Young people are full of enthusiasm and ideas about how to become the next generation of entrepreneurs, but they don't know how to turn ideas into reality, says Justin Tomlinson MP.
I have called for a debate on 'Encouraging Young Entrepreneurs' today because I am incredibly passionate about championing small and medium sized businesses. During my time as an MP I have consistently tried to do what is right by them and to help them, both in Parliament and in North Swindon, based on my experience of owning my own company and having always wanted to be a 'wheeler-and-dealer' from my school days.
When I have gone around talking to young people in schools and colleges, partly incentivised by the incredibly popular TheApprentice and Dragon's Den programmes, young people are full of enthusiasm and ideas about how to become the next generation of entrepreneurs. From talking to young people, many feel that now is the right time to be intrepid. They generally tend not to have a mortgage, dependents or a life's savings to blow. They feel that they have less to lose than older people and this puts them in a unique position where they are happy to take risks. When asked if they would like to be the next generation of entrepreneurs, the hands all shoot up. However when asked how many will seriously follow this path, the enthusiastic hands are replaced by deafening silence and it transpires that they simply do not know how to turn their ideas into reality.
Most debates on this topic haven't really focused on young people choosing to go into business as their first choice option and hence many are not equipped with the skills they need. Changing this is crucial when we have 1.08 million 16-24 year olds unemployed, and 25 per cent of graduates unable to find work, and when we are looking for ways to rebalance the national economy. It's absolutely clear that the Government is right behind this, as has been shown by the decision to create 40,000 business mentors and to set up a £10m pilot of an Enterprise Loan Scheme that will give young people access to finance analogous to the student loan concept. This is a fantastic scheme and I am very excited for its launch. Now we just need to equip young people to take this plunge and start up their own business.
I want to see as many schools as possible encourage entrepreneurial opportunities and can be done through a variety of ways. There are a number of courses offered by organisations such as the IFS Certificate and Diploma in Financial Studies, and the Finance Baccalaureate being piloted at Kind Edward VI School in Stourbridge and backed by RBS. This is one excellent way of equipping students for the challenges that business creates but it is also vitally important to make sure that young people are aware of the practical tests of running a business. For that reason it is essential that schools embrace the opportunities given to them by the Young Enterprise Scheme. This fantastic scheme gave me my very first taste of business and is continuing to give 250,000 students a year the chance to turn their hand at making money. I want to encourage every school to take this up and give their young people this brilliant opportunity. It is also vital to encourage schools to access business mentors as part of their participation in Young Enterprise. By giving students the chance to meet people with business experience who can pass on their knowledge they will get a much better insight into the risks that entrepreneurialism can pose.
In Swindon I have been working with the New College Young Enterprise teams to try and give them a real taste of life in the business world. I have arranged for each team to be given a free pitch for 3 days at the Blunsdon Indoor Market, a real-life challenging retail environment, where they will have to research to find a suitable gap in the market. They will have to plan how to dress up their pitch in a cost-effective way and be prepared for the challenge of trading on their feet all day long with customers who know how to haggle and demand first class service. To further apply real-life pressure they will operate under strict rules including if they fail to have their pitch ready to trade at 9am they will lose an entire day's trading. The successful teams will then be offered a further opportunity to return in the summer holidays at a discounted rate which could potentially be the real beginnings of a new retail business.
I also believe far more needs to be done at Universities to encourage entrepreneurial opportunities. I went to Oxford Brookes University and studied business along with 350 others, yet of my year group I believe that only I went on to set up a business. I think this was because we were effectively trained to join the corporate ladder with only one of my 30 modules linked to starting up your own company. All of our placement years were lined up to send us into the corporate environment, rather than equipping us more properly for the perils of small business ownership. I am though delighted, to have now seen that some current Oxford Brookes students, and others up and down the country, have formed their own entrepreneurial society where they seek to promote opportunities of setting up their own businesses through meetings with real-life business champions. Having spoken to Rebecca Hunter the Vice-President of the Society at Brookes, they have a staggering 3000 students signed up, with 600 a year attending their events – what amazing potential!
Since calling this debate I have been contacted by a number of excellent outside organisations who are looking to promote opportunities for potential young entrepreneurs. For example, it is fantastic that the Scouts have introduced an Entrepreneurial Badge which pretty much follows the YE model and myself and my partner Jo were able to act as mentors halfway through the Stratton St Margaret First Scout Group challenge, and the kids absolutely loved it. 10,000 young Scouts have already completed this Badge which is a huge vote of confidence in the appetite out there for entrepreneurial experience. I have also been extremely impressed by the Virgin Media Pioneers scheme which has sought to bring together a network bustling with potential young entrepreneurs, who share best practice and seek help for their own individual challenges and benefit from the wealth of advice and support available. This peer-to-peer platform is a great way of encouraging people to ask for help and to seek the knowledge of those who have already been through the process and know the pitfalls that exist.
Throughout all of the different young people I have met, the different schemes I have seen in operation the same message that comes back time and time again is that it is not necessarily money that young people are seeking but that they need the help, advice and support that only business mentors can provide. Therefore I have three requests of the government:
- To do everything it can to accelerate the delivery of the Business Mentor Programme
- To encourage schools, colleges and universities to promote the opportunities of entrepreneurial schemes which give young people real life experience
- I want the minister himself to annually celebrate and highlight the very best young entrepreneurs from across the country and to support organisations who help them achieve this, so that we, the key decision-makers, understand the demand for such support and can push entrepreneurialism as a real career path for young people
Justin Tomlinson has been Conservative MP for North Swindon since 2010.