The mind behind curious & reflective entrepreneurship

Art Credit: ‘Nyntastic’, Gail Troth, 2006

Dr Kelly Smith, currently based at the Birmingham Business School, is an influential enterprise and entrepreneurship educator with a strong portfolio of graduate venture creation. Here I spend time with one of the key architects of Enterprise and Entrepreneurial Educator networks in the UK. Contributing to education research and national policy development, Kelly works to improve engagement and impact of entrepreneurship education programmes for all disciplines.

You have a varied academic background Kelly which includes cognitive science, have certain subjects influenced your design for an entrepreneurial education?

Beyond the subject matter, I have most been influenced by technology. I was fortunate to start out in education in the late 1990s, an exciting time for learning technology development, which steered my career towards technology-supported or hi-tech entrepreneurship. This, in turn, seeded interest in the key underpinning skills for entrepreneurship in a VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex and uncertain world. I support my students and graduates to be open-minded critical thinkers who challenge the status quo, iterating fast. Continuously horizon scanning with strong curiosity, I’m keen to be a first adopter. I embrace project roles to influence fellow educators to make more use of the opportunities that learning technologies can afford, and to maximize the potential of social media.

Kelly, what would you say to those who worry about an over-reliance on technology, or that technology can distract from or dilute skill development?

Technology has made access to data easier in many instances, but data itself is meaningless without critical analysis. The need to use the information wisely, to make reasoned decisions, remains. I think of technology as providing us with the tools that are better matched to our rapidly changing needs. In recent months alone, we have witnessed acute changes to the norms of how we all interact and how business can be conducted. Technology is key to helping us capture what is happening around us, to understand or predict activity, and facilitate adaption at speed. It is hard to imagine how we could do all this without technology. In my own domain, as an enterprise educator, there is a growing online component to learning, more so, since the COVID-19 crisis. The management of learning through a virtual learning environment, the need to be familiar with the subject and industry-specific software, finding and using credible online resources to supplement and enhance learning, creating electronic assets for learning and assessment, are all key. Yet I do caution that not everyone has adequate access to up-to-date computers, smartphones, specialist software, even a reliable internet connection. So, this has to be factored in when designing engagement with all learners or planning a new venture.

Kelly, I understand you have a keen interest in the arts, has this influenced your design of an entrepreneurial curriculum?

There are two aspects to this. I believe a life-long learning interest in the arts and humanities should be actively encouraged in all education programmes. Understanding history and culture can help inform better decision-making, shaping society for the better. The arts are intertwined with creativity, combining existing knowledge into new forms of expression, helping push the boundaries of knowledge, and support new applications.

My husband Richard, and I are art collectors, and regularly visit degree shows. We often collect student and graduate work [as featured below]. I also work with many students on arts-related enterprises, and enjoy access to their work.

‘Right to Left: Small Brook Queensway’, Alicia Dybnyckyj, 2002; ‘Medusa’, Paul Normansell, 2003; ‘The Peacekeeper’, Barbara Walker, 2001 (All graduates of art degrees at Birmingham City University)

The embedding of enterprise and entrepreneurship education experience is essential for art students, to be able to value and sell their work. However, entrepreneurial skills apply to all students, from geographers to medical students, whether that be identifying and researching opportunities, persuading and communicating, or bidding for resources.

Which theorists have influenced your perspectives on entrepreneurial education?

I’m attracted to John Dewey’s application of pragmatism, the focus on the learner experience, and the extension of this by David Kolb into experiential learning. I also love Sartre’s suggestion that the purpose of education is to help learners come to terms with their individuality, to emerge as unique people, and I’m drawn to his emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge through experience and reflection.

Picking up on reflection, how important is this to the modern entrepreneur or entrepreneurial thinker?

I strongly believe in the power of reflection. My students know how strongly I feel about this! I regularly share research on how reflection aids entrepreneurial success. I set tasks that require students to actively reflect on what they have learnt within and outside their study programme every week, and I include a reflective element in formal assessment wherever it is appropriate to do so. I can get quite a bit of push back at first, but we talk about how reflection is a skill that needs practice. I’ve had some fantastic feedback from final year students and graduates who have reported how important reflection is to them now, and how it has made a difference.

What is priority for developing educators to be able to facilitate entrepreneurial education today?

