| 6 minute read

Democratising entrepreneurship education for all

Elena Galán-Muros
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Join us for a conversation with Yogavelli Nambiar, social change strategist and founder of Niara Advisory for a conversation on social entrepreneurship, inclusion, and higher education. We talk about the nuances in entrepreneurship education, the need for personalised approaches, the challenges women face in entrepreneurship and how to adopt entrepreneurial thinking to avoid shallow solutions.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Madeline Arkins:
Yogavelli, for those who are unfamiliar with your work, how did you find yourself in the social entrepreneurship space? What led you to this work?

Yogavelli Nambiar:
Having grown up in a township in South Africa where everyone like lived in the same way as me, I didn’t probably understand that I was part of the inequality or experiencing it, but I went to India in my mid-twenties and, in my idealistic state, I wanted to go there and sort all the inequalities out.

That is why I started working in the women’s human rights space. There, I found out that the women I was trying to help, who had been trafficked into prostitution, struggled to get access to the economy after that. They would often revert to prostitution or other circumstances where they would be exploited, because they couldn’t get jobs due to the stigma of what they were doing, and because they didn’t have the confidence and the belief that they could handle a job.

So, entrepreneurship became the answer. I didn’t know that it was called that then. It was just something I was helping them do, creating small businesses and helping carve a space for them in society.

Creating their own businesses helped these women find a way to bring value to society while creating economic access for themselves, but the most significant impact that it brought them was self-agency.

I realised that approach of entrepreneurial thinking was something that could be applied in different ways and, as I started researching it, I found out that what I was doing was called social entrepreneurship. Using those fundamental principles of sustainability, innovation, and income diversification, became the steppingstone to applying, learning, and teaching about social entrepreneurship.

From there, I went on then to become an entrepreneur myself: I ran two businesses, I ran a social enterprise, I was the country director for the Goldman Sachs 10.000 Women initiative, etc. Creating entrepreneurship is one of the big joys in the world because it really helps people to think differently.

Madeline Arkins:
As the founding director of the Entrepreneurship Development Academy, entrepreneurship education is something you are particularly well versed. Considering the current state of entrepreneurship education, what is going right and where do you think it could improve?

Yogavelli Nambiar:
It is really important to know that entrepreneurship education is even more critical now than it was in the 80s and 90s, where it was really getting momentum with all the technological advancements and the disruptions that take place.

With acronyms like VUCA, the volatility, the uncertainty, the complexity, the ambiguity of the world; an entrepreneurial lens is critical to every person. You need to be able to look in the midst of chaos at a situation, an environment, a context, and be able to see how I can add value.

What are the problems that exist and how can I create a solution? Because that’s essentially what entrepreneurs do, entrepreneurial thinking is about finding that essence of how you can add value.

That is why we need to ensure as many people as possible are able to learn what are those entrepreneurial competencies and how can they apply them. All this time, we have been fed the story that entrepreneurs are just born like that and we could never be like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. These unicorns are held up as the example, but entrepreneurial thinking is available to all of us. People need to calm down about unicorns. There are many more gazelles and zebras and others out there that need to be nurtured.

If I had to say what is going wrong with entrepreneurial education, it is that focus on wanting to create those specific high impact entrepreneurs, sometimes to the detriment of others who could create great businesses and maybe they’re not valued as much as these unicorns.

Another thing that is not going as well, especially within the few schools that integrate entrepreneurship education, is that it’s looked at as a subject. It’s like maths or physics, and often, like in South Africa, it’s integrated into another subject called “life orientation”.

What is missing is looking at entrepreneurial thinking as a lens on the world. How can you be entrepreneurial while studying engineering? Or medicine? What does it mean to apply entrepreneurial thinking in the public sector? It is something that is universally applicable.

Madeline Arkins:
Is there anything that higher education can do to better support and include others in this entrepreneurship education?

Yogavelli Nambiar:
Absolutely. I created the Entrepreneurship Development Academy was exactly for that reason, to eliminate or at least reduce some of the barriers to business school education for entrepreneurs from underserved and disadvantaged communities.

There are three main barriers that I encountered and focused on resolving:

  1. Affordability: Higher education the fees are exorbitant for many people and often there isn’t public funding for them, so they left out of that system. I reduced this barrier by getting scholarship-based education for these entrepreneurs. We are lucky to have a system in South Africa that encourages business firms to support the development of entrepreneurs and small businesses, so I ensured that we had scholarships for every entrepreneur that wanted to study at this business school.
  2. Geographic location: I wanted to ensure that no matter whether they sat, they would have access. That is why we created hybrid programmes and in-person programmes, and we took them to where people were rather than expecting people to come to us.
  3. Prior education: Usually, marginalised entrepreneurs do not have a high level of education and therefore, are not accepted in HEIs, which further perpetuates that inequality. We totally scrapped the education level requirement, so people who just got into high school were sitting next to people with master’s degrees, and we customised their experience in class.

Ready for more?

Entrepreneurship is one of the fast-growing activities in higher education and will be a critical for any university’s mission in the future. Our Entrepreneurship at Universities Certification Program, hosted by practice-experienced experts and providing best practices, will better equip you to drive and build activity at your university.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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