Young entrepreneurs – who says you have to be a student?
What do Steve Jobs, Phillip Green and Richard Branson all have in common? Aside from being at the helm of global business empires, none of these business magnates attended university, and they are not alone.
In recent years, much has been made of the rising cost of tuition fees and the subsequent debt facing graduates upon leaving university. Add to this the race to find employment, with unpaid work placements being as difficult to secure as paid positions, and university seems less and less appealing. In light of this, we went to meet some young entrepreneurs who decided not to go to uni and have never looked back:
Last weekend social entrepreneurs Bejay Mulenga and Liam Tootill took over the Old Truman Brewery space in East London with a public market place of a different kind, the Supa Academy supermarket. The market, featuring huge brands such as River Island, MTV, Syco and Hobs, alongside smaller independent brands was set up, operated, marketed and documented by paid market associates – young people under the age of 25 in need of experience to add to their CVs.
Enjoyment of Enterprise
“Bejay and I met a couple of years ago at a Google-arranged hackathon,” Liam shared when we asked about how the event came together. “Around the time there were statistics in the media about a million young people who were unemployed or not in education (also known as NEETs) and we were trying to create solutions for that. Supa Academy came out of us wanting to build a brand that would celebrate our own enjoyment of enterprise, brought our skillsets together and instil passion into a whole future generation of entrepreneurs by giving them an influential learning experience”.
Bejay’s background fuses social enterprise with education. At 20, he’s already founded Supa Tuck, an enterprise which not only sells confectionary and food in schools, but goes one step further, by also teaching young entrepreneurs to run and manage their own businesses. To date, the venture has reached over 5,000 young people, which led to a mention in Lord Young’s ‘Enterprise for All’ report and conference invites by the Prime Minister. Prior to setting up the Supa Tuck enterprise, Bejay honed his skills by interning at Bauer Media, volunteering as a trainee journalist and creative, whilst also working as a consultant for huge brands such as Nike and Google.
Liam’s story to date is no less impressive, although he chuckles at his early experiences in the workplace. “As a sixteen year old, I was working a lot of different jobs. I worked as a deli operator, a check out assistant, a support chef, and I worked in a music shop, but I didn’t really last in these jobs, I used to get fired regularly. They were all part time, I was getting thrown the worst tasks and always felt like I could have been given a bit more responsibility. It got me thinking that a nine-to-five in an office would be exactly the same, and I’d be working under someone else’s watch.”
Liam did eventually go to uni but it was his entrepreneurial activities during and after studying that has shaped his career. “I tried my hardest to work out an avenue for myself. It was very trial and error but I was very conscious that I didn’t want to come out and just join a random business.”
Those trial and error avenues led to one of the biggest digital platforms to emerge in recent years, SBTV. Liam studied music, and his interest in the interplay between music and culture led to him meeting and eventually partnering with Jamal Edwards, the channel’s founder. But it was his drive and desire to work for himself that grew the business (as a production company) – the YouTube channel grew from 5 to over 250 million views, with over 500,000 subscribers. Alongside Supa Academy, he’s still a director for the platform, as well as a consultant for Syco Entertainment and a journalist.
Why does this matter now?
Sadly those figures that Liam cited in reference to previous years haven’t changed – recent statistics from the government show that 13.5% of young people are currently not in employment or training. Unfortunately the situation gets more complicated. Even if young people do go to university, there is no guarantee that they will be equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the work place, with another study finding that graduate recruiters believe that there is a skills gap in students emerging from university.
So what we have is a market where on one hand, young people are emerging from university without the skills they need, and on the other are working in environments that don’t grant them opportunities early enough because of a lack of infrastructure, or simple age bias.
Setting up solutions
Liam explained, “Part of the reason we do what we do is that we want to give young people more responsibility earlier. The way traditional business works is that you work hard until you are 40 or 50, you get given your pay rises and you get to be a manager – but people are in the peak of their lives in their twenties, so why don’t we try to rewrite the rule book and give young people access and opportunities that they are at the centre of?”
Bejay concurs. For him the Supa Academy is “about inspiring other kids and doing something that’s both challenging and fun.” Looking ahead, he says that “the ambition is to keep equipping young people with the skills to get to the next level, by doing more events like this around the country and growing our business”. Aside from actually running the pop-ups for different brands, the market associates all attended workshops run by industry experts from the likes of Barclays and River Island where they could network with industry figures and learn about various aspects of business.
Reflecting on the weekend, Liam shared, “We said that we were here to instil curiosity, build confidence, develop skills, and create an experience that had a practical base. Part of the joy of business is transactional exchange – we wanted the young people to really feel that.”
Judging by the feedback of young people on the SupaMarket floor, it has worked:
“This has been really great for my confidence, but also for breaking the experience/inexperience loop – now I have something to put on my CV”, 21 year-old market associate Jordan told us. Likewise,
Peter, also 21, shared, “I went straight into work, but would like to have my own business. It’s been really inspiring – I learnt the difference between equity and debt, and where to go for funding, things you don’t learn in school.”
If you’re inspired by Bejay and Liam’s story then here are three things you can do:
- Find a mentor in an industry you would like to work or create a venture in.
- Gain experience.
- Get support from one of the many initiatives that exist that can help you with funding, and understanding different aspects of business. Try one of the companies we have listed below.