Episode #3 - Katie Martin

How to shape innovative university students

Nic sits down with Katie Martin to talk about how The University of Bristol supports students to launch their own companies and chase their dream career in business. They discuss why students want to leave university to work in SMEs to enrich their skills and align their values with their first job. 

Katie explains how The Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the university allows students to take a multi-disciplinary approach to their studies, as well as the New Enterprise Competition. She explains how the university tries to remove the tech-bais and create an inclusive scheme for students to start their businesses.

Both Nic and Katie are from different countries outside of the UK – they discuss the differences in global universities and how the UK is providing extra services to students. 

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Read the transcript

– Hi Katie.

– Hello.

– Thanks a lot for joining me today. So, can you present yourself to the audience, you and your role at Bristol Uni.

– Sure, yeah. So, I am Katy Martin. I am a Student Enterprise and SME Development Manager, and we sit within the career service at the University of Bristol.

– So what does your, what do you do as a job on a day-to-day?

– Mm-hmm, every day is different, which is why I like it. So, our team is essentially made up of the student enterprise side. So in the student enterprise side, we help support students who are trying to build their entrepreneurial skillsets which are applicable whatever path they choose for themselves. So creative problem solving skills, communication skills, teamworking skills that can translate into employability skills if you will. But then we also support student entrepreneurs, so those who are looking to take their ideas forward. And we do that through a whole range of workshops, competitions, events, basically a wide mix of things to help support and give that flavor for students.

– And all that is happening in Bristol Uni, or do you have external space that you go to?

– Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, a lot of our support relies on having people from outside of the university come in. So people such as yourselves who are doing really interesting things, or have started businesses, sort of coming in and sharing their experiences and their stories or providing mentorship to help students develop their ideas. We have people that come in and deliver workshops. Yeah, just really a whole range of things. We also do run a networking event at The Engine Shed in partnership with UWE, the University of the West of England, that’s called Start-up Drinks. So we run that once a month but it’s on the academic calender so there are about five or six times a year. So pretty much from October to April. Generally speaking, we run our once-a-month networking event here. So it’s kind of trying to practice what we preach and telling students to get out there, build their networks, share their ideas. So we’ve been partnering with them for a few years on that.

– Okay. So, basically, your whole department sits on three pillars, helping the students that are potentially looking for a job as soon as they get out of university, or maybe while they are at university, helping companies like us find the right talents. And helping the students that have these entrepreneurial spirits to launch their company and go off?

– Yes.

– Do you specialize in one of those three pillars? Or do you do just the three at a time?

– No, we do all of them.

– Yeah, so on the SME side of our team we very much are trying to help students understand the opportunities that exist with smaller businesses. So, as you can imagine, bigger businesses have budgets, they have teams, they have a real targeted effort of coming onto campus, being present, whereas smaller employers just don’t operate in that same fashion. So, yeah, we do a lot to help build the awareness amongst students, but then also to help businesses understand how they can come in and engage with the university and students and to help build capacity within their businesses and then to hopefully hire the next generation of innovative thinkers working in small businesses. So we run an internship program, for example. We run over 200 a year and they’re specific for SMEs. And we get quite a lot of them that are start-ups as well ’cause students are increasingly interested in working for start-ups, whether or not they want to start their own. So we provide quite a bit of funding to help support that. There is a small fee for SMEs to be able to engage in that but it’s a really good way to help marry those two sides up and we do see a high percentage of students that are offered further employment. Further internship experiences.

– And when you say students are interested to engage with start-ups, they’re looking, for their next job to go to a start up.

– Mm-hmm.

– Why do you think that is? Is it because start-up looks more exciting ’cause in the picture they may have exciting things in their offices? Or is it because the work is typically more rewarding? Or is it because they’re looking for that small team? What is it that makes start-up interesting for students?

