At the start of 2021 there were 5.5 million small businesses in the UK. Recent research* argues that the South West’s combined growth potential and financial strength is 11 per cent higher than London, making it the leading region in the UK when it comes to growth prospects for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).
Currently, retail and wholesale, construction and leisure are the key sectors driving growth in the South West but, ironically, they also present the biggest risks to the regional economy, with Construction representing 19% of the high-risk companies in the South West, and retail and wholesale representing 14%.
For the economy in the South West to thrive, it will continue to be important to encourage entrepreneurial activity and entrepreneurship. Dr Preedy explains how Plymouth Business School is supporting tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.
I have explored entrepreneurial identity in my research, investigating what it is, how individuals develop it and why it is important.
When people self-identify as an entrepreneur it is usually a precursor for entrepreneurial behaviour, informing how they communicate and behave as an entrepreneur. Some people are inspired to become entrepreneurs because it allows them to work around their caregiving responsibilities; they want a healthier work life balance, flexible hours and location as well as varied work content. People who have been previously employed speak about the struggles of balancing a job and career with caring responsibilities, of navigating the tension between today’s ‘always on’ work culture and employers’ expectations of logging on in the evenings versus wanting to focus on their family and hobbies.
Recipe for success
It is interesting to explore society’s notions of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.
Programmes such as ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons’ Den’ have obviously informed people’s understanding of entrepreneurs; frequently cited entrepreneurial examples include Lord Alan Sugar, Mark Zuckerberg and Sir Richard Branson. When I ask students or others in my teaching and research to create or share an image of a successful entrepreneur, most people respond with an image of a white, middle class (and probably middle-aged) man. Subtle gender stereotypes are clearly at play here. Whilst it is disheartening to see this so strongly reinforced, it emphasises that these stereotypes are much more common than we think. Having reviewed the educational material about entrepreneurship used in schools and colleges, I have seen these images constantly reinforced in educational materials. This needs to change. The material used in education must be more representative of the gender, racial and age diversity amongst UK entrepreneurs.
Until this change takes place, perceptions are reinforced that it is easier to succeed as an entrepreneur as a white, middle-aged, middle class man. I challenge my students to consider what success is. If I ask them to draw a successful entrepreneur, I inevitably get depictions of men in suits and symbols of conspicuous wealth such as a fancy car and a substantial house. This is partly influenced by societal understandings of success but it overlooks what success may mean to individuals personally. I spend time questioning the students about why they chose these images and have undertaken research into visual methods as a way of exploring people’s perceptions. Asking people to create visual images encourages them to interrogate societal assumptions. What does success really mean? Is it having lots of money or more control over one’s time or work content? Is it being able to make a difference to society or having more autonomy in their work?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Entrepreneurship often gets a bad press. News stories report businesses folding because of the pandemic, Brexit, cost of living, war in Ukraine etc. These events demonstrate the importance of good financial and risk management. It also leads people to question whether now is the right time to set up a business. Times of high risk can also be times of enormous opportunity. Entrepreneurs need to be comfortable taking risks; they need to trust themselves, their ideas and plans as well as the journey they are embarking upon. This is a time to dig deep and tap into intrinsic motivations and desires. If the desire to become an entrepreneur is rooted in someone’s value system, this is a huge motivator. Entrepreneurs and their businesses are crucial to the economy; a lot of innovation comes from entrepreneurship.
Failure teaches success
I am often asked to identify the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur: people need to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. They need to be confident about working with uncertainty and they need to be reflective. This is not taught in the school curriculum; for many, the first time they engage in reflective work is at university. We teach people how to reflect and what the purpose of such reflection is. It can involve asking very difficult, uncomfortable questions of oneself but this process can yield many useful insights. None of us are immune to failure. The key point is to learn from that and move on.
All too human
Programmes like ‘The Apprentice’ can still be useful in teaching even if it is to illustrate what not to do! I encourage students to identify and list when the contestants behave inappropriately by cheating, undermining others and lying. These discussions help frame the way we explore the human element of entrepreneurship. Historically this has not received much attention. A lot of research is focussed on metrics and the economic productivity of businesses. I am interested in the evolution of an entrepreneur; how do people get there? Entrepreneurship is a fast-paced and dynamic area of study and research, especially if more research investment is made in understanding the entrepreneurs themselves. When some students or research subjects start exploring the negative images of entrepreneurship perpetuated on television, it can be lightbulb moment that ignites a journey of self-discovery for them. We see prospective entrepreneurs consider what success means to them. Female students in particular grow in confidence through this process.
Power of networks
I have also seen that students who are well embedded in networks feel more confident about their abilities and are more prepared to engage with entrepreneurial behaviour. It is important to have, use and maintain networks of both strong and weak ties. Over the past two years there has been much less face to face networking; instead networking has taken place over Teams, texting and Zoom. There will be a resurgence in face to face networking; it allows us to read others’ facial expressions and body language much more easily.
Role models are also important; especially for younger people and those starting out on their entrepreneurial careers. Mentors and role models are people who can act as a sounding board, listening to and critiquing ideas. Their involvement can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure. We are always keen to support our students to identify and secure mentors. Some of our students feel disadvantaged because they have not seen family members or close friends use networks professionally. Whilst social media can make networking easier, there is this huge question about authenticity. There can be issues with identifying and understanding what is/is not genuine online. The more opportunities we give an individual to get engaged, the more we build their knowledge and skills in networking. However, operating online should not be done at the expense of understanding the culture, sector or region in which an entrepreneur operates; it is still important to understand the nuances of the region and the locality and to be part of the community. This can seem extremely challenging for people with low confidence and we encourage everyone to take advantage of the diverse range of networking opportunities, including the informal ones where it is not necessary to get suited and booted.
To thine own self be true
It is important for students, employees and future entrepreneurs to find their own voice and who they are. Entrepreneurship can be an outlet for creativity and not just a means to pay the bills. It is encouraging to see students pondering some of the challenges that grip society today: climate change, social and income inequality, and sustainability. There is now much more focus on the societal, environmental and economic value of business and not just the financials. More and more entrepreneurs are looking for legacy, impact and meaning in their careers; it is no longer about taking more than you are giving back.
*According to the Clarity Model data from business advisory firm Quantuma