Joan Stringer: Harnessing the sparks of genius calls for self belief

Measures to foster a sense of confidence will make sure Scotland’s next generation of entrepreneurs flourishes, finds Professor Dame Joan Stringer

Confidence: It’s a precious commodity that every one of us could do with a bit more of. It is what we in Scotland’s universities strive to imbue our students with, and if you’re low on it, the chances are that you will struggle to turn a great idea into a successful business.

But what are the sources of confidence? Where do entrepreneurs build the self-belief that they can succeed, especially at a time when many in Scotland continue to struggle against the backdrop of challenging economic conditions?

Family support and encouragement are important, but they’re rarely enough in themselves. Government, councils, universities, charities, mentors, banks, business angels and social enterprises all have their part to play, and are increasingly doing so. That is why, at Edinburgh Napier, we introduced our Confident Futures programme to equip our students with the soft skills – from assertiveness to creative problem solving – that would embolden them as graduates and make them stand out in a crowded jobs market.

There are many laudable initiatives going on elsewhere in the higher education sector, and, of course, outside academic institutions. The new Edge Fund announced by the Scottish Government at the end of 2012 is a good example. A £1 million Dragons’ Den-style entrepreneurs’ fund supported by the Royal Bank of Scotland, it aims to accelerate innovative business ideas.

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It’s another positive move, and was widely welcomed by the entrepreneurial community at its unveiling. But, building wider understanding and goodwill towards the entrepreneur’s role is just as important if the myth that Scots are somehow afraid of business failure is to be put to bed.

Welcome too, would be a greater appreciation that entrepreneurialism is risky by nature and that success does not come without failures. It should be commonly accepted that the efforts of all those striving to make their venture work, whether successful or not, are due our applause.

Fostering that wider environment of enterprise – where everyone gets behind the idea that successful entrepreneurs translates to benefits for all – is vital if Scotland’s economy is to emerge from these testing times stronger, more resilient and flexible than before. Building effective partnerships between all the different players is part of that long-term vision. And it is one of the reasons I felt it was so important for Edinburgh Napier to embrace the opportunity of linking up with Entrepreneurial Spark, whose business accelerator hatcheries have swiftly become a very significant part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Scotland.

Encouraging “can do” mind-sets and behaviour is central to ESpark’s vision of creating a business start-up renaissance in Scotland. It is an ethos I believe in and is one shared by Edinburgh Napier.

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A central part of what we do as a university is our commitment to providing entrepreneurial education, training and advice from a student’s first day at university – regardless of their academic discipline – through to supporting entrepreneurs in well-established businesses.

This has been achieved in a number of ways – from our own free business incubator space, The Moffat Centre, which has supported more than 1,000 students, to a brand-new incubator space at our Merchiston Campus aimed specifically at computing and creative industries students.

It goes deeper than that too, from our aforementioned Confident Futures programme to the format of our degree courses, which are designed to allow every student considering self-employment to complete modules in subjects ranging from business and sales to management, accounting and entrepreneurship.

My hope is that the launch of E-Spark’s Edinburgh hatchery will build on the good work already going on in Scotland and provide opportunities for our students and graduates to further develop their business ideas, while giving other start-ups the chance to tap into the university’s training, education, mentoring and events programmes. It also adds another significant voice to the chorus of those who wish to see entrepreneurial endeavour at the heart of Scotland’s economy.

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I am optimistic that, thanks to the vision of ESpark chief executive Jim Duffy, entrepreneurs and philanthropists Willie Haughey, Sir Tom Hunter and others, Edinburgh and Scotland will see a flourishing of a new generation of entrepreneurs and businesses that can stay the course and contribute to a more prosperous future. Banks also have a crucial role to play, with RBS’s financial backing and support of ESpark a case in point.

From my perspective at Edinburgh Napier, the green shoots from ESpark’s more established activity are already showing. A number of our graduates have already benefited from office space and mentoring. Glasgwegian Gary Maitles successfully launched The Service Directory to act as the UK’s first one-stop portal for products specifically aimed at the care sector.

Meanwhile, in the capital, Sarah Jane Lynch, an eczema sufferer, has drawn on her own experiences and frustrations to build a premium skincare brand, tru:beauty Skincare, to provide glamorous creams for people with high-maintenance skin.

Now the Edinburgh hatchery is to open and can only build on these successes, particularly as its “chicklets” will be able to draw on the mentoring skills of one of Scotland’s most successful entrepreneurs, Ann Gloag.

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Great ideas don’t recognise borders or continents, and Scotland’s contribution to shaping the modern world through innovation is well recognised. Confidence is arguably now on the rise – and we should welcome that – but it remains all of our responsibility to ensure that the country continues to be a competitive hotbed of ideas. With ESpark’s new hatchery, we are on the right path.

• Professor Dame Joan Stringer is principal and vice chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University