A top-down approach is critical for the creation of an ecosystem sympathetic to the development of entrepreneurship. This, and a host of complimentary initiatives needed to foster entrepreneurial thinking on campuses, was outlined by Mr Chad Lucas, Economic Activation Officer: Centre for Entrepreneurship Development and Research at Sol Plaatje University (SPU) and Chairperson of the EDHE Studentpreneurs Community of Practice.

He was speaking at last week’s 5th Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) in Cape Town. The workshop gathered deputy vice-chancellors, deans and executive directors (below) from 24 of our 26 public universities.

Anchored on the 2023 EDHE theme of Social Innovation for Societal Impact, the two-day workshop explored how innovation can be encouraged in undergraduate programmes across disciplines. Also designed to inspire the commercialisation of innovation emerging from research projects – especially in social sciences, humanities and the arts – this ELW looked at how university leaders could establish an effective research, commercialisation and entrepreneurship pipeline while striving to institutionalise entrepreneurship for social impact.

EDHE is an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training being administered under Universities South Africa (USAf), the representative association of South Africa’s 26 public universities.

Mr Lucas (above) shared his perspective, remotely from SPU, in Kimberley, to an in-person audience in Cape Town. His topic was: A Student and EAO insight and perspective on how we might encourage innovation at undergraduate level and across the disciplines.

He said: “When I talk about the factors that influence studentpreneurs, I speak as both a student and a support staff member who works with students, helping them with their business ideas, enterprises and entrepreneurial ideas.”

Lucas began by outlining the essence of his work:

  • What is innovation? It can be seen as creating new ideas, products or processes; or upgrading existing products and services.
  • Why is this important? Because it promotes growth within start-ups or existing organisations. It increases the competitive edge of business enterprises and helps them generate a profit.
  • What is innovative entrepreneurship? It is basically out-of-the-box thinking that helps grow new and existing businesses develop products that improve communities and their standard of living, solving their problems and encouraging change to enhance customer experience.

“The key focus areas of entrepreneurship are creating new ideas, bettering communities and helping organisations and start-ups achieve their objectives,” he said.

He also unpacked types of innovative entrepreneurs:

  • Social entrepreneurs: They are solution driven. In the process of solving problems, they improve the lives and situation of the communities in which they live.
  • Start-up entrepreneur: Someone who innovates a product or service within a specific industry; for an example, someone who transformed the dating app Tinder into a business app matching businesspeople and enabling them to interact and collaborate.
  • Enterprise entrepreneurs: or intrapreneurs – those who innovate within an existing organisation.

Using his personal experience, Mr Lucas unpacked some of the factors influencing the studentpreneurs he works with:

  • Background – this includes the type of education they’ve been exposed to, family values, beliefs, culture and social status. He said: “Some students come from low-income households where they are encouraged to do everything they can to support their families.”
  • Inactive learning: often discourages studentpreneurs from venturing into the world of entrepreneurship. “We’ve noticed that our learning system is theory based, especially available entrepreneurial support. Crucial practical experience and practical thinking is missing.”
  • Personality traits: How open are students in their interaction with other students and people, in general? How well do they communicate or handle stress? Lucas said: “We often see students participating in risky behaviour because they cannot handle the stress of having to balance their social and study life. Also, some students have jobs and resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
  • The lack of support and resources: “Many institutions do not have policies that allow students to do business within the institution or with the institution. I have seen students’ goods being confiscated because they are not allowed to sell on campus.” Lucas encouraged universities to allow students the space to operate their businesses, selling and meeting with clients. Finance was another problem as students were faced with both university fees and living expenses. “Often, there’s not much money left over to invest in an idea, or core soft skills are missing.”
  • Lack of motivation: “Students come in to speak about their idea but are already demotivated because their family has told them to focus on their studies. Also, they have to balance the new study lifestyle – especially in first year.”

Lucas suggested ways to encourage innovation as a response to the challenges outlined above.

  • Centre for Entrepreneurship

“Key in my opinion, based on my experience, is a Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. It is crucial for all institutions to have such a centre accessible to all students across the different disciplines, and to all university departments.” He said SPU’s very successful Centre for Entrepreneur Development and Research, situated on its central campus, houses research and other support offices for students. “It’s where students come to speak about their ideas, seek advice on the business they are currently running and wish to scale up and grow. Here, students are encouraged to get involved in entrepreneurial projects and are exposed to organisations and stakeholders. They learn about competitions, training for upskilling and about all EDHE events.”

  • Weekly Consultations

“Weekly contact sessions with students are key as they show they are not alone on their journey. A walk-in centre – to a coordinator and economic activation officer or someone in the space that walks the entrepreneurship journey with the student – is hugely important.”

  • Entrepreneurial education

“You need to ensure that there are year-long programmes running where undergraduate students are exposed to the type of entrepreneurial education they need. We should embed 4IR entrepreneurship within the core curriculum modules that students take in first year and prolong that for the entire undergraduate period.”

He also advocated for a compulsory entrepreneurship technology-based module to allow students to think more innovatively and be more involved because it becomes part of their academic timetable. “They don’t have to create extra time to work on entrepreneurship – they can do it while focusing on other aspects of their studies.”

SPU, he added, will implement a compulsory first year core curriculum module next year.
The university also has a TPP (Talent Pipeline Programme) that exposes students to innovative thinking at high school before they enter undergraduate programmes.

In addition, SPU students are exposed to practical ways of learning through music, games or case studies. Lucas has called that type of learning TECET – Teaching that Encourages Creative Innovative and Entrepreneurial Thinking across disciplines.

  • Institutional CoPs

He told university leaders at the workshop: “I encourage the formation of institutional Communities of Practice at your institution. SPU has empowered the members of its studentpreneurship CoP to have their own office where they are treated as working professionals. They learn in the space as they work, getting real life experience while continuing with their entrepreneurial journey. This allows for better cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“This space is key because through the bottom-up approach it unlocks the latent potential of studentpreneurs, staff and surrounding communities. They can then work collaboratively, creatively and leverage technology to come up with new ideas or new products or upgrade existing products. They can take risks, experiment with new ideas. We often see that when students fail in academia, they consider themselves failures. If you allow them to experiment, create a new product or a new company, and provide a space where they can test this new product… they understand that even if the business idea didn’t work, they are not a failure. This encourages them to try again, thinkinhg of new ways to improve the idea.”

  • Top Management Support

“Top management support is critical. Leaders need to embed entrepreneurship and innovation in their strategic objectives. That is already happening at SPU and needs to happen across all institutions. We need to foster innovation and creative thinking not just in our students, but in our staff as well. We need to encourage students across disciplines to collaborate on projects.

“Further, faculty and staff collaboration should become the norm, where they can communicate what works and what doesn’t, and look at how they can improve teaching and learning methodologies.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

EDHE ELW 2023 Articles