It’s fair to say that Leeds MbCHB graduate Jenna Weets has redefined what it means to be a medic. What started as a simple hobby in her third year studies has developed in to a flourishing online business, with her Minimalist Me jewellery designs accumulating almost 1,000 5 star reviews. She is also the first ever medical student to graduate with the MbCHB with Enterprise title under her belt. In this interview Jenna talks about her year in enterprise, how she was able to balance growing her business alongside her medical studies, and her plans for the future.
H: Tell me about your Enterprise journey — how did it all start?
J: I started during my third year, but at that point I wasn’t really interested in business — it started out as just making gifts for friends and family. When I started to get more requests for jewellery pieces I decided to open a shop on Etsy because I’d ordered products from there before. I thought I’d give the link to friends and family, they’d be able to see all the pictures of my products, and they could place their order there, rather than emailing me. I assumed it would only be my friends and family that would be interested, but then I started to get orders from different places across the world. It really started to pick up during my intercalation year — I took a year out to study primary care.
H: How did you learn to cope with the increasing demand for your jewellery?
J: Luckily, my products are very simple, which is really good. From getting an order, to making it, to printing off labels and making the packages … I could probably make an order from start to finish within 10–15 minutes. Things started to get a lot busier after one of my products got featured on BuzzFeed, which was completely out of the blue. That was really the catalyst that got the ball rolling — I started to get more orders and more positive reviews.
H: I think the last time I checked there were over 900 positive reviews?
J: It’s nearly 1000 5 star reviews now. That really gave the business some momentum. This was around November of fourth year.
H: Did you feel overwhelmed with the amount of orders coming in?
J: Definitely! I was staying up until 2 or 3am some mornings just trying to keep up with the orders. It got to a point where I thought ‘I can’t keep doing this’, and so I googled ‘careers advice at Leeds university’, because I really didn’t know what to do. I wanted to know what advice they could offer me — being medics we’re really not often integrated with the rest of the university. I had no idea that half of these opportunities existed. I went to a careers meeting on Cromer Terrace and explained my situation. They asked me if I’d heard of a ‘Year in Enterprise’, which I hadn’t. I wasn’t sure if I was eligible, because by this point I was in my fifth year of university, and the Year in Enterprise is primarily aimed at second years wanting to take a year out before going in to their final year. I sent some emails to the people that make the course applications explaining my position, and they said I needed permission from the medical school. That was when I was put in touch with Richard Fuller.
H: What was his advice?
J: He was absolutely brilliant, and so supportive. He said he thought it would be a great thing, and that even if the business didn’t turn out the way I had envisaged it, I would still develop an incredible set of skills over the year that would be relevant and transferrable to a future career in the NHS. So, I went ahead and applied.
H: What was the application process like?
J: I didn’t realise how serious it was going to be! We were required to submit an application saying what our business idea was, whether we already started our business or was it just a concept, what course we did and so on. If we were eligible to apply we had to write a full business plan. I’d never written one before, and I wasn’t too sure where to start. I ended up ordering books off Amazon, and using resources from the Princes Trust — the business plan templates for example, to see what a business plan should include. The Trust is really good at supporting young people starting their business. I ended up spending the whole of the Easter holidays writing the plan up — it came up to 27 pages! I was shortlisted for a panel presentation Dragons-den style. I had five minutes to go in and present my idea.
H: Who was on the panel?
J: There were some people from SPARK, some scholarship donors, and some Leeds based business owners. It was a really positive experience — scary but definitely good. Then they offered me a place — I was so excited.
H: Could you tell me a little bit about SPARK?
J: They’re people from the university who help look after small businesses. They were an absolute god send. They had so many great resources, and great networks that they’d built up over the years to provide us with the best contacts. You could go to them with any problem and they’d say ‘we can put you in touch with so-and-so to help you’. They provided me with a free accountant to help me submit tax returns, and help me manage my finances. It was just really brilliant, and I’m so grateful for all the support that SPARK was able to provide.
H: What does a place on the ‘Year in Enterprise’ look like?
J: A year in enterprise is an opportunity for you to take a year out of academic studies to set up your own business. For me this was between my fourth and my fifth year.
H: So like a second intercalation?
J: Yeah, kind of. There were four people in my year — myself included. They all had concept ideas, or had run small pilots. I was the most established business there. It was an amazing year — they provide you with funding to cover your living costs because you’re no longer eligible for student finance. I was given £5,000, and I was also hoping to get a little bit from the business too. The funding really helps to take off some of the pressure — just in case you don’t get any money coming in at all. During the year I also applied for an enterprise scholarship. There are 17 scholarships for 35,000 students across campus. I got one of those — another £3,000 to put towards the business.
H: What kinds of things did you do during the year?
J: We attended seminars and lectures and a business boot camp which was really great. Myself and the other scholars went to Weetwood Hall hotel for a two-day event. We were given masterclasses on different topics, such as marketing, finance, the legal aspects of running a business. There were also networking events where we got to meet alumni and lecturers from the business school and other courses. There was also a three course dinner which was lovely. A lot of the sessions were interactive — they taught us how to make a pitch for our business, and we had a pitch competition.
