“I cannot stress enough how important it is to get women a seat at the table.”

Winner of Best Business Idea at this year’s Pioneer Awards, Hetty Bonney-Mercer shares how she plans to empower women in Ghana with her business, FemInStyle Africa.

Picture of Hetty Bonner Mercer

A great business idea begins when someone identifies a problem that needs solving. Sometimes, these are problems you never knew you had, as the buyers of products like these will testify.

In Hetty Bonney-Mercer’s case, however, the business idea came from a problem she found impossible to ignore. Taking home the Best Business Idea prize at this year’s Pioneer awards, it looks like the judging panel agreed.

FemInStyle Africa is a magazine for women, by women, encouraging them to live their lives to their full potential. The idea for the magazine came from a desire to present an alternative narrative for women in Ghana.

As Hetty explains, “I first had the idea when I was part of a group of women whose gender activism took Ghana by storm in 2017.” The group wanted to flip the script on toxic gender narratives, but they weren’t able to do so without resistance: “The more politicised we became, the more backlash we received. Despite being a population with an equal gender split, the idea of women occupying media spaces was unacceptable.

“In Ghana, the traditional view that the role of women is to keep the home still persists. Just 13% of national politicians are female, and when a woman is given a platform on events such as International Women’s Day, it is always a certain type of narrative being pushed; that keeping a home and a husband is the most important thing, no matter what a woman has achieved. On International Menstrual Hygiene Day, the topic was discussed by an all-male panel!

“My co-founder and I realised that we needed to create a space where we could amplify the voices and experiences of women exclusively. We wanted to change a narrative that is harming future generations of girls.”

Hetty had been working on the early stages of her business idea when she saw an email from Birkbeck about the Pioneer programme.

“I thought that this was the opportunity I needed to develop the business. I sent it to my co-founder and she encouraged me to go for it.

“I gained so much from the programme: I made some really great friends and received incredible support from the speakers and fellow students. It was amazing to be in a room filled with so much passion: everyone there had a problem to solve. Coming from a background in Politics and International Relations, I learned the practicalities of running a business from some amazing female entrepreneurs who spoke on the programme.”

The FemInStyle Africa magazine website is currently under construction and will feature five columns: politics, gender activism, working women, financial advice and travel and style. The target readership is women aged 16-45, although Hetty wants the magazine to be read as widely as possible: “We want sixteen-year-olds to read the politics column or our profile of working women and see women who they’ll aspire to be like. For more mature readers, we want them to read something and see their own experience and values reflected. We want young people to see the possibilities of what could be, despite the societal pressures around them.”

The online magazine is a starting point, but Hetty’s vision for FemInStyle Africa extends much further. “We’ve set ourselves a six-month deadline to produce the magazine in print as well. In Ghana, data is a matter of class. Not everyone can afford to be online. We’re hoping to make the magazine free to reach as many people as we can.”

There are also plans in place to establish a mentoring programme alongside the magazine, providing further opportunities to empower young Ghanaian women. It is a project close to Hetty’s heart: “I cannot stress enough how important it is to get women a seat at the table. We want women to come on this journey with us and see that their futures are not pre-determined.”

Further Information:

 

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“It’s crazy to think that an idea I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Alexander Flint Mitchell took home the prize for Best Business Pitch in June’s Pioneer awards. He reflects on a life-changing year of building his business, Blind Cupid.

Picture of Alexander Flint Mitchell

When Alexander Flint Mitchell enrolled onto Birkbeck’s MSc Business Innovation last September, it was with a view to changing career direction and developing the business idea that had been on his mind for the last five years.

Handing in his notice just one month later, you could say things had moved a little faster than expected. “Looking back on it, that was probably a bit naïve,” Alexander admits, “but if you want to achieve something big, you’ve sometimes got to take a leap into the unknown.”

The motivation for this leap of faith? A little idea for an app called Blind Cupid.

Blind Cupid is a dating app with a difference, using a never-before-used science to match people based on their fundamental values, giving users the chance to see bios and compatibility scores before they reveal pictures to potential matches.

