22nd May 2019

The Aston Centre for Growth was founded in 2014, shortly after Aston was first awarded Small Business Charter status, and as we celebrate the Centre’s 5th anniversary year we reflect on the influential role the Small Business Charter has played in our decision to create the Centre as well as other strategic SME initiatives at Aston since 2014.

Going through the application process for the Small Business Charter really helped us to articulate our strategy for SME engagement. Aston is known for its deep connection to small business and entrepreneurship. It is a feature of all our core activities - research, teaching and business engagement - and crucial in creating impact for our beneficiaries, from the employability of our graduates to economic impact in the region, to providing evidence about small business growth for policy makers at national level. Drawing together all of the SME activity in order to demonstrate how we meet the dimensions of the Small Business Charter enabled us to clarify the picture for all of our enterprise and entrepreneurship research and support and how it connects together, and importantly highlighted areas where we needed better data.

One of these areas was enterprise in the curriculum; we knew that we did a lot of it, but we found it difficult to identify the required information and demonstrate how our approach was embedded - saying that it was in our DNA was all well and good, but we needed to be able to back that up with figures. As a result we embarked on a programme of work which has involved a research project identifying how enterprise appears in the curriculum across all our various disciplines, and the creation of a cross-school Enterprise Educators Group. The work of this group has led to a University-wide collaboration involving not only our five Schools but the Careers and Placements team, estates department, student union and others to develop a set of graduate attributes for Aston which extends more widely than just enterprise skills, and will become a key means of us further embedding enterprise throughout our activities.

The most significant development has been the creation of the Centre for Growth which we established in the same year as our first Small Business Charter award. Drawing together the information about all of our activities, the networks and the impact we were creating we saw strong evidence of demand for more specialist business support. Our main growth programme, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses regional programme, was attracting many enquiries from businesses not eligible because they were at too early a stage and so we created a new programme targeted at this group to meet this demand, the Aston Programme for Small Business Growth. As we developed stronger links within the region we also started new initiatives such as Pitchfest West Midlands with BizzInn at the University of Birmingham and Minerva Business Angels at Warwick University to improve access to finance, and formally became a strategic delivery partner within the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP Growth Hub. The development of our work with small businesses led to some structural changes, for example moving our well established student and graduate start-up programme BSEEN to within the Centre for Growth, enabling our start-up businesses to become part of the network of over 1,000 business leaders which form the alumni of the Centre. We also sought a higher proportion of small business owners for our Business School Advisory Board and began to benefit immediately from their entrepreneurial insight. The national network too has been significant for us, particularly as we became the lead partner in the Small Business Charter Growth Vouchers programme and made valuable connections with our fellow charter-holding business schools.

We start our re-assessment process in 2019 with the goals and values of the SBC helping us to form a clear vision for what we want to achieve for our region; a vibrant network of alumni businesses and strategic partners, the newly established Productivity through People and Mentoring for Growth programmes for the Midlands, and a set of exciting initiatives aligned with the Aston Strategy. We look forward to working with the SBC and their network to help us deliver our vision over the next 5 years and beyond.

Paula Whitehouse, Director of the Aston Centre for Growth, Aston Business School.