Engaging students in entrepreneurship through impact related programmes

Rachel Wright
University of Canterbury

In the last two years, we have noticed a trend amongst tertiary students to want to be part of or contribute to projects that are creating a positive impact on their communities, their country or globally. Interestingly, many of these students signing up for these projects do not think of themselves as entrepreneurs or innovators when, in reality, what they are doing is very entrepreneurial and innovative. Why is this?
For many reasons, including misperception and tall poppy syndrome, we have found that many young people in New Zealand don’t consider themselves entrepreneurial or worse, don’t want to engage in something that is labelled entrepreneurial. In some ways this is quite ironic with Entrepreneurial Centres, like the one we have created at the University of Canterbury, being established at most large universities worldwide. In our first year of operation, we were surprised at the lack of engagement by the wider student body. Being an entrepreneurial unit, we started experimenting to see what events or programmes would engage students. What we found was that students as a whole were very interested in participating in activities and programmes that were related to impact. Interestingly, the impact could be economic and/or social. They simply wanted to do something that had a positive impact.
Building on this trend, the Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE) at the University of Canterbury has created a number of programmes that are based around impact but teach students entrepreneurship and innovation frameworks, including:
1. UCE Disrupt 48-hour Challenges
2. Impact Summit – one day conference based around Impact
3. Course for credit
The UCE Disrupt 48-hour Challenges, involve up to 50 students working in diverse teams to identify a concept solution to a problem or issue posed by an organisation. The organisation could be a business or an entity such as a food bank or a law firm. Over the two days, we take the students through a structured programme that provides them with a range of entrepreneurial tools to assist them in identifying the underlying problem, understanding who are the customers and the value proposition. Along the way, the students learn a range of soft skills such as teamwork, taking risks, pitching and clearly articulating ideas. Examples of organisations that we have worked with in the past year include the Ministry of Primary Industries, Christchurch Airport and the Christchurch Health Precinct. Typically, at the end of each Challenge, one or two teams have created a concept that has real potential to become a business or social enterprise. For example, at the recent Challenge with the Ministry of Primary Industries, the students were asked to come up with ideas to support New Zealand’s transition towards a sustainable and environmentally friendly future. One team came up with a plastic wrap replacement made out of kelp. Since, that Challenge, this team has created a startup, are part of UCE’s Summer Startup accelerator programme and have already developed prototype wraps made from kelp. Of course, most students do not go on to establishing a startup from attending one 48-hour Challenge, but at the end of the Challenge, they have learnt some entrepreneurial tools, have put in practice a number of soft skills and have changed the way they think. Students after a Challenge comment that they have learnt more in the last two days than the previous two years at University.
As part of our suite of programmes, we have introduced a one-day Impact Summit primarily targeted at young people. The purpose of this event is to enable attendees to hear from inspiring speakers and to attend interactive workshops to equip themselves with tangible resources to allow them to take real steps towards the future they want to embrace. We want our attendees to feel like they can have an impact beyond their local community. At our last Impact Summit, the most inspiring speakers were the couple Bariz and Saba who wanted to honour the 51 lives lost in the Christchurch March 2019 massacre by raising funds to support 51 Afghanistan individuals to set up businesses in Afghanistan.

Finally, two years ago, we introduced a course for credit that is an extension of our 48-hour Challenges. This course leverages the creative thinking of students to make a difference for an organisation. During the semester, students work in diverse teams to come up with a solution to a problem or issue posed by an organisation. This course provides students with an opportunity to undertake a real “consultancy” project working with stakeholders, where they can apply their academic entrepreneurship skills and knowledge to a real issue. This course provides students to gain real-world experience and take risks in a supportive environment.

Our students are innovative and entrepreneurial. The issue we are facing is that they don’t realise it. We must find ways to engage with students to provide them with opportunities for them to identify that they can be entrepreneurial and innovative regardless of the career path they choose. We have found that the best way to engage with students is through creating opportunities for them to have an impact whether that be locally, nationally or internationally. Today’s students do want to make a difference in this world.