By Thomas Ohr, EU-Startups. Interview with Johnny Luk NACUE, CEO.

Our young people, their ideas and their technological innovations are the future. Not just the future of the UK, but of our planet as a whole. Their ideas, knowledge and passion will hopefully lead to a large number of new and innovative businesses creating the jobs of tomorrow. But what are the challenges for young entrepreneurs and what kind of support do they need? We talked to Johnny Luk, who is the CEO of NACUE (National Association of College & University Entrepreneurs). His organization has a footprint across 250 campuses in the UK and the mission to make today’s young generation the most entrepreneurial ever.

Did you notice an increase during the last three years of students wanting to become entrepreneurs?

Ever since the financial crisis, we’ve seen the excitement of launching a business or joining a startup reach new heights, with students and graduates leading the way. Record numbers of young people are starting businesses, with recent research from Santander finding that almost a quarter of students already run their own business or venture, or plan to while at university.

We work with enterprise societies, formed of over 32,000 students in colleges and universities across the country. From this vantage point, we can really sense the change. In fact, 48% of the students in our network own a business, which shows that vast numbers of young people not only want to become entrepreneurs, but are taking important steps to make their dreams a reality.

What are the biggest challenges for students and young graduates starting a company?

There is a lot of support for students and young graduates who are looking to start a company but the access to information, training and networks is becoming increasingly fragmented. A survey we conducted on web entrepreneurship as part of the EU Commission’s MY-WAY project found that young adults, such as students, find themselves overstrained by the lack of clear guidelines and the sheer number of services available. So, it’s not necessarily the case that the support isn’t there, but often aspiring entrepreneurs find it difficult to know where to look when starting out. Another challenge for young entrepreneurs is access to finance and investment. We found that 75% of survey respondents would like to receive financial support and many consider it essential for an enterprise to scale. However, many struggle to access funding and tend to rely on loans from family and friends.

What kind of support is missing in order to help more young adults become web entrepreneurs?

The student entrepreneurs we work with often say that they crave mentoring and networking opportunities. We find that young entrepreneurs recognise the importance of connecting with others to learn and share their experiences but they wish there were more opportunities for this. They also want to benefit from the knowledge and advice of those who have been on the journey before them, giving them an opportunity to talk through their ideas and challenges. We find that experienced entrepreneurs are often happy to give their time to support the next generation, but there needs to be more routes for connecting these groups together. Web entrepreneurs really benefit from these opportunities, so more vehicles for collaboration and greater signposting is needed.

At NACUE we address this demand in various ways. Our events, such as the national Varsity Pitch Competition, has mentoring as a key component prior to pitching for a £10K award; our membership programme NACUE Talent enables students to connect with mentors online, and we encourage the enterprise societies in our network to foster stronger links to their local business communities. We’re also focusing on collaboration at our Student Enterprise Conference in February 2016, bringing hundreds of likeminded people together to develop stronger entrepreneurial ecosystems across Europe.

Budding young web and tech entrepreneurs also feel they lack support in specific business stages. A massive 95% of aspiring entrepreneurs indicated in the MY-WAY survey that it would be helpful if student networks, associations or centres support them in the first steps of becoming an entrepreneur. This shows a high demand from aspiring entrepreneurs to receive support during the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey. At the same time, entrepreneurship support centres need to accommodate for the needs of more established entrepreneurs in the form of tech support and accounting advice.

Could you share some practical advice for students who are considering starting a business? What kind of support offers shouldn’t they miss out on?

Being in education, either in colleges or universities, is the perfect time to start thinking about launching a business and I encourage all students to seize all the fantastic opportunities available to them, particularly joining an enterprise society. The 260 enterprise societies in our network are groups of students who are putting their ideas into action and gaining the confidence, creativity and capability they’ll need to thrive after their studies. Enterprise societies come in all shapes and sizes, some provide funding, business incubator space and pop-up shops for student startups, others run hackathons to create solutions to business problems, bring leading speakers to campuses, and even create policy think-tanks. You can use your society to share ideas, gain new skills and even find co-founders for your ventures.

I also recommend that students who are considering starting a business to contact their universities enterprise department, as there are a wide range of programmes and opportunities to support you. These include free office space, entrepreneurship bursaries and funding competitions. The University of Leeds offer a Year in Enterprise for example, which offers students the chance to take a year out to work on their business. Successful applicants receive business advice, office space and £5,000 living costs allowance. Our member institutions all have amazing opportunities on offer if you know where to look, so it is important that students do their research to avoid missing out.

Most of all, go for it now. The sooner you start your enterprise journey, the less you have to lose. Do it while you still crave learning, when there is no mortgage to pay or a big family to support and take advantage of being in an environment where making mistakes is okay. If you learn these key attributes early – it will set you up for life!

If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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