Birkbeck means business

Entrepreneurs at Birkbeck are going from strength to strength thanks to an expanding package of support through the School of Business, Economics and Informatics and Birkbeck Careers.

When it was time to pursue her long-standing dream of starting her own business, Fiona Button knew that Birkbeck would give her the scientific knowledge and the business skills to make it a reality.

“I did the Master’s degree because I wanted a solid, academic, evidence-based approach to underpin my business. The opportunity to develop my skills through doing a dissertation — I’m researching children’s spelling strategies — will be invaluable. I also wanted to tap into the institutional support I’d heard Birkbeck offers entrepreneurs,” says Fiona.

Fiona Button (Image copyright Charlotte Knee Photography)

After her first degree, Fiona worked in marketing for several years, starting out on the prestigious WPP Fellowship which gave her experience working across a range of digital and advertising agencies. Fiona specialised in copywriting, which led to teaching business writing, and then to teaching literacy to adults. It was from here that the idea for her business, developing better teaching resources for literacy, was born.

Fiona, who lives in West London, is currently developing the first product for her business, Button Learning. It is a method that helps you remember difficult spellings using colourful illustrations, which is rooted in her professional experience as well as what she is learning through the Master’s programme.


Comprehensive introduction

Fiona is one of a growing number of students who are planning, or already running, their own businesses when they come to study at Birkbeck. In response, the college has developed Enterprise Pathways, a programme of comprehensive support for aspiring entrepreneurs at every stage of their business journey.

An illustrated card, produced by Button Learning

A non-credit-bearing enterprise elective module for students interested or already running their own business was also run for the first time this year, with over 30 students attended the series of nine sessions giving an introduction on how to build an entrepreneurial mindset in summer 2015.

“The focus of our activities include developing business, finance and marketing plans, team building, idea generation and creating an enterprising mind-set,” says Rose Devaney, Business Engagement and Impact Manager at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck. “We have cohorts who are just setting out on their entrepreneurial journey, alongside those who have established businesses and are looking to accelerate. More recently, we have developed the programme to include bootcamps, 1–1 coaching support and a week of events to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week.”


Tailored advice and support

Tomasz Smyk, 35, is another of those who have benefitted from the programme, having started his business Get a Free Quotation Ltd — designed to make it easier for people working in the construction sector to source quotes for building work — while studying a part-time MSc in International Management at Birkbeck.

“I attended an enterprise boot camp organised by Birkbeck which enabled me to start my business,” says Tomasz. “The guys leading the bootcamp were young and enthusiastic and what they said about starting a business was inspirational. They divided the whole process of starting a business into a step-by-step process and I have taken many of their ideas on board when starting my own journey.”

Tomasz Smyk

“Thanks to Birkbeck I was introduced to a mentor — a finance manager at PWC. She helped me set out clear goals for getting my business off the ground and helped me with my first pitch to venture capital investors — she helped me prepare for the presentation and offered superb advice on getting the financial aspects just right.”

It was a few months into studying at Birkbeck when Fiona Button made contact with the Business Engagement team to access the support Birkbeck offers to students keen to start their own enterprises.

“I’ve had great support at Birkbeck for Button Learning,” says Fiona. “For example, given that the products are very visual, I had lots of questions about intellectual property. My mentor at Birkbeck immediately put me in touch with an IP specialist. Even with all the support I’ve had, I still feel there’s a lot more there I haven’t used yet.”


Aiming higher

This year also marked the first time that Birkbeck’s Business Engagement team had a finalist in the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards. Fiona was chosen on the strength of her business plan and achieved being shortlisted in the final ten, out of entries submitted by more than one hundred other institutions. Through a networking event held on campus, she met a fellow student who is a software developer, and together they are developing a prototype app.

Fiona is now based in Kensington Creates, a business incubator attached to the Kensington Aldridge Academy, which specialises in enterprise. “Starting this business brings together everything I’ve ever done — teaching, neuroscience, design, and literacy,” she says. “So this feels like a completely natural journey for me.”

Listen to entrepreneurial student, Fiona Button, speak about her business (interview is at 11:31)
More information about Fiona’s business can be found at www.buttonlearning.com and Tomasz’s at www.getafreequotation.co.uk.
For more information on the Enterprise Pathways programme at Birkbeck or to see how you could get involved, contact Gary Brannan on g.brannan@bbk.ac.uk or 0207 631 6684.

This article first appeared in the 2015 edition of BBK Magazine — Birkbeck, University of London’s annual review

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