Universities and entrepreneurship: Achievements and challenges

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, reporting on business engagement for Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Karan Bilimoria

Karan Bilimoria

Support for entrepreneurship in UK universities has come a long way over the past 30 years, according to Lord Bilimoria, CBE, DL, Founder of Cobra beer.

He was speaking with Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck and Fellow of the British Academy, in a conversation that comprised this year’s Lord Marshall Memorial. The discussion was titled, “The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Developing Enterprising Students: The life, career and considerations of Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL”.

What emerged from their conversation were specific ways in which universities can help those with entrepreneurial potential develop tactics and strategy as well as ideas to take to market.

Hosted by the Department of Management, part of Birkbeck’s School of Business Economics and Informatics (BEI) and held annually since 2013, the lecture series commemorates Lord Colin Marshall, former Chairman of Birkbeck’s Board of Governors (2003-2010) and Chief Executive then Chairman of British Airways (1983-2004). Speakers are invited on the basis of their achievements in academia, public service or commerce, and began with Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of International Airlines Group (made up of British Airways and Iberia), followed by David Bernstein CBE, Chairman of the British Red Cross.

Entrepreneurship as vital economic driver

Professor Bourke’s deft questions drew out Lord Bilimoria’s passion, optimism, concerns, observations and reminiscences about entrepreneurship through reflections on his experience and stories from his life, from precociously talented student to continent-spanning business leader and voice for enterprise in the House of Lords.

Lord Bilimoria noted that entrepreneurship, once widely regarded in the UK as unworthy of academic or professional attention, is now seen as a vital economic driver: “We’re behind the curve but… we’re catching up.”

Illustrating this trend, he cited Cranfield’s Business Growth Programme; the popularity of student entrepreneur societies at Cambridge and Oxford; and initiatives such as Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, and Enterprise Tuesday, where members of the University’s community could learn about activities including raising finance, business planning and marketing, hear speakers, enter a competition and earn a certificate. He was also positive about the commercialisation of ideas from university research into business.

Birkbeck’s contributions here include continuous development of its enterprise offering for students and activities in the Department of Management, the expansion of which into the Clore Management Centre and into Stratford testifies to the Department’s rapid growth and achievements.

In addition, nearly 200 years of innovating to adapt study to working lives helps Birkbeck develop its own spirit of practical enterprise and nurture that spirit in its students and their projects, as does the University’s openness to considering partnerships and joint initiatives with other organisations.

Lord Bilimoria: Lifelong learning for entrepreneurship

With his impressive background in education and training, Lord Bilimoria could be seen to personify the value of lifelong learning for entrepreneurship. He qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young (EY) – a profession that, he noted, requires its members to undertake continuing professional development (the kind of development, perhaps, that could also benefit entrepreneurs in taking their ideas to market); he graduated in law from Cambridge, and is an alumnus of the Cranfield School of Management, London Business School and Harvard Business School.

As well as keeping up with fresh approaches and theory, he also found direct, practical benefits through such learning. On the Cranfield Business Growth Programme (“where every participant was a fellow chief executive founder entrepreneur”) he described how he would have two notepads: one for taking notes from the class; the other for jotting down ideas gained through the teaching and through talking with his classmates; and that he would take those ideas back to his business.

He also spent nine years on the Harvard course (“I’m a slow learner!”) and has returned repeatedly for refreshers to keep up with changes.

Asked if, looking back, he would do anything differently, he replied: “I regret not having done a proper doctorate.” Perhaps he would like to remedy that at Birkbeck,Tricia King, the University’s Director of External Relations, suggested good-humouredly.

Entrepreneurs themselves, as well as their ideas, require development and, as Chancellor of University of Birmingham, Lord Bilimoria has focused on teaching, introducing the Teacher of the Year Award, with winners chosen by students. Here the entrepreneurial quality of innovation has proved important in the selection of nominees: “When you read the citations… you see… they think outside the box.”

This sentiment is verified by the Birkbeck Excellence in Teaching Award (BETA), this year won by Dr Wendy Hein of the Department of Management for her innovative and inter-disciplinary teaching.

Asked about diversity, Lord Bilimoria emphasised the value of different perspectives that different backgrounds and cultures can bring, acknowledged much remained to be done, particularly in terms of gender diversity, and rigorously questioned an immigration policy that inhibits institutions from attracting and retaining the most talented staff and students and prevents them from contributing to wider UK society.

This event also illustrated something Lord Bilimoria was clearly too modest to say himself: that universities can provide platforms from which achievers could inspire potential achievers – even towards insights that perhaps only experience can offer.

Many such insights emerged from Lord Bilimoria’s own story. He learned about focus by observing his father: “Clear desk, clear mind”.

He experimented with different ideas, developing the idea for Cobra Beer, and went into business, experiencing the moment of choosing: “Ideas are one thing, action is another… To take that risk, that leap is the first decision…”

Working on the business taught him about partnership: “I teamed up with a business partner… you can’t do it alone…”

When a chance encounter introduced him and his partner to the biggest brewer in India, he also learned about luck, which he defined as “when determination meets opportunity – If you’re determined you’ll see the opportunity, otherwise the opportunities pass you by.” He added: “Luck is something they don’t teach you [at] business school; there are no case studies on luck.”

His determination also served him well when running the enterprise from his home in a small flat (which taught him about every aspect of the business), when spotting opportunities to bounce back from mistakes and from events such as the 2008 financial crisis, and perhaps when seeing the determination in the applicant who was to become a legendary salesman for the business.

Lord Bilimoria’s approach was to hire the best accountants, designers, public relations and advertising agencies and treat them as part of the team, inviting them to annual general meetings (AGMs): “As we grew we realised… we would need to leverage in terms of bringing in advice, because there were very few of us… How could we get people to advise us but treat us as more than just a client?… I remember once overhearing a senior member of the advertising industry and a senior designer saying: ‘I’ve never been to a client AGM before in my life.’”

During the intimate discussion in the Keynes Library other areas were touched upon including the role of philanthropy and the support of  Lady Bilimoria throughout the entrepreneurial journey.

In a moving personal tribute, Lord Bilimoria then said a few warm words about his late friend and mentor, Lord Colin Marshall, his kindness, generosity and sense of humour.

Birkbeck students and staff can watch the full video online (ITS username and password required)

Pictured left to right: Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck; Lady Lynne Heather Bilimoria, Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL; Professor Joanna Bourke, FBA; and Professor Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master (Enterprise and Innovation) and Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Pictured left to right: Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck; Lady Lynne Heather Bilimoria, Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL; Professor Joanna Bourke, FBA; and Professor Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master (Enterprise and Innovation) and Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

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