Claudia Cavalluzzo: A network of support is the real prize for entrepreneurs

Claudia Cavalluzzo, Director, Converge.
Claudia Cavalluzzo, Director, Converge.
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In the last 10 years, a plethora of business competitions, accelerators, business ­incubators and business awards have emerged in Scotland. In this very active ecosystem, people are ­constantly confronted with the ­concept of winning, and losing. But what does that mean? Is winning a prize or an award the real prize?

As leader of Converge, Scotland’s national entrepreneurial development programme that has a strong competition element, I deal on a ­daily basis with people competing for a prize, excited to win and afraid of losing.

In the business world, we see awards of every nature and competitions that reward good ideas, promising people and perfect pitches. I strongly believe that these initiatives have their place in a society often too busy to celebrate its achievement.

These awards and competitions shine the light on categories or ­sectors that need encouragement such as females in business, research commercialisation and entrepreneurship.

However, these initiatives need the right context and support mechanisms to make a real difference.

To nominate women for their achievements but then not provide the necessary support to focus on their career is counterproductive.

When looking for new recruits, or even event speakers, I hear too often, even from people close to me, ‘I’m looking for the right person rather than for a woman to tick the gender balance box.’

Well that box is a very important one and there are many other boxes that need to be ticked such as equality, inclusivity and now, more than ever, carbon footprint.

It’s the same for academic entrepreneurship, a sector I’ve got to know very well in the last few years.

It’s all well and good to paste posters of competitions, or promote prizes for the best pitch but without a real system that rewards entrepreneurial engagement within academic career progression, we won’t see a real change.

Winning a prize in some cases might mean losing a career opportunity, especially if you are an ­individual on the path to becoming a lecturer. So, can winning a prize make a real difference in these difficult environments?

At Converge, we started with a prize-based entrepreneurial competition for staff & students of Scottish universities but, in the last years, we have become a comprehensive programme, where the cash prize is only one of the benefits of entering.

Without the right support network, vibrant and connected environment and expertise necessary to succeed in business, winning a prize might be the fastest way to lose. That is why we have put in place a framework that allows emerging entrepreneurs to learn from each other and to ­connect with funders.

Whilst the cash is the ‘spur’ to help grow the business, the mentoring and nurturing aspect is invaluable and can make the difference between failure and success. To get the knowledge from IP attorneys, accountants, brand development specialists, etc., is similarly worth much to fledgling businesses starting out.

Take, as a prime example, our main Converge winner this year, Dr Andrew Woodland from the University of Dundee, who won first prize with his business In4Derm which re-engineers oral drugs and turns them into novel topical drugs to help patients suffering from skin diseases and improve their quality of life. Andrew said that the “prize package will really help me to develop the business – not just from a financial perspective but also the amazing ­network that comes with it”.

Certainly, the cash prize has an obvious developmental importance to Andrew, but the mentoring and business support from the “amazing network” will be invaluable.

Furthermore, and critical to the future of these initiatives, is the ­culture. A culture that rewards ­perception over substance (a bit like the Theranos case very well described in the best-selling book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou) will only incentivise the small term, ­money-hungry mindset.

Lately, I have seen competitions and awards receiving a bit of bad press, accusing those initiatives of stopping entrepreneurs from getting on with their real job.

Well, I disagree with that. We all need encouragement and support, in particular when things get tough – entrepreneurship is tough, never mind being a woman trying to do that.

Therefore, we need to continue to encourage and celebrate the brave ones, reward them with accolades and cash prizes, but we should never forget that this is just a piece of the puzzle. The culture, infrastructure, support mechanisms around those people are the key to their success. If we all work together as a community that believes in the power of ­collaboration, we are on to win the best prize.

Claudia Cavalluzzo, director, Converge.