. Chopping and changing contracts or funding streams can be very stressful and reduces the impact of projects which may require several years to grow and show serious results. Knowing that you have a sustainable structure allows investment in staff and development of much longer-term goals. I do appreciate that this is much easier said than done; particularly as such decisions are very often outside of the control of the team implementing whatever is this year’s initiative. However, we have always tried to put sustainability at the forefront of our strategic planning, and our biggest successes have arisen where we’ve been able to utilise internally generated funding streams, such as our alumni.

  1. Be responsive to opportunities

The better ideas for new and innovative projects should really be credited to our fantastic students, our enterprise ambassadors or other stakeholders that have offered us their insights into what we could develop next. Our job has been to listen and respond to them. The ‘Year in Enterprise’, a funded sandwich year which allows students to work on their own business is open to any student across the University, was created following a conversation with a student who was frustrated that he couldn’t use his year in industry to work on his own business. Our increasingly popular ‘with Enterprise’ programmes (e.g. BA Music with Enterprise, BSc Biotechnology with Enterprise) were developed after other faculty staff expressed an interest in working more closely with our academic unit, the Centre for Enterprise & Entrepreneurship Studies. In to the second year now, student numbers on these programmes is growing rapidly and we are looking forward to seeing what can be created when students from wildly different disciplines come together to be enterprising!

  1. Collaborate – internally & externally

I am totally signed up to the mantra ‘two heads are better than one…’. In the past, some doors in the University have been jammed shut and it has only been by working with those who really ‘get’ the enterprise agenda that we have been able to pour a little oil on the hinges and gently open access to different areas of the University. We have used the academic unit to provide ‘teaching consultancy’ across the University, created an extremely successful internal network of educators and been open in sharing activities and teaching resources. And we have benefitted greatly from this approach as we have learnt about what is going on across the University and been invited to participate in the latest projects, thus developing new skills and creating new opportunities for ourselves.

I am always pleased to be working in the enterprise sphere anyway as colleagues up and down the UK (and beyond) are generally enthusiastic and open about sharing best practice. If you have stuck with this blog so far (well done!) and there is anything you would be interested in collaborating on in the future – do get in touch, I’d be delighted to hear from you!

Dr Sarah Underwood is Director of the Centre for Enterprise & Entrepreneurship Studies, University of Leeds