– I think it’s all of the above really. So I think some because maybe they’re curious and think that they might want to start their own business at some point. So getting exposure to the inner workings of a small business or a start-up is a really good way to learn about that environment and what that means, what personally and yeah, so it’s a nice way to learn about start-up. I do think, yeah, increasingly students are looking for something that gives them maybe more value or is more aligned to their personal values. Yeah, I think a university that has, I think it’s over 27,000 students, I think you’re gonna have all of those categories of why people are trying to pursue something. Increasingly as well, just our engagement with SMEs, we’re trying to, and we’ve tried this a couple this year where we’re trying to have businesses set real challenges that they’re experiencing and come up to campus and we get groups of students to help solve those problems. And that is a means to kind of bring together both sides of the teams to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets. And then that engagement with the business community. And instead of being sort of hypothetical scenarios it is real world scenarios that they’re working on.

– And in term of, obviously I guess that tech is well looked after, and you probably have a lot of tech students that are looking to be matched up and a lot of tech start-ups are looking for tech talent. And outside of tech, is there any other particular curriculum that is quite looked after or quite seek for? Is there one or two areas of studies that kind of shine?

– That’s a really interesting question. So the university has much more technical programs. But also I think recent in the past, I think maybe four years old now, sorry for misrepresenting, but we have something called the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship which is a combined degree program that was quite revolutionary. And I think a couple of other universities have adopted similar models since. But it is a sort of with-innovation program. So you could be studying Anthropology which is in the faculty of arts with innovation. You could do Computer Science with innovation and they very much bring in design thinking, principles and just as sort of different approach to studying subjects, specific knowledge. So it kind of, I guess makes students quite adaptable and understand what it would mean to work in a wide array of disciplines or bringing also together the multidisciplinary approach, which doesn’t really exist in the traditional setting a university. So typically you’d be with engineering students, but through that you’re with a whole range of art, social science, more science-based tech subjects.

– So I recognize that it’s not a question that was on the list of what we’re gonna talk about today but I think it could be an interesting one to bring in. In our space, so in the tech space and especially in the web development world.

– Mm-hmm.

– There is a big question around, are universities useful or not? Basically, are you better to just do yourself and practice? Because the tech industry is changing so fast that we see certainly, universities struggle to keep up. Where do you sit on that? I’m pretty sure you sit on the fence in the university but what do you think universities actually useful in the way they should?

– Yeah, I think I have three points around that and whether or not after I’m talking I remember the three. But I think there’s lots of different ways and that is definitely something that we hear when we’re engaging with businesses that the traditional setup of academic institutions is that they lag behind industry. So there’s a few things that happen within universities that help to align that more and so I would say, so we do a lot through the career service. A lot of our work is engaging with organizations. So we have organizations that come to campus that maybe do quite specific things like we’ve had for example, coding bootcamps. And we’re developing a project with a local tech career accelerator to do a one week intensive UX short course.

– Okay.

– To help sort of build the skills in that area. I know it’s only a week but it’s, I see it as very much kind of like the between the university theoretical side and then the practical side to be that employment ready if you will. Increasingly though, we are doing what are called engaged learning projects. So that is trying to bring organizations into the curriculum. So similar to how I was just saying, engaging businesses through problem-solving challenges. But that is within the curriculum. So it’s an accredited thing. So yeah, an organization will link up with an academic design sort of module, but that has that real world application.

– I don’t think I probably explained that how other people would. But, and then increasingly, especially as the university is developing something, the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that at all. But they’re really interested in doing co-produced curriculum. So engaging with industry and creating the curriculum with industry so that it is more relevant. It doesn’t seem to be lagged behind industry.

– Okay.

– If that answers your question.

– Yeah, because one of the things that I found as an employer this time is that one of the, well, at least the best developers that we ever had, and we’re gonna need to get to talk about the block of this because that’s way higher than that. But the best developers that we ever had were actually coming out of universities. But usually they were coming out of universities coming from very not-technical studies but coming from lab studies or science studies.

– Yeah.

– And what I think they learn during their university time is how to research and how to focus on a problem for a long period of time.

– Mm-hmm.

– That sometime we see the ones that are being more self-taught struggle with that. Certainly the ones that went through the university courses.

– Yeah, sure.

