By Pippa Heggie, serial career changer and start-up employee
So, what was I, a former Emmanuel College Geography student, who’d then majored in Marketing at HEC in France, worked as a PR Consultant before converting to law at BPP Law School, qualified as an Environmental Solicitor and most recently, after a career break to bring up a young family, worked in marketing for a couple of start-ups, doing at EnterpriseWISE (now EnterpriseWOMEN) earlier this year?
Created by Dr Shima Barakat, former Head of Entrepreneurial Learning Programmes and Engagement at the CJBS’s Entrepreneurship Centre, EnterpriseWISE is targeted at graduates, academics, researchers and early career women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). The course aims to build confidence, skills and networks to enhance their careers, increase the impact of their research and benefit the commercialisation of innovation.
Clearly, I don’t fit the target audience. However, earlier this summer I was given the opportunity to attend and participate in the course held over two weekends at Lucy Cavendish College. What I learnt over the four full and stimulating days fills a note book, but these are just some of my highlights:
- STEM practitioners have the perfect mentality for entrepreneurship. Imagine a researcher saying: “Well that experiment didn’t work, I’m going to give up and do something else instead.” It just wouldn’t happen, they review what went wrong, assess how it could be approached differently and try again. This is exactly the mind-set required by entrepreneurs. They need to be resilient, to learn from failures, but keep focused on the substantial rewards and satisfaction of seeing their dreams fulfilled. Equally important to realise that is not just the founder who needs to have an entrepreneurial outlook, the co-founders and early stage employees also have to enjoy the journey to make it work.
- The delegates, about 50 women, currently based in and around Cambridge, represented about 40 nationalities. This was no ordinary group of women, they were exceptional, not just academically, but in their outlook on life, willing to take risks, move countries, find opportunities and follow their personal dreams. This cohort certainly had all the self-reliance and determination to take the plunge into entrepreneurialism. What’s more, by participating in the programme they were meeting like-minded individuals to add to their network. As it is said “it isn’t always what you know but who you know” that makes the difference. Certainly, through EnterpriseWISE delegates have the opportunity to expand their personal networks, find potential partners, mentors, funders, whether directly or indirectly through accessing someone else’s contacts, now or at some point in the future.
- Working in the same small break-out groups throughout the course gave us the chance to get to know one another’s backgrounds, motivations and aspirations. These sessions were a great space for delegates to learn from one another as well as bounce ideas around. In the first one we drew a personal coat of arms, the quarters representing what makes us happy; what we think we’re good at; our core values and a personal Motto. It provided the basis for the subsequent talk about self-efficacy – truly knowing yourself enables you to identify what motivates you, not only how you see yourself but how others may perceive you all helping you to bounce back in the event of set-backs. Interestingly, my motto: “If you don’t ask you don’t get” emerged as a key theme of the course. Bottom line is there’s absolutely no harm in asking for anything, people can always say no but they might equally say yes!
- The exercises were well organised to enable participants to put the theory into practice, from soft skills such as active listening and networking to more business orientated sessions on negotiation and pitching. While I’ve participated in several similar exercises, I always learn something. On this occasion discussions in the negotiation training turned to what equity to give away to investors and co-founders. For founders, its key to remember that it’s better to have 70% of something than 100% of nothing. Don’t let an ideal co-founder or employee walk away just because of equity, a start-up is hard work for all participants and if you want their buy-in and commitment you need to incentivise them appropriately.
- And finally – I’m far from unique in having followed a non-linear career path. A common theme amongst the speakers was the fact you can’t always plan the future, you need to grab opportunities as they arise. Of course, there’s an element of luck, being in the right place at the right time, but equally you need to recognise opportunities when they come along and have the self-confidence to seize them. However, while being flexible is important to enable a business venture or role to evolve, it is also necessary to recognise when things aren’t going to plan, can’t be turned around, and it is time to walk away from something.
It was an honour to have been invited to attend, to meet the delegates, facilitators (who are alumni of the programme) and speakers, and to have the opportunity to experience Shima’s fabulous energy, enthusiasm and encouragement! Thanks to the presentations from a plethora of amazingly diverse and inspiring women, break out groups, exercises, networking practice and yes even a ChaChaCha session to not only raise the group’s energy but introduce the importance of self-awareness and posture when pitching, I came away buzzing! The energy throughout the course, the support the delegates gave one another and the genuine interest everyone had in each other’s ideas, was infectious. Not only did Shima encourage me to give an off-the-cuff after dinner speech, but many delegates said how much they’d valued my input into discussions throughout the course. So maybe, despite not being an entrepreneur (yet), my presence was as valuable to others as well as it was to myself.
EnterpriseWISE is recruiting for the next programme. If you’re a woman in STEM whether working in research or are a graduate employee in SMEs or established, large tech and biotech companies, do apply to attend, you won’t regret spending a couple of weekends in the company of such inspiring women and building your own network.