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The City of Ghent – Supporting Student Entrepreneurship Through Collaboration

Entrepreneurship is a ‘hot topic’ in Europe. Nearly everyone is affected by entrepreneurship activities, through supporting it, benefiting from it, or even more importantly: practicing it. The higher education sector is no exception to this, as we can see in the increasing number of entrepreneurship courses, workshops and events, and it is even more evident through the significant growth in university based entrepreneurship centres. There is a growing focus among higher education institutions towards making both their students as well as their staff more entrepreneurial in their thinking and acting.

Across Europe universities are struggling to make this change and connect with their regional stakeholders in order to embed entrepreneurship within their region. Often acting alone, they do not have the capacity or capabilities to set things in motion. In Belgium, in the city of Ghent, they came up with a unique solution towards this. Here, the three local higher education institutions (Ghent University, Artevelde University College and University College Ghent) combined forces and jointly focused their efforts on constructing a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Their initiative, Student Gentrepreneur, connects disparate regional stakeholders to support entrepreneurship for all students in the city of Ghent. It brings together regional entrepreneurship actors (companies, local and regional government, funding partners etc.) to create a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship.

The alliance offers a broader network, a larger variety of events, coaching, affordable working accommodation and many support and educational activities in comparison to the previous often isolated and institutionally bound offerings. The primary goal of this alliance is to create an ecosystem that fosters entrepreneurship, which is directly benefiting the city, the business partners and the universities.

Through this initiative, students can benefit from an increased selection of entrepreneurial courses, a wider regional network, and access to a variety of resources to support their entrepreneurial activities. This has led to doubling the number of student entrepreneurs over the past 4 years.

When talking numbers, we observe a healthy and continuous development. But there is one further aspect that is of even higher importance for the city: cultural change among the citizens of Ghent. In the Flemish region, pursuing an entrepreneurial venture has historically had a slightly negative connotation. Through the Student Ghentrepreneur initiative this has evolved in the last years and made entrepreneurs hip and people respect entrepreneurs for what they are: innovators.

So what is necessary for this type of initiative to work? Well, all partners need to unconditionally bring in their experience, network and knowledge. This requires a high degree of trust, development of a shared vision as well as aligning interests as a starting point. To sustain the collaboration, staff dedicated to taking the initiative forward needs to be jointly funded by the organisations involved. In addition, several other bodies should provide experience and knowledge to the project such as a steering committee, regional business & knowledge partners, students as promoters, investors and sponsors.

In cooperation with the local government, all partners have decided to extend the scope from an initiative focused on students to an initiative focused on young people in general. This has improved the funding situation whilst students also have the opportunity to further increase their network.

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