“A lot of dating apps claim to be all about personality,” says Alexander, “but it’s really just a slogan. In their questionnaires, they will ask about polarising issues like politics, which is valid, but simply agreeing on something doesn’t mean that you’re compatible. Take Brexit, for example: people voted Leave on both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s essential to understand the rationale behind the belief.

“The questionnaire that we use for Blind Cupid goes right to basic principles. The greatest feedback we have received so far from users is that they could see the value in the product even from just filling out the questionnaire – before they’d received any matches. When we tested the product, 80% of the test group went on four or more dates with their matches – that’s way higher than anything else in the market.”

Was the concept for the app born out of Alexander’s personal experience? “People ask me that a lot,” he says, “but in reality, the idea just came to me in a lightbulb moment, fully formed. I came up with the concept aged 21, while studying Law and working in the City. I found the reality of being a lawyer very boring and would end up spending most of the day daydreaming about this app. I knew that I was going to do it eventually, but I wanted to do it properly.”

In 2019, Alexander applied for the MSc Business Innovation at Birkbeck, specialising in entrepreneurship. “Studying in the evening meant that I could continue working in the City until the business was up and running,” Alexander explains. “I thought that, worst case scenario, I could find a role in venture capital, but I really wanted to give Blind Cupid a go.

“The course was everything I wanted to learn. One of the early modules, Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, required us to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan for Blind Cupid, and that’s when I decided to quit my job.”

As Alexander worked through the masters and the Pioneer programme, his business and networks grew. “I’ve made some amazing connections and put together a dedicated team – we’d meet at 8am and still be working together at 1am, before we were earning any money to do it, which just shows the commitment we all have to the business.”

Alexander’s Pioneer experience culminated in June’s virtual awards ceremony, where he took home the award for Best Business Pitch. “It was a shame not to be able to do the finale in person, but I was really surprised and pleased by how many people came along to the virtual ceremony. When pitching Blind Cupid to investors, it usually takes a full hour to go into all the detail, so drilling it down to three minutes was a real challenge. I’m thrilled to have won the Best Business Pitch award; it feels like all the hard work is paying off.”

Alexander is currently fundraising for Blind Cupid, with the aim of getting the product on the market within the next three months. Encouragingly, it seems that he’s also hit on an idea that can withstand the current tough economic conditions: “Strangely enough, the dating industry is booming at the moment. Regardless of what’s happening in the economy, people have a natural desire to have someone in their lives romantically, and that doesn’t go away in a recession.

“The decision to do the master’s was a life-changing, life-affirming decision. It’s crazy to think that the idea that I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

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Pioneer Programme 2020: Meet the Finalists 

Meet the entrepreneurs in the running for the Best Business Pitch and Best Business Idea awards. Winners will be announced at a virtual ceremony in June. 

Picture of a lightbulb
As the government, businesses and individuals adapt to a “new normal” in the wake of COVID-19, the case for innovative thinking in the workplace has never been clearer. With this in mind, we’re delighted to introduce this year’s Pioneer Programme finalists.

Pioneer is an extra-curricular course for Birkbeck students looking to develop the knowledge and skills to excel as an entrepreneur. Over seven Saturday sessions, participants learn from a range of entrepreneurs, industry experts and each other to build the skills needed to develop their business idea or scale up an existing business. 

Representing the best entrepreneurial minds in Birkbeck, the finalists are in with a chance of winning either the Best Business Pitch or Best Business Idea award, each worth a £1000 cash prize to support their business, along with a bespoke package of mentoring, coaching and promotion. 

Participants’ achievements will be celebrated at a virtual awards ceremony on Thursday 18 June, with a panel of five independent judges, themselves entrepreneurs and industry leaders in start-ups and innovation. 

Meet the Finalists

Jody Halstead

Jody Halstead
MSc Management with Business Strategy and the Environment
Business: Circular Surrey 

My business, Circular Surrey, is a platform for local business leaders who want to transition to a low carbon circular economy. 

