Hooked on bringing out bright ideas in people

November 18, 2005

The M40 between Oxford and London is full of expensive cars these days.

"It's the university millionaires," observes my taxi driver, as a sleek BMW cuts in front of us. "Bleeding everywhere."

This may be one view of academic enterprise, but take the Wheatley exit on the M40 and head for Oxford Brookes University's Business School and a rather different perspective emerges - in the form of Roger Mumby-Croft.

Mr Mumby-Croft, director of the Enterprise Centre at the Business School, has a very new university take on enterprise.

"It's the new way out of poverty," he said. "Education is vital - but enterprise is increasingly important."

It is a philosophy that has led to some extraordinary developments in recent years at the university involving the Prime Minister, a well-known women's magazine and a company specialising in lingerie for smaller-breasted women - called Know Knockers.

And it's a philosophy that has informed much of Mr Mumby-Croft's own life.

He is a grammar-school boy from Grimsby who started out in the fisheries.

"In the 1970s, Grimsby was a booming fishing port, a hugely entrepreneurial society with about 70 small entrepreneurs operating in one small town," he says.

It was a world he was fully immersed in. His father was a fish merchant, his father-in-law a fisherman and in 1980 he founded a company called Seaking Fish Products. But 1990 brought disaster. "The recession wiped me out," he said. "I lost £1 million."

It was, however, the making of him as an academic. In his mid-40s he enrolled at Ruskin College, Oxford University and a year later won the J.

T. H. Cole History Prize. He did an MA in business history at Warwick University and then looked for a lecturing job. "I had about 15 different jobs but was struggling to get a permanent position - universities wanted young academics they could pump for research," he said.

But a chance meeting with Tim Cracknell, a senior lecturer in the business school at Oxford Brookes, changed that. "Tim was one of the few academics at the time to be lecturing in enterprise. I started teaching at the university and was soon full time," he said.

He set up the Enterprise Centre in 1999, with a remit to develop courses, carry out consultancies, undertake applied research and generally liaise with small businesses. The centre is self-funding, pumping money into the Business School when it makes a surplus.

"None of this would have happened without the vision of Simon Williams, dean of the school," said Mr Mumby-Croft. "He has allowed me to develop a range of unusual initiatives here."

And this is where the Prime Minister makes an appearance. Last year, the Enterprise Centre, along with Take a Break magazine and Business Boffins Ltd, a consultancy for small businesses, set up a competition.

The aim of "Tycoon Idol" was to encourage readers of the magazine - in essence disadvantaged women - to send in their business ideas. The winners would be offered support and advice in realising their idea and could gain business qualifications from the university.

"We were expecting about 50 entries at most," Mr Mumby-Croft said. "Instead the first postbag brought more than 700. We knew that we'd tapped a need, or appetite, for enterprise and self-employment." The competition will be run again next spring.

Take a Break is read by 4 million women every week and politicians were queuing up to get coverage in the magazine at the time of the last election. Despite the pressure, the magazine stayed resolutely free of politics.

Last year, however, Tony Blair was allowed to feature - handing out the awards for the enterprise competition.

"It was an extraordinary event," Mr Mumby-Croft said. "The winners were a firm called Know Knockers, a web-based company offering lingerie for the smaller woman."

The business school is Oxford Brookes' largest school and is home to two national subject centres and the recent recipient of a £4.5 million grant to set up a Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning for business.

"What excites me about the work here is that I can use it to help disadvantaged people," Mr Mumby-Croft said. "Enterprise is not all about spin-offs and millionaires, it is also about opportunity."

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Ruskin College, Oxford

MY FIRST JOB WAS

in the kitchen of a seaside cafe at Cleethorpes

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS

staying focused

WHAT I HATE MOST

is arrogance

IN TEN YEARS I

want to be alive

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

is life

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