– They know how to research, they know how to read the documentation, they know how to read the long paper and find what they needed there.

– Mm-hmm.

– So yeah, it’s a bit on both sides of the fence. I like the learn-yourself method but I also like to certainly see the value of that study time in the university.

– Yeah, which is why we try to, why it’s so important to bring organization, I’ll just say employers, speaking from career service perspective and in engaging with students, that is outside of the curriculum. Because sometimes that is a really valued skill of being able to research. But also potentially what could happen is not having almost a sprint mentality of okay, this project has to be done within this timeframe, here’s the unexpected things that happen just in the world of work. And so we try to do a lot of facilitation between employers and university students to help, I guess more so or just to help, just that interaction is really important to help students in the world of work if you will.

– Yeah, that’s one thing. So, I’m French and I’ve been going to the university in But I know that in France, universities are certainly not the same that they are in England.

– Okay.

– The quality is much lower. Obviously they’re free. They don’t have the price tag that British universities may have. But the quality that we see here of universities and the quality of the services that you provide is certainly up the brief.

– Mm-hmm.

– Is it, and my background in Bristol and my background in the UK starts probably 10, 11 years ago. Before that I was in France. So is that kind of services that you’re providing, is that kind of quality, is that always been there? Is it something new? Those kind of growing at the moment? Always say something that yeah, it has been there for a moment.

– Yeah, that’s a really good question. I’m similar to you. I’m not from here originally. I’ve been in the UK for about eight years and I didn’t, I went to university in the States but I didn’t work in higher education. Since I’ve been here, I don’t know that. I don’t know if I can answer that question how somebody else will. But there is a lot of increasing expectation on universities. So one of the key metrics that they assessed again is their graduate outcomes. So where graduates go when they graduate. So in terms of the employment, whether they have it, whether or not it’s at a level that you’d expect after someone who had come to university, progression into further education, et cetera. So I think the increasing emphasis on those outcomes, which means then universities are ranked and that’s not the only metric by any means but it is increasingly important. So I think with that then does have to come the level of service and the quality of service that’s provided at it. So I think it’d be there anyway, but because of the increasing emphasis on those metrics, we have to be doing that as well.

– Okay.

– If that makes sense.

– And now, obviously, so we’ve talked a lot about this link between the students and the SMEs or enterprise or the start-up themselves. Now, one very interesting about is those entrepreneurial spirits that are learning and already are discovering problems. Probably a one to solve certain problems and want to create companies to apply their skills and solve those problems. How do you help them in the university? How do you help them together? How do you help them to grow as entrepreneurs?

– Mm-hmm.

– Because I guess they’re quite young.

– Yeah, that’s a good thing.

– And obviously they’ve got a lot of mistakes to make in order to learn and you have to make those mistakes. But how do you help them making those mistake with some sort of safety net probably?

– Sure, yeah. I think that can be a real benefit sometimes as being younger. And I almost think it can be harder when you’re sort of outside that setting of, yeah. So, but we do a whole lot to support students who are trying to develop their entrepreneurial spirit or who are setting up their own businesses. So, one of the things that we do, for example, is our flagship business competition called the New Enterprise Competition. And we broken that down into three distinct phases. So we have an idea stage that’s up to 200 pounds. And really at that stage, we’re trying to boost their confidence. Sometimes hearing no at an early stage means that they just drop it and don’t do it. And that’s not the point really. Businesses change, they develop or whatever. But just kind of giving them that confidence and a little bit of a boost to say, give it a go. You absolutely have nothing to lose at this stage. So we might fund people to buy stock, to try to sell some stuff or to buy equipment to help build prototypes sort of whatever is. We have the development stage, which is up to a thousand pounds of funding. And that is, we expect to see a little bit more validation around the idea that they’ve done some market research, have maybe engaged with customers. And then we have a third stage, which is the growth stage of the New Enterprise Competition. And that’s for a much higher prize. That’s for up to 20,000 pounds. We have sponsors at that stage. So for example, SETsquared here is a sponsor and they’re up for six-month and 12-month membership for winners. So that is a sort of vehicle that provides the structure. And we do see quite a few that kind of come through all the stages or some kind of come in a particular stage that they feel is relevant for them at that time. But that I think is kind of a nice safety net. It’s a nice way to get feedback on your idea. But also through a lot of the other stuff that we were doing that I mentioned earlier about bringing founders onto campus and sharing their stories to try to inspire. We do a lot of workshops that are more particular to certain skills that you need. So we run something every year called Startup Weekend, that has a whole range of different things, from branding to sessions about intellectual property or legal structures that are just the practicalities that are very good to have at least a fundamental understanding about when you’re trying to set up your business, pitching, et cetera.