Research shows that more localised solutions are needed in order to make the shift to a low carbon circular economy. Alongside this, business owners and leaders often don’t have the resources to fully apply their time and need some additional support. 

The Purpose of Circular Surrey is to provide clear and tangible support for local businesses to enable them to shift to more sustainable business models and practices whilst continuing to power Surrey’s economy.

 

Alexander Flint Mitchell

Alexander Flint Mitchell 
MSc Business Innovation (specialising in Entrepreneurship) 
Business: Blind Cupid 

Blind Cupid is for people who want lasting love and are frustrated by the time and money wasted dating incompatible people. Blind Cupid offers fast, fail-safe matchmaking. Unlike eHarmony and Hinge, our product matches users with people who share the same values and fundamental way of thinking via a never-before-used science. This creates a fast-track to lasting love. Far from the superficiality of Tinder, profile compatibility is scored and bios are seen before a user chooses which of their matches to reveal photos to. This leads to better dating decision-making. 

You can take Blind Cupid’s ‘Sense of Life’ Questionnaire today and get a very informative report about who you fundamentally are as a person.

I am currently fundraising for Blind Cupid and the product should be on the market within the next three months. 

 

Picture of James Shepherd

James Shepherd 
MSc Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology 
Business: Smart Therapy Tools  

Smart Therapy Tools aims to modernise psychological therapy treatment by providing both therapists and service users with an interactive and engaging smart phone app.  

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a therapy based on a structured understanding of how mental health issues maintain themselves, is at the forefront of modern mental health treatments and the NHS alone aims to treat over 1.5 million people a year with this approach. To improve the experience of this therapy, I have developed a prototype smartphone app which brings important techniques away from static pen and paper approaches into a more engaging and dynamic domain.

In the future, I aim to put data science at the heart of the app by using statistical modelling to learn from user inputs. As the app is used more often, more information from the heart of the service user/therapist collaboration can be utilised to help understand the complexity of mental health problems and inform new treatments.

 

Picture of Kevin Tsai
Kevin Tsai 
MSc Innovation and Entrepreneurship 
Business: Anywhere Bear 

Anywhere Bear is a vision born from my passion for travelling. However, I have come to realise how damaging air travel is for the environment – even a short haul flight from London to Edinburgh contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere then an individual’s average annual emissions. 

My wife and I recently took a holiday around Italy without flying and we loved the experience of travelling around by train.  We then looked at other holidays around Europe but found it difficult to plan without flying. There is no one go-to site that we trust and find easy to use for our needs, hence the decision to pursue the idea of a travel platform specialising in helping holiday makers to plan and book their holiday around Europe without flying. We want to build a fun and engaged community of people who will enjoy sharing their travel stories and be able to challenge and inspire their network to join them as they go flight free.  

Due to COVID-19we’ve had to rethink our strategy, as we foresee travel being impacted by this pandemic.  We’re now going to be providing travel inspiration to places around the UK.  We plan to partner with eco-hotels and restaurants and build a platform to allow people to still enjoy their holidays with a minimal carbon footprint.  

Our plan is still at the ideation stage so watch this space as we reinvent the way people holiday!

 

Picture of Hetty Bonney-MercerHetty Bonney-Mercer 
BA Global Politics and International Relations 
Business: FemInStyle Africa 

In the near future, representation of women in Ghana’s politics will be higher, women in Africa will be more financially independent, women who have broken the glass ceiling in their respective fields will be the norm instead of the exception, solo female travel will be safer and gender activism will have reached new heights. 

Because in 2019, two gender activists decided that there weren’t enough publications in the country that really focused on amplifying women’s voices exclusively and in a positive way and decided to do something about it. 

FemInStyle Africa is a magazine for women by women which aims to encourage women to live their full potential. We have five columns dedicated to politics, gender activism, profiling working women, financial advice and travel and style: always written with women as the central focus. FemInStyle Africa aims to mobilise women to bring about lasting changes in the fight for gender equality. 