I would stress the importance of keeping up to date with trends and changes in educational practice, business models, or technology for learning or business application. It is important to role-model to students how to assess for, make use of, and address, the opportunities and challenges that arise for employment in the real world. I would also have to return to curiosity. I have learnt so much from asking questions and welcoming questions in return. Questioning in either direction allows me to understand the context more fully, to explore similarities and differences in experiences, and to set up scenarios to test. I enjoy fostering curiosity in my students, so that they think more deeply, observe their world more intently, and think about how things do and do not work. A simple exercise can be to ask students to list the businesses that have contributed to the room they are sitting in. They typically start off with the obvious, like computer suppliers and furniture designers, but quickly get to the more covert and obscure contributions such as copper smelting and sheep farmers. We then explore ideas for the improved use of the room. Students are encouraged to experiment with this type of thinking as they move about in their own contexts, sharing their ideas on what they could improve or repurpose. I also encourage students to challenge everything they read or watch as part of their studies, to call me out on anything I say that they think is wrong or out of date, to form their own opinions that can be underpinned by credible evidence. The ability to design tasks and activities that allow students to critically explore concepts and develop deeper thinking is essential.

Do you have any key advice for the emerging entrepreneurial education agenda in universities?

Entrepreneurial education is not new, but momentum is building for the embedding of enterprise as an important transferable skill into the curriculum at all levels. Experiential learning is highly valuable, in my opinion, but this can be difficult to manage practically with large groups of students. It can also be challenging for the educator to design and deliver experiential learning opportunities, particularly if heutagogy principles are used, that is, where students drive their own learning experiences. It can be difficult to sit back and be available as a resource instead of being in control. I’ve used this approach over several years and I am so amazed by what students come up with, from producing music videos and disseminating them through social media, to the recording of ‘vox pop’ interviews with people they haven’t met before, on their entrepreneurial ambitions. Even where their ‘something’ failed, I’m impressed at how well students identified what went wrong and how they would mitigate against the same thing happening in the future. I also believe that entrepreneurship support must be made available to all university and college students as part of an institution’s core offer. There are excellent examples of learning institution-provided business start-up support, but provision can be patchy and funding unreliable.

Do you have a view on how entrepreneurial educators should be recruited or developed?

This may be controversial. I’ve often heard it said that entrepreneurial educators must have an entrepreneurial background and have had direct business experience. My personal experience as an ‘entrepreneur’ is limited to a small amount of statistics consultancy years ago, yet I describe myself as an enterprise and entrepreneurship educator and the feedback I’ve received from students and graduate entrepreneurs is that I’m good at what I do. I find it interesting when I meet educators from other disciplines, from history for example, whom I would consider excellent entrepreneurial educators, but are often overlooked for this type of workload. One widely used test of entrepreneurial tendency is the ‘GET2 Test’ which compares the entrepreneurial tendencies of entrepreneurs with other occupations. This test finds that although entrepreneurs tend to have the highest scores overall, lecturers and teachers are close behind. For me, being an enterprising individual is more important than actually having run a business, although the latter may help. Like any occupation, training and development are vital along with networking and learning from peers.

Who and why has most inspired you on your ‘entrepreneurial learning’ journey?

I’m in awe of and have learned so much from the International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development team at the UWTSD, and feel privileged to be included in their flock. I’ve had so many other influencers too: Alison Price, Lynn Martin, Matt Draycott, Harry Matlay, Paul Jones, Peter Harrington, Phil Clegg… too many to list. I hope they all know how much I respect and appreciate them. I also have to mention all those I have met in workshops or at entrepreneurial education conferences and events organised by Enterprise Educators UK (EEUK), the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE), and the European Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ECSB).

EEUK and ISBE have been particularly influential in my journey. I consider myself hugely privileged to have been involved with both organisations at Executive level, and to have been given the opportunity through them to contribute to national policy such as the development of the QAA guidelines for enterprise and entrepreneurship education in higher education. I’d strongly recommend getting involved with these organisations.

What would be the top piece(s) of advice you’d give to your younger self?

Just what I tell myself now and knew when I was younger as it was something my Mum said often, ‘every problem is the start of an exciting journey’. She also said ‘if you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours’ which I always hold close to my heart.

Thank you so much Kelly for taking time out to share your inspiring personal story, and to the artists/students who have also given kind permission to share their work.

Dr Kelly Smith

Visiting Professor of Enterprise & Entrepreneurship at University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development (IICED)

Teaching Focused Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship in the Department of Management at Birmingham Business School

Founding Co-Chair of ISBE/EEUK Research in Enterprise Education Community of Interest (2018-present)

Trustee of the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship – ISBE (2013-2019); VP Education and Practitioner Learning (2015-2019); VP Policy and Practice (2014-2015)

Director of Enterprise Educators UK – EEUK (2008-2013); Chair (2011-2012); Honorary Life Fellow (awarded in 2013)

Fellow of EEUK (2019-present)

Writing panel member for UK QAA Guidelines for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education (2010-2018)

All Party Parliamentary Group for Microbusiness Education for Entrepreneurs Policy Advisory Group (2013-2014)

Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts (2015-present)


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