Opinion: Scotland is bursting with entrepreneurs just waiting to shine

Monday 13 November 2023

Aisha Kasim
Aisha Kasim, StartUp Manager at Robert Gordon University, penned her thoughts in The Scotsman on Scotland's bursting innovation scene as we approach Global Entrepreneurship Week...

As a recent wedding guest, I found myself engaged in a discussion around the definition of the word ‘entrepreneur’. In a rather testing manner, my fellow wedding guest had implied the noun can only really be attributed to the upper elite of entrepreneurial activity, i.e., the Mark Zuckerburg's of the world. Indeed, according to his definition of the term, he could only perhaps think of about just twenty ‘entrepreneurs’ globally. Here in lies part of the problem…

What is an entrepreneur? This label seems to have many definitions depending on who you're speaking with, or which source is being consulted. Typically, it is seen as someone who embarks on business endeavours. However, personally I am more drawn to a definition by Professor Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School that "entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled."

This definition resonates because entrepreneurship does just that, entrepreneurs can often be found making something out of not very much. They can go beyond their current circumstances and creatively fashion a new world, which is one of the main reasons why society and progress needs them. Furthermore, entrepreneurs are not just strictly about the business, some entrepreneurs are impact-motivated and more interested in the third sector through social entrepreneurship or charity work, they get more rewards out of helping solve the world's socio-economic and cultural problems. 

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, post-pandemic there has been globally mixed engagement levels in entrepreneurship, with a drop in youth and female entrepreneurship. Internationally, research suggests that countries leading the way in entrepreneurial activity, such as the UAE, appear to be doing so due to ample government and policy support, widening access to underrepresented groups, and having a solid means of tackling the fear of failure common amongst startups.

Scotland is tackling this widespread challenge with initiatives such as TechScaler and the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NEST) where the Entrepreneurial Campus publication aims to establish Scotland as a world-class entrepreneurial nation. The report sets out that the higher education sector can be a driving force for the Scottish entrepreneurial ecosystem, made possible through learning from international and shared best practices; collaboration amongst universities; and being on the cutting edge of research using this all to drive entrepreneurial activity and innovation.  

Back at the wedding we moved on to the nature vs nurture debate on entrepreneurship. Bearing in mind his initial theory, I was curious to hear his thoughts as to whether one is born an entrepreneur or if it can be taught? He could not seem to sufficiently expand on his thoughts, however, thousands of studies and reports state the latter to be true. I was fortunate enough to visit Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this year as part of a visiting Scottish cohort and hear from Bill Aulet who, having taught us his 24-step theory, certainly proved that entrepreneurship, like any other applied discipline, can be taught.

Six years ago, Robert Gordon University (RGU) firmly backed the development of entrepreneurship by launching the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Group (EIG) through support from the Wood Foundation. Today, EIG runs a variety of programmes and entrepreneurial education that supports the University community across the region and beyond who are interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. We are inclusive in our pragmatic approach and have a variety of expertise and experience in our team.

Our flagship programme, the RGU Startup Accelerator, is now into its sixth year. With each cohort we select a cross-industry range of start-ups with early-stage innovative ideas and work closely to develop participants over five months, providing them with equity-free seed funding, mentorship, co-working space, and an opportunity to pitch at our showcase event. Seeing the journey from its initial launch has been truly inspiring with over 100 start-ups progressing through and helping stage RGU as one of Scotland’s leading entrepreneurial universities.

Last week I caught up with one previous participant whose business, Everybody Counts, has recently been valued at over £10m and is making great strides in the education sector all over the globe. Its success has been down to a variety of reasons, particularly hard work and expertise, but also due to opportunity and support from the beginning. Whether it’s ourselves and the Startup Accelerator or others in the region such as Business Gateway or Opportunity North East, it shows that entrepreneurs need opportunity and an instilled belief from an early stage in order to progress and move forward.

Many of our successful cohort members over the past five-years began with nothing but a brief plan of scribbled ideas. But embedding that entrepreneurial mindset and ensuring that they have the support network around them to learn and make informed decisions has seen them thrive and create genuine economic impact across the nation. Universities UK recently reported that universities contribute £130bn to the UK economy and much of this is through entrepreneurial activity due to the platform and expertise we can collectively provide.

At RGU we are advocates of widening access to entrepreneurship at both ends of the spectrum, holding a regional approach whilst keeping an international focus. The nationally award-winning Women in Business programme, in collaboration with Aberdeenshire Council, supports entrepreneurial mothers and our Creative Entrepreneurship course supports creative practitioners across Scotland. Recently we were the first North East university to host a Regional Converge Challenge Enterprise event for the purposes of entrepreneurial collaboration and to share best practices with the University of Dundee, Abertay, University of Aberdeen, and University of Highlands & Islands. 

The pandemic and the resultant widespread adoption of technology has made the world seem smaller. Yet more doors are open now and more information is readily available to tackle world challenges. Because of this, the opportunities for global collaboration, socio, planetary, and economic development and empowerment are stronger than ever. Our passion for entrepreneurship is heightened at this time of year with Global Entrepreneurship Week, a celebration which sees us hosting a variety of events with distinguished guests and a mix of diverse and engaged students presenting wide perspectives, solutions, and ideas.

Forget about just twenty entrepreneurs around the world. We’re fortunate that in the North East and indeed across Scotland, they are all around us, just waiting to shine.

First printed in The Scotsman on Friday 10 November 2023.

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