In the spotlight:

Name: Sara Pates

Location: Sheffield

Occupation: Head of Enterprise at the University of Sheffield, and Director of Enterprise Educators UK

You are an influential individual within the enterprise education space. What does ‘enterprise education’ mean to you, and why do you think it’s important?

For me, enterprise education is about creating a cultural shift in the way our students view the world, their role in it, and their capacity to change things around them. If we want society to grow and mature we need people who are able to see things differently, who aren’t afraid to challenge the norms, and who have the confidence to seek change, not fear it. Enterprising employees are the leaders of change within their organisations and, more than ever, employers are seeking graduates who don’t just have the subject knowledge to do the job, but also have the personal skills and attributes to drive their business forward.

And of course, we shouldn’t forget the direct impact that enterprise education has on inspiring students and graduates to consider startups as a valid graduate destination. So much of the national focus is on universities’ economic impact through research and commercialisation, but the contribution of student and graduate startups to economic vibrancy and job creation far outstrips that in many universities.

How did you first become involved with enterprise education?

By complete accident. I applied for a job in HE enterprise in 2004, not really understanding what it was. But within a few short weeks I was completely hooked. Who wouldn’t want to work with such passionate, creative and committed students and academics?

Founded in 2006, USE (University of Sheffield Enterprise) supports students and graduates in making their entrepreneurial ideas happen. Tell us more about the services on offer.

We’ve changed a lot over the last 11 years, and our offer has changed too.

Our LEARN team work with academics around the university to embed enterprise in the curriculum, so that every student has the opportunity for an enterprise education that is contextualised within their degree programme.

Our CREATE team run events such as Startup Weekend, Social Innovation Labs and Hackathons to get student thinking creatively about how they can solve problems that come from industry, society, research and their own passions.

Our EVOLVE team supports those students and graduates who want to turn their idea into a business with resources and 1:1 coaching.

I think the biggest change in the last 11 years is how we view our support for entrepreneurs. It’s not about us telling them what we can do for them, it’s about understanding what they need from us and our networks to find that scalable, repeatable business model and adapting what we do to support them. But it’s also about us being more selective. With limited resources we have to give our support to those with a genuine commitment to the entrepreneurial journey rather than a whim to explore a business concept. The more committed they are, the more they get from us.

You recently remarked that “supporting student enterprise has become a fundamental part of the student experience”. As a Sheffield graduate yourself, how have you seen enterprise education change over the years, and what should today’s students do to make the most of it?

I graduated in 1995 so I predate enterprise education. It wasn’t even on the radar when I was a student! I think we have moved from a bolt-on model back in the noughties – where the only purpose of enterprise education was to equip students with business startup knowledge – to a much deeper, embedded model which is about the attributes, capabilities and skills of individuals and may not ever explicitly mention business startup. Universities are such a safe place for students to experiment, to learn about themselves, and to meet students from diverse backgrounds. Universities are where students expand their values and perspectives, moving on from those inherited from their parents to develop their own sense of self; but they can only do this by putting themselves out there and getting involved with university life beyond the curriculum. Enterprise education lurks in the most surprising places – who knew the Dance Society would win one of our enterprise awards!

There’s an age-old debate about whether entrepreneurs are born or made. Can you weigh into this?

Some people are born creative and confident enough to put their ideas into action, but entrepreneurs can definitely be made too. Through enterprise education, we can equip students with capabilities that build their confidence and self-efficacy. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone; it’s hard work, long hours, and, in the early stages, brings little financial reward. But for those who are passionate about the idea of being an entrepreneur, the lean approach to startup helps to quickly build their self efficacy.

For students who don’t want to be entrepreneurs, what other benefits does enterprise education provide?

At Sheffield University, we define enterprise education as five capabilities: authentic problem solving, innovation and creativity, evaluating and taking risks, taking action, and true collaboration. These are all capabilities required by entrepreneurs, but they are also required more and more in employment; and students who can evidence that they have taken the opportunity to develop these capabilities, and show where they have applied them, are going to be a much more attractive prospect to future employers.

Where do you hope to see enterprise education in five years’ time?

We need to make sure that enterprise education is seen as a ‘must have’, not a ‘would be nice to have’. I would like to think we will eventually come to a point where we don’t actually talk about enterprise education as a ‘thing’, and that instead it is just an accepted part of the educational experience. Support for student and graduate entrepreneurs needs to gain more credibility in the UK generally. Our entrepreneurs aren’t just ‘playing at it'; it’s not something they are experimenting with without commitment, and they aren’t too young or naïve. These entrepreneurs are disrupting our view of traditional business startup.

What does a typical day look like in the world of Sara Pates?

There is no typical day. And that’s what I like about working in enterprise. There are definitely meetings, though. Lots and lots of meetings…

And finally, Sara, tell us: if you were an animal, what would you be and why?

In the mornings I’m a kinkajou – best known for not liking light, noise or sudden movement. Seriously though, I’ve done some research into this and a wild dog seems to describe me best: energetic, demonstrative and loyal, with a strong sense of social justice. I like to be part of a social team, but prefer not to be in a structured environment. That explains why I love enterprise education so much, then!