We are currently building our website, recruiting writers, and finalising our marketing plan with a view to launching in Q3 2020. We welcome you to be a part of our journey.

 

picture of Mukesh Bhatt

Mukesh Bhatt 
PhD Law 
Business: inSTEAD – integrating Space Technologies into the lives of the Elderly and Disabled 

 The inSTEAD project wants to re-purpose, re-innovate and re-invigorate space technologies, which can be used to help the elderly and disabled. Over 700 astronauts in space and returning to Earth are supported by a multi-billion-dollar industry, prototyping and patenting health support and rehabilitation mechanisms. The astronauts suffer from the same health problems as the elderly and disabled on Earth, and yet solutions for the latter are priced beyond their reach. However, anything used by astronauts can also be used by the elderly and disabled because each is human. 

Encouraged by the Birkbeck Pioneer programme, the International Space University and the European Space Agency at its Noordwijk business incubation centre, inSTEAD (AbleSpace Paradigms) aims to translate the hardware and psychological technologies and methods used for astronauts into a form suitable for the support and rehabilitation of the elderly and disabled on Earth. 

The inSTEAD project includes in its mission both commercial and philanthropic aims and objectives for high social impact and making the best use of opportunities for collaboration with national space, technology and development agencies and initiatives. It requires a team of dedicated and impassioned personnel to help make it a success. If you wish to become involved please contact Mukesh. 

Further Information: 

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What is intrapreneurship and how can it help your career?

The life of an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone, but you can still reap the career benefits by embracing an enterprising spirit in the workplace.

Brainstorming, Business, Cheerful, Clap Hands

I don’t know about you, but a pretty clear picture springs to mind when I hear the word entrepreneur: suited and booted, firm handshake, these are the people who can talk to anyone, are interested in everything and have a remarkably persuasive knack of bringing people on board with their ideas.

While the risk-averse among us may want to steer clear of the career path of an entrepreneur, you might be surprised at how much there is to gain from embracing an entrepreneurial spirit from within an organisation.

That’s where intrapreneurs come in.

What is intrapreneurship?

Intrapreneurship involves developing the skills and mindset of an entrepreneur, but using these to benefit the company you currently work in, rather than starting up your own business.

Intrapreneurs are recognisable in organisations as the people who are confident, question how things are done and are willing to try new approaches in search of better outcomes.

What’s in it for you?

Adopting an enterprising attitude in the workplace might sound like a lot of hard work, but it’s a smart career move. Putting forward suggestions and championing new ideas allows you to put more of your own personality and interest into your role, making it ultimately more satisfying. We also know that increased autonomy at work is one of the keys to staying motivated.

Entrepreneurship develops skills that are transferable in any workplace, such as emotional intelligence, innovative thinking and leadership. Plus, any suggestions that you make and work on can be used as concrete examples of your achievements when you’re looking for your next opportunity.

What’s in it for your employer?

Although the concept of intrapreneurship has been around since the 70s, it’s becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world. Creative thinking, emotional intelligence and the ability to embrace and adapt to change, all key skills of an entrepreneur, are becoming essential in the modern workplace and are where humans differentiate themselves from artificial intelligence.

Employers value team members who are proactive, resilient and who can offer creative solutions to the challenges their business is facing.

Enterprise at Birkbeck

At Birkbeck, there are many ways to get involved with enterprise to suit any level of ability and time commitment.

  • Pioneer

Pioneer is a fantastic way to launch your enterprise journey, and applications for this year’s programme are now open. Birkbeck’s flagship enterprise course is open to Birkbeck students and recent graduates from any discipline who are looking to develop their entrepreneurial skills.

  • Workshops and Events

Birkbeck Futures host events throughout the year focusing on a different aspect of enterprise.

  • Courses in Enterprise

Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics has a strong reputation for research excellence and innovation and offers a range of programmes where students can prepare themselves for the modern workplace.

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