H: What was the key things that you took away from that boot camp?
J: I think one of the most important things was that I realised that I wasn’t alone at running my own business whilst at university. It really inspired me to work even harder on my business, because I could see all the amazing things that the other students were doing.
H: Did you have a specific mentor to help you work on your business?
J: We were provided with a mentor — my mentor was actually someone from the panel that I’d delivered the original presentation to. He became a port of call for me, someone for me to run ideas by and give me advice when I was struggling. It was really useful to have that support. He gave me a lot of ideas on how to progress the business further — he was honestly a real fountain of knowledge.
H: What was the most useful thing you took away from your mentoring experience?
J: Having someone with such great business acumen and experience believe in your business definitely helped boost my confidence, and pushed me to try new things. For example, I’d never taken my products in to shops or any retail outlets — he did that for me. He took my products to shops that he’d seen similar items in and ask for feedback, which was really good, because I really didn’t have the confidence to do that.
H: How much input did you get from your mentor? Was it a very independent year?
J: Definitely. The only contact I got was when I initiated it. You have to be very self-motivated, and that’s definitely something that I found hard at the beginning. With medicine you’re used to having very structured days, whereas with running your own business, it’s all on you. It didn’t really sink in until we all came back after the summer holidays and all my housemates were going in to fifth year. The first morning they all left to go to lectures, it was just me in the house, and I genuinely didn’t know what to do with myself (laughs). But I realised that planning my own days, creating my own schedule and being in control of my own income was really important to me. It made it quite difficult to go back in to fifth year!
H: That was my next question! What was it like going from making your own rules to re-entering fifth year and having to go back to a very regimented schedule?
J: Going back was really hard. I was going back in to a brand new year group, I didn’t know anyone. I had to join a new placement group and start going back to placement again. You do eventually get back in to it. At this point I started to think more about foundation training — I wanted to see if there were any options that would allow me to continue running my business alongside practicing medicine, because I didn’t want to have to give up everything that I’d built. I didn’t think that they’d let me work part time, but it’s something that Higher Education England is becoming increasingly more receptive to, and accepting of. I applied to go part time and was given a 60% rota, so I work 3 days a week.
H: How is that going to affect progression later on? Is it going to take you longer to complete your foundation training?
J: Usually foundation training is two years. If I do it on a 60% rota, it’ll take me 3 years and 4 months. It gives me two days each week to dedicate to my business.
H: When you were in university how did you manage to balance your time between studying and running your business?
J: I really had to be very strict with myself, because demand isn’t always consistent. I have times in the year where my product’s selling a lot more — for example, when it comes up to Christmas, sales can increase by up to 400%. I have to be really self-disciplined and organised my time. My friends and family were a huge support. My housemates were really amazing, I knew that if I had to be out of the house, I could leave a little note to my friends saying ‘Can you drop off these 10 orders to the post office by 3pm.’ It was really helpful.
H: what tips do you have for people wanting to balance their medical studies with other side projects?
J: I guess you need to have an awareness of what you’re capable of, and setting yourself achievable goals. The main advice I’d give is that you need to develop yourself so that you do become motivated and dedicated. Be flexible with your time and the way you think, and be very structured where you can.
H: What were your coping mechanisms for when you were going through challenges with your business?
J: I feel like one of the biggest challenges was learning how to cope with working on your own. At times it did feel quite isolating so you definitely need something to help get you out of the house. I started going to the gym and going boxing once a week with a personal trainer. You also build a bit of a different circle — I developed a much closer relationship with the other Enterprise scholars — they knew exactly how I was feeling because they were going through it too. Because medicine can be quite intense you end up being in a bit of a medic bubble, so I never really experienced meeting other students. You get to learn different things.
H: Speaking a little more generally, are there any networking tips you’d give?
J: There are so many sites and groups that you can become a part of. There are a lot of free seminars listed on Eventbrite. Developing the courage to go to them really gets you out of your comfort zone, which is so important, and eventually it just becomes second nature. You build up your contacts so quickly, and it’s amazing how many people remember you. SPARK are also great with networking; they have so many events throughout the year. I got to speak at a couple of them, actually. I spoke at the International Educators Enterprise Conference in Leeds, since then, one of the lecturers I met there has asked me to deliver a lecture to his students.
H: What advice would you give to other medical students wanting to start their own enterprise journey?
J: As a student it’s the best time to start — you have such support around you, once you leave the university bubble it becomes so much harder. Being students we have access to such amazing support on campus, and even after you graduate they welcome you back, and still provide you with all that information. Definitely get in touch with SPARK — they are an absolute fountain of knowledge, it’s free advice and they know so many people. Also look online for free resources, and try to write a business plan for your idea, so you can get a clear structure on where you want to go, what you want the structure of your business to have.
H: That’s brilliant. Any final pieces of advice?
J: Just go for it! Once you’re on the medicine train, it can be really hard to jump off. You go from education, to foundation training, to speciality training all the way up to consultancy. If not now, when?
Interview by Hawwa Iqbal, Year 3 MBChB