Students in universities across the UK are uniting through NACUE (the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs) to invigorate outdated education systems and develop entrepreneurial students and institutions. The effects of this young student-led charity’s efforts can be seen from university campuses right up to national and international policy forums.
Unprecedented challenges facing students and graduates today make developing enterprise skills and business start-up potential more important than ever. With students facing increasing levels of debt, high graduate unemployment and unprecedented competition for the all-too-few graduate jobs that are available, entrepreneurship is now being seen as an increasingly viable option.
With the higher education system looking tired and outdated, slow to respond to the emerging needs of young people, and still seemingly in the thrall of large corporations when they come to offer careers advice, the students are wasting no time to build the necessary support networks from the ground up. In doing so, they are also forming the new institutions that will influence the education and political landscapes over the coming generation.
Student-led enterprise clubs and societies can be found operating in universities across the world, but certainly with no greater density than in the UK. Following the very first UK society launching at the University of Cambridge in 1999, numbers have skyrocketed to over 70 such societies today. In universities big and small, across the country, such groups work to drive a grassroots entrepreneurial movement within their institution, bringing together talented and passionate students from across faculties to create peer-led enterprise communities where enterprising students and young entrepreneurs support, empower and enable each other. Through these societies students are connecting across disciplines and building valuable connections, knowledge and skills from their peers and a wide range of local entrepreneurs, alumni, business support organisations and others.
As students’ interest in enterprise and entrepreneurship increases year-on-year so does the innovation coming out of the enterprise societies. Recent innovations include launching intensive business start-up programmes, micro-funds, seed accelerators, student-led incubators and even society-owned ventures.
With shows such as Dragons Den and The Apprentice generating ever-increasing interest in entrepreneurship among students, the demand for such enterprise societies to train and connect enterprising students is set to explode. However as student-led groups these societies face major structural challenges in maintaining sustainability, funding and succession while continuing to innovate and diversify programming. With leadership changing once every year, maintaining and growing a successful enterprise society is no mean feat.
The idea for an umbrella network to develop, connect and represent such societies was first conceptualised in summer 2008 by Victoria Lennox, newly appointed President of Oxford Entrepreneurs – the largest society in the UK and one or two with sabbatical presidents.
New to her role, Victoria was reaching out to and being approached by various enterprise society presidents from across the UK and started to identify great similarities between societies and many opportunities for collaboration and information sharing between them.
In December 2008 Victoria convened the Presidents of 12 leading enterprise societies to discuss their commonalities and identify how they could collaborate across the UK. The energy unleashed through the meeting was phenomenal; the presidents immediately sparked with each other and conversations continued past the day-long meeting and well in to the evening. The whole day was spent comparing activities, structures, plans and challenges of their respective societies. With these discussions, the presidents quickly realised they were alike and all shared the same aims, opportunities and challenges. One of the key reasons behind the level of energy was the realisation by each president that they had met equally passionate, like-minded students and they were not alone in their quest to help fellow students become more entrepreneurial.
A commitment was made to continue talks around conceptualising a new organisation that could connect, train and support all enterprise societies. Hence NACUE was born. The 12 presidents met again in February 2008 for an all-day meeting, again chaired by Victoria. Throughout the day they brainstormed and discussed plans for the new organisation. Out of the meeting came the official founding of the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs; its mission, aims and objectives; its programming and society support mechanisms; and last but not least, the structure for what would become its flagship annual event: the 1st NACUE Leaders Training Conference.
NACUE was created with the belief that university enterprise societies are an integral part of university enterprise networks and they have the capacity to be incredible catalysts for enterprise and entrepreneurship. NACUE's founding objectives were to:
-support the sustainable development of university enterprise societies and student ventures
-inspire, educate and train university enterprise society leaders and student entrepreneurs
-connect university enterprise society leaders and student entrepreneurs online and in person
-advocate for the increased support of student enterprise, both in individuals universities and at a national level.
NACUE has been credited with developing a unique grassroots model to stimulate student activity and conduct advocacy campaigns. Before NACUEs formal launch Victoria had already won the SFEDI ‘Builder of Entrepreneur Support Networks Award’ and the ‘Overall Enterprise Support Champion Award’ for her work in founding the organisation. Over the following year NACUE went on to be named ‘Champion of Entrepreneurial Britain’ by RealBusiness; recognised by the World Economic Forum as ‘a global best practice in enterprise promotion’ and invited to address the United Nations Conference on Trade & Development.
