Entrepreneurship is en vogue! Not a day passes by without reading or hearing about how