– As I, I suppose in my job I would say I do a lot of events talking and that’s how you give me a lot talks. And I participate to a lot run tables and stuff like that. And I gave a few talks at Bristol Uni and Bristol UWE as well. And the level of engagement that you find in students, the level of sparks and excitement, it’s just mind blowing. I just, it’s really refreshing to see that they’ve really switched on really engaged.

– Yeah.

– And they have no, I don’t know if it’s a youth thing, If it’s a new generation thing, but they have no fear of asking the wrong question, they don’t care.

– Absolutely.

– I have a question and I ask it, and I just love that.

– Yeah.

– I just love people confident enough to just ask questions basically regardless of if they think it’s cute or not.

– Yeah, absolutely.

– Now do you in your, the start-ups I created at Bristol Uni, do you think they’re more going towards the tech kind of SAS businesses or are they just going through normal brick-and-mortar business or are they more agency type? Where is that diagram? Is there anything that you can say like, Hey, we more specifically geared to help these kinds of companies? 

– No, that is, we try to provide an impartial service and we’re not trying to be biased towards any particular types of, we do see that whole range. Increasingly our students do, I think develop SAS businesses or technology businesses. But we still see a lot of food businesses, clothing businesses, students that are trying to and creating their own brands and stuff, which we need that whole mix because like I was saying before, it’s 27,000 students roughly. So they’re all individuals and have their own things that they’re interested in. Occasionally, so when we engaged with SETsquared for example, they have a tech bias, that’s okay. But that’s why we as a team really need to have a strong external network that spans a range of different support as well, that doesn’t have a particular bias ’cause it just wouldn’t, it wouldn’t suit us to do that. So yeah, we just see the whole range. So we’ll have pitching days for that competition and see like 20 different ideas on a particular day and they would range that whole spectrum.

– Any kind of, I don’t know if it’s help is the right word, but any kind of emphasis on inclusivity like gender specific inclusivity?

– That’s a very good question, yeah. I’m actually really pleased you asked that. So yeah, we actually had a look at that. So those three different stages of the New Enterprise Competition I was talking about, that final stage, so the one that is with much higher stake, we weren’t really seeing that many women applicants. So we started to do a little bit of research around that and we have loosen the language that we’re trying to use in terms of promoting it. And so instead of saying business challenge or pitch or whatever and saying you are you trying to have, are you trying to solve a problem? Are you trying to pursue an idea? Also though, one of the main things that we changed this year is providing a four-month package of support at that stage of the competition. So we have paired all the candidates with a mentor and also are accessing through the help of SETsquared advisors and residents so they can get specific information, advice about different areas that they might maybe have less confidence in. So intellectual property or marketing or accounting, whatever it is. Which is amazing. And we actually didn’t have that before, which now that we’re doing it, we’re like, how could that not have existed before? But I’m not done proper research, but we have seen an increase in the number of women. It wasn’t quite 50-50 but near there and now, I just think that that level of support has added a welcoming touch, I suppose. But we do engage with lots of students from different backgrounds. I think sometimes you’ve experienced something and then you’re trying to solve a problem because you’ve had that experience. So we see maybe students who had disabilities or something that come up with a really creative thing because they’ve experienced a problem.

– One thing that we’re doing this year, probably going to be announced February, March But in partnership with TechSPARK actually we are going to run a new event called the Startup Kitchen.

– Okay.