NACUE launched on 1st May 2009 with its 1st Annual National Leaders Training Conference. Attracting incumbent society presidents and their elected successors from 33 universities across the UK, the intensive weekend schedule provided societies with an unrivalled opportunity to manage succession and equip incoming presidents with the skills, knowledge & connections needed to succeed over the coming year.
Just as the founding meetings with 12 presidents generated explosive energy, bringing 75 highly-charged, entrepreneurial student leaders together for a weekend of training, networking and celebration unleashed untold energy and excitement. During the talks, workshops and plentiful networking breaks, the ‘NACUE Fellows’ bonded, creating strong friendships and what can only be described as a cult-like following for the brand new organisation that had provided such an exclusive opportunity for them all.
Following the launch Victoria, having passed Oxford Entrepreneurs on to her successor set about building NACUE and realising the aims and objectives set by the founding 12. With the momentum still strong from the launch, Victoria had no problems encouraging 9 student volunteers to work along-side her over summer to get it off the ground.
The key challenges identified by the 12 presidents related to managing succession; developing leadership and management skills; capturing and storing critical processes; achieving sustainable diversified funding; innovative programme development; and better representation towards universities and government policy makers.
As of January 2011 NACUE supports over 70 student enterprise societies, works with staff at 85+ universities and represents a total of 40,000 students across the UK. It has developed programmes that educate, connect and represent enterprise societies and enterprising students at a local, national and international level. Enterprise societies are supported through a highly customised development package; enterprising students are engaged and celebrated through major national conferences and competitions; and advocacy campaigns are directed towards university staff, civil servants, government ministers and international policy forums.
NACUE gives all enterprise societies a platform to connect at a national level to share ideas and celebrate their collective achievements. It has also carved out an important role advocating on behalf of enterprise societies and young entrepreneurs. For the very first time, an informed student voice is recognised by government and educators and engaged in critical discussions around entrepreneurship in higher education. Not only does this bring a much needed student voice into discussions, but it also ensures that the contributions of enterprise societies are recognised and their role is cemented in future plans.
Key Innovations: Empowering Student Groups to Deliver Enterprise Promotion & Start-up Support
Central to NACUE's vision is that enterprise societies have a critical role to play in delivering enterprise promotion and start-up support to students within universities. By equipping the society committee with training, resources and necessary connections, the student groups can achieve sustainability and gain recognition by the education sector and business community as a trusted and reliable delivery agent for entrepreneurship programmes within universities.
The strongest and most forward-thinking societies are now cementing their role not only as a hub for students looking for inspiration and connections, but also as the key delivery agent for all enterprise promotion and support programmes within the university.
With universities, government and many others looking at how to extend enterprise opportunities to many more students at very low cost, this is truly the Age of the Enterprise Society.
Key Innovations: A Highly Flexible Student Volunteer Workforce
NACUE has been built entirely by student and graduate volunteers. From launch in May 2009 up until September 2010, no individuals involved in the running of NACUE was remunerated for their work. During this period over 32 students and graduates gave their support to NACUE in full or part-time positions for a minimum of 2 months each.
By bringing students in as part of their assessed work placements or for part-time internships along side their study, NACUE maintained a highly flexible structure, while keeping costs to a bare minimum. With the opportunity to get involved in a new start-up active in the enterprise scene, many aspiring entrepreneurs have been attracted to the roles with the aim of building up skills that will help them in launching their own business.
Volunteers were empowered with the responsibility for major projects (like delivering whole conferences, bootcamps and policy reports) and a training, mentoring and tracking process was established to assist them. With so many students and graduates in the network, additional support was easy to find on an ad-hoc basis.
Only in September 2010 when sufficient corporate funding was secured were 3 long-term volunteers employed by NACUE. It still relies on a strong team of volunteers to support the core team.
Key Innovations: Society Development Package
NACUE has spent over 18 months developing and refining a unique package of services to support the development and growth of enterprise societies. The package consists of:
- Society Maturity Model
A ranking system to allow societies to measure their maturity against 15 factors including diversity of funding, succession process, internal & external university relations, membership diversity and programme development.
- Progression Framework
Once ranked using the maturity model, the progression framework provides actionable steps that societies can take to increasing their ranking against each factor.
- Learning Programme
A collection of over 80 2-5 page guidance documents giving impartial advice on all aspects of running a society – from starting out, to securing sponsorship, running all types of events, right up to launching a student-led incubator.
- Structured Mentoring
Tying together the above, an experienced mentor keeps track of a societies development through fortnightly mentoring calls to the president.
- Leaders Training Conference
Annual conference in May where incumbent presidents and their elected successors attend to manage handover, connect with peers and celebrate their achievements.
