Risk is now an option

May 12, 2000

Teacher of entrepreneurship Jay Mitra wants to change the UK's mindset. Pat Leon reports.

The Rover car crisis and consecutive interest rate rises must have dampened the spirits of budding entrepreneurs in the West Midlands somewhat. But not those of students at one business school, where recruitment on entrepreneurship courses is going from strength to strength.

The full-time students are mostly from overseas, but what they have identified as important to their and their countries' future wealth and well-being could easily apply to British students, especially those inspired by the plethora of dot-com start-ups.

But can entrepreneurship be taught? Jay Mitra, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Central England Business School, thinks that teaching is not the problem - it is just a question of changing the British mindset.

"Not long ago the idea of becoming entrepreneurs was not a serious contender for the hearts and minds of most graduates. A stable job was better than a risk-ridden alternative. Now, because of the changing nature of work, the prospect of starting up your own business is proving to be a career option for many young people."

Mitra says that the UK will have to move fast to catch up with other countries in seeing business education as not just marketing, finance, operations and human resources. "An American geneticist and entrepreneur I met last year expressed surprise when he heard I taught entrepreneurship in the UK."

The US has had an impressive roll call of entrepreneurship education for years. Universities from New England to California have offered courses at all levels. Mitra says: "It reflects a mindset that encourages innovation. There may be no direct correlation between entrepreneurship programmes and research spin-offs from students and staff, but their co-existence creates a climate for practical endeavour and achievement."

Mitra himself is very much an entrepreneurial spirit. Raised in Calcutta, his academic passion was literature and poetry. But family business beckoned and he pursued a career in accountancy before arriving in Stirling, Scotland to study for an MSc.

He became an adviser, working on the regeneration of small businesses in Lambeth for eight years, before moving to the University of North London innovation and economic development unit. Meanwhile, he published, worked as a trainer and set up a print business and a consultancy. Two years ago he took up a chair at the University of Central England, where he has developed an MBA in entrepreneurship.

Mitra says universities are engaged in entrepreneurial activity all the time - trying to generate income from teaching, research, consultancy, short courses and intellectual property. Yet not everyone likes it, he says.

"The traditional myopia of elite education continues to blur reality. Centuries of academic leadership has stretched vocationally to the civil service, but it has not yielded entrepreneurial vision, leadership or competitive advantage in industry."

He says even the government is seduced by this elitism. "Labour is keen to create a know-ledge-driven economy, but it is still focusing on the likes of Cambridge, Edinburgh and Imperial in initiatives such as its well-meaning Science and Enterprise Challenge programme or the promotion of the biotechnology cluster. It assumes that there is a linear logic attached to the idea that excellence in research would lead to excellence in entrepreneurial activity."

Here we get to Mitra's main gripe: that the innovative and risk-taking work nurtured by the new universities with industry is being ignored. He puts this down to a lack of respect for industry-linked programmes, which puts new universities at a disadvantage. Yet their traditional links with business mean they are well-placed to pick up signals from the market well before the traditional universities, which are research-focused. Microsoft's link with Cambridge is well known, but who has talked about Cisco's relationship with the University of Central England, he asks.

There is a reluctance to promote, support and talk about education and research that can help small and medium-sized British businesses, he complains. Bias and ignorance contributes to a dullness in debate and the loss of a wealth of knowledge. This raises the question about the nature and scope of entrepreneurship education, says Mitra.

"Entrepreneurship touches on issues such as lifelong learning, what motivates individuals and collectives to succeed and to improve social and economic wellbeing. It is about developing the intellectual capability, skills and competencies to manage risk, innovate constantly and infuse new values in society."

With the prospect of a Rover shutdown sending shockwaves through the small and medium-sized business community in the West Midlands, the value of studying what makes and breaks an entrepreneur cannot be underestimated.

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