– So the idea is to have a kind of a monthly events where we create that safe and inclusive space for either growing start-up or people with an idea or a problem to solve to come and pitch and get feedback from that problem.

– That’s great.

– But we really wanna try to make that event as inclusive as possible.

– Yeah.

– And as gentle as possible. I know proper business skill, as you said, the language that we use, the people that we are going to use, the code of conduct that we can have.

– That’s great.

– These all around helping each other rather than trying to be business bro

– Yeah.

– So more than happy to have you upclose today. If you feel like some will be beneficial to us please send them to us.

– Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a huge thing that we try to promote. We need to know a lot of what’s going on because a lot of our support is signposting ’cause there’s no shortage of support in Bristol if you’re putting yourself out there and trying to get out. And I think those sorts of programs are amazing and we’d love to be able to promote that. It’s similar to SATsquared and NatWest or partnering with the Back Her Business initiative and that’s great.

– Yeah, Natalie, I think Natalie my co-founder is going to be some sort of mentor over there.

– Yeah, absolutely.

– One of these weird businesses being created like that gives us a different view on the whole, weirdly, we never thought about gender equality and inclusivity because it was always like that for us. And we’ve done, when we started to actually really think about it and we started to hire returning-to-work moms very flexible hours and being more understanding where we started to have really good candidates just because.

– Yeah.

– We were offering stuff that would get that other companies were not doing. So it’s really good thing to think about now.

– I think, especially if you are in a tech there is, I don’t know the stats off the top of my head, but disparity between women in particular in this. I think that’s great that you’re doing that.

– So Katie.

– Mm-hmm.

– Nine-year old Katie.

– Oh yeah.

– Have you ever wanted to work with universities? Where you are always a very student-like kind of focus where you engage students or what was your background when you were a kid and what did you wanted to do when you were a kid?

– Yeah, that’s a really good question. I’ve always been a sort of middle-of-the-road student. I got to do what I need to do, but I’m not dying to get the top marks. That’s not what kind of gives me any satisfaction. I was thinking about this ’cause obviously you sort of pose that and I think I was probably the stereotypical I’m gonna be a doctor and like not even knowing what that means, but knowing that it sounds good so you get a bit of a pat on the head, Oh, that’d be great. But I think what that’s translated to is I’ve always been in roles that I feel are helping people or that are contributing to society in a different sort of way. So yeah, when I was nine I’m probably, it was like I don’t want to work. I just want to hang out with my family and my friends. But yeah, I just, my personal motivations have always been to contribute to society, to do work that I feel is adding value and yeah.

– Any big goals for 2020 personally or in your career?

– Well, this is helpful because one of the things that I’m kind of aware of that could potentially be seen as a weakness is like personal brand. Me and my team do a lot of amazing stuff but I think because we do quite quality, but quantity, we do have a lot that it makes it kind of hard sometimes for us to slow down and share the stories or share the things that we’re doing as a team. I’m promoting that. So me and my team have been talking a lot about that lately and how we can share more of the impact that we’re doing, yeah.

– Cool, so if listeners wants to know more about you or Bristol Uni, where is the best way to go?

– Well, good luck navigating, it’s a quite big website but I’m sorry. Bristol.ac.uk and then forward slash careers for the career service. There’s lots of information for employers in particular. And that’s employers of any size, shape or whatever you wanna call yourself. There’s a little bit of information as student enterprise stuff, but mainly just getting in contact with anyone in the team and we’re always happy to pick up the phone and try to help people find solutions that are right for them or engage in a way that makes sense.

– Cool.

– Yeah.

– Well, thank you so much for the chat today.

– Well, thank you.

– And I’m sure we’re gonna be in touch with your members soon.

– I hope so, yeah. I’m gonna rope you into coming up to campus.

– Let’s play it. I just, there’s a part of me that every time I go to give a talk at universities, anything that goes with school or whatever, I always take a picture of my mum and like, see, I didn’t make it to university but I’m making now

– Yeah, absolutely, that’s great. Yeah, you’re making an impact on the world, absolutely. All right, than you very much

– Thank you.

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