- Committee Training Days
Regional training days each October that connect and train all committee members involved in societies through peer-led workshops.
- Enterprise Strategy Workshops
Regional events chaired by experienced NACUE team members that bring together student enterprise society leaders with enterprise educators from their institutions, to discuss their respective activities, to align their objectives and create a unified strategy focused on collaboration over the medium term.
- Peer 2 Peer Mentoring
Having met at training events, past and present enterprise society presidents connect informally to mentor each other, exchange advice and share contacts. Introductions are brokered by the NACUE team, but this is very much an open process
Key Innovations: Multi-Level Approach
NACUE engages many stakeholders and many different levels to achieve its goals.
- Local Level: NACUE supports enterprise societies and university staff to stimulate entrepreneurship on campuses
- National Level: NACUE conducts national advocacy campaign by speaking at educator conferences, government policy workshops and through ongoing meetings with civil servants. A National Student Enterprise Conference connects 200+ student entrepreneurs each year for a weekend of training, networking & celebration, and the National Varsity Pitch Competition celebrates student entrepreneurship and identifies the top student entrepreneur from across the UK.
- International Level: NACUE connects with like-minded youth entrepreneurship organisations across the world to share best practice on stimulating student activity and to coordinate international advocacy campaigns to policy forums. NACUE has been invited to speak at conferences by the World Economic Forum and the United Nations.
NACUE has adopted a highly collaborative approach to partnerships, looking to identify projects in which all parties win. By connecting companies big and small with enterprise societies on the ground, NACUE has been able to provide unique opportunities for societies and students, while saving companies hassle by bypassing the bureaucracy often found when approaching universities. Examples include:
- Helping Microsoft distribute over £22,000 in sponsorship to 16 societies in return for promotion, workshops and other initiatives.
- Showcasing student and graduate entrepreneurs to raise profile, increase sales and generate speaker requests.
- Helping Tata find and recruit student brand ambassadors at 16 universities across the UK.
- Offering discounted services to students from Huddle.net, Moo.com, eOffice and many other SMEs.
- Promoting NGOs, charities and start-up support organisations including UnLtd, Shell LiveWIRE and Find Invest Grow.
- Helping Microsoft sponsor 8 societies to stream the Professional Developers Conference to an estimated 2000 students across the UK in return for cash sponsorship of £1000 per society.
From 2004 to mid 2010 Government funding flowed into universities to develop extra-curricular enterprise promotion and support programmes aimed to engage ever-increasing numbers of students across all faculties. While these were well received, total student engagement was still only 16% in mid 2010 and there were massive inefficiencies and high costs associated with the top-down delivery of such initiatives (especially where government-funded 'quangos' were involved).
- Opening essential communication channels between societies to attend each others events, collaborate on projects and share information freely.
- Building countless friendships between students from different universities.
- Two society presidents launching a company together after meeting at the NACUE Leaders Training Conference
- Student entrepreneurs securing design contracts with societies and other start-ups.
- Students securing mentors, coaches, advisers, investors and other supporters.
- Societies securing speakers, workshop hosts, competition judges and corporate sponsors.
- NACUE is aiming to launch an All Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship Education to engage MPs in the discussion around enterprise education and graduate entrepreneurship.
- NACUE has secured funding to pilot a student-centred enterprise network in the East of England. A full time director based in the region will work to bring together all stakeholders, pool together resources and enterprise agendas to contribute to developing single, student-centric, vibrant enterprise community..
- NACUE will continue to expand iCUE - the International Consortium of University Entrepreneurs to connect youth entrepreneurship organisations globally and share best practice.
- To achieve low-cost growth of enterprise programmes to impact all students, go from the bottom-up, not the top-down.
- Unleash the spontaneous initiative of students to deliver truly innovative programmes that engage, inspire and train other students.
- Create a easily accessible community of like-minded peers and innovation through societies, new ventures and ad-hoc collaborations will flourish.
- Matt Smith, Founding Member and Enterprise Education & Policy Consultant, NACUE
- Sandeep Ahluwalia, Development Officer, NACUE
- Huspreet Dhaliwal, CEO, NACUE
- Victoria Lennox, Founder & Chair of Trustees, NACUE
- The 42(!) volunteers that have supported NACUE from its conception up to today
- The 400+ NACUE Fellows which make up the unique NACUE Network & run the 72+ enterprise societies
- NACUE's sponsors including Tata, Lloyds TSB, Microsoft, HEFCE, Smith & Williamson, Taylor Vinters, Accelerator London, London Met University, NCGE and many more
- Countless advisors, graduates, university staff