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Young entrepreneurs are put through their paces

 December 13, 2016 | Simon Jenkins

The University’s annual Bootcamp for student and graduate entrepreneurs took place at Weetwood Hall on 12-13 December, with 23 entrepreneurs winning coveted places at the residential event.

Run by Spark, the University’s business start-up service, the Bootcamp offers fledgling entrepreneurs intensive masterclasses on topics including finance, law, business planning, market research, sales and marketing, to help drive their ventures’ progress, delivered by Spark’s network of professional services advisers. The Bootcamp forms part of a broader package of enterprise support provided by Spark that includes start-up funding, mentoring from established entrepreneurs, professional business advice, award-winning incubator space and the University’s prestigious Enterprise Scholarship scheme, funded through the generosity of University alumni donors.

Former Spark alumni show their appreciation for the help they have received by joining delegates at the Bootcamps to provide additional inspiration and advice, and several have donated prizes for the next generation of entrepreneurs at the University – an attitude that Kairen Skelley, who heads up Spark, is extremely proud of.

“It’s fantastic to see things come full circle,” she says. “Spark alumni have become a key part of our support network and they’re keen to pass on to others the knowledge and experience they’ve acquired as their businesses have grown. They bring new ideas, perspectives and energy, and have helped Spark to become a true community, one that’s now developing its own momentum.”

This year’s Bootcamp saw a new addition to the programme – a pitching competition – for which former Sir Peter Thompson Award winner, Natasha Whiddon, both donated a cash prize and took time out of her growing property business to help judge.

“It doesn’t seem five minutes since I was attending a Bootcamp myself: it was a real turning point for me, so I can empathise with the concerns and hurdles that students face in developing their businesses,” she says. “Pitching your business with confidence is a skill worth honing, so I’m proud to be contributing to the same community that gave me so much support in the early days.”

Life sciences final year PhD student, Daniel Shaw, attended Bootcamp together with business partners Michael Wilson and Robert Thomas. The trio won an Enterprise Scholarship to develop a new digital solution to a significant problem faced by many researchers – monitoring real-time changes in environmental conditions in laboratory facilities, such as heat and humidity, that can affect their data and research results. Daniel says: “The Bootcamp is hard work, but extremely worthwhile. It gave me valuable insights that I would have missed otherwise. We also met the donor who funded our Scholarship – his own business can help us with several important technical aspects of our product and he’s incredibly generous with his advice. This is the amazing thing about Spark, it connects you to brilliant people who have exactly the skills and experience to help you make things happen. With his help, we’ll be able to launch our product earlier than we’d hoped.”

Kiran Morjaria, a fifth-year medical student and part-time stand-up comedian agrees. He’s looking to extend the sell-out comedy nights he targets at students in Leeds – featuring both up-and-coming local comedians and well-known TV names – to other major university cities in the north of England. He says: “For me the most valuable aspect of Bootcamp is spending the two full days with like-minded people, those who are facing similar challenges, such as studying for their degrees at the same time as progressing their business ambitions. It gives you the time to think, to discuss and pool ideas with peers and develop a trusted network around you. If it wasn’t a residential event, we’d miss out on that crucial element.”

Nick Howard, one of the very first entrepreneurs to be supported by Spark has grown his multi-award-winning communications agency, Limehouse, to 19 employees, and services major clients such as Lloyds Banking Group, Northern Rail and First Direct. Nick presents at the Bootcamp each year and says: “You can tell as soon as you speak to the students and graduates on the Bootcamps that they’re smart, focused and keen to learn from the opportunities that the Spark team provide – they’re a seriously impressive bunch, with some brilliant business ideas. They’re a pleasure to work with.”

The University’s support for enterprise is nationally recognised, winning awards from both The Guardian and the Times Higher Education, with Spark regularly advising other university careers services on how to replicate its successful model.

Young entrepreneurs are put through their paces