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Ross Brand discusses how NCL has supported student entrepreneurship and how this evolved throughout lockdown.

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NCL’s journey into developing student entrepreneurship began in 2018, when we had some additional funding that we decided to use to help the numerous students we were aware of who had sideline businesses. 

This was how Market Day – our support package to help budding entrepreneurs to realise their business goals – was born. We decided to allow students to use the atrium spaces within our campuses to set up stalls to sell products or services – anything from jewellery to haircuts. We wondered if there would be enough appetite to create a sustainable project.

At first, we relied on the campus whiteboards to let students know what stalls would be there and when. We then expanded on that, setting up social media pages to give students a platform to grow their audience. In our first year we had several regular attendees who we helped to set up their stalls, take promotional photos, get their name out there on social media, and attend seminars such as CDN Expo to promote themselves. One of the big successes was our supported learning class, whose shop selling student essentials was opened by our local MSP.

We then became aware of the John Mather Trust, a fund set up to support young enterprise, and were able to get some limited funding from them.  We used this to give students a ‘leg up’, helping them to afford basic essentials that were preventing them from moving forward and growing. 

Our Principal was fully on board from day one. He asked us to set up a focus group with key people from across the college, and tasked us with creating a revised model for the project. We were in the middle of piecing this all together when Covid happened. 

Our response to the lockdown was to transition to an online model, shifting away from giving students money and a physical platform towards providing them with an education on starting a business. We worked with Young Enterprise Scotland (YES) on an informal curriculum which would give students the experience of developing a business model. YES did a series of drop-in workshops on themes like marketing, pricing and social media. If we did manage to secure additional funding, we were able to distribute it to students safe in the knowledge that they had really earned it. 

Our programme drew the attention of North Lanarkshire Council, who were looking to promote a regeneration fund that was available. Together with the council, Business Gateway and YES we came up with the Step up to Start Up competition, which offered rent-free accommodation within brand new business premises for a year. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of participants in the competition, including all three winners, were female. They took over their premises in autumn 2020.

The next incarnation of the project, still at the pilot stage, will kick off in the new academic year. Working with external partners like YES and Elevator, we will provide resources and expertise to students who are serious about developing their business. Feedback so far from the pilot is that the online model works really well. Although it is disappointing not to be able to get onto campus and take advantage of passing trade, students have responded by reinventing themselves as a more digital presence. 

We will be evaluating the pilot project over the summer. Ideally, we would like students to ‘graduate’ through the programme, a bit like an apprenticeship where you learn the fundamental parts of starting a business, from finance to marketing. We hope our ‘graduates’ will keep in touch and can come back and be ambassadors for the project, to speak to new students and take it forward. 

If the project takes off at the rate that we hope it will, it will become an integral part of the college and one of our flagship extra curricular activities. We are really clear that we don’t want students to compromise their academic studies, but if they can time manage their sideline business successfully then there is no reason why they can’t do both. 

I like to think that we are furthering the students’ education by offering them more than what happens within the four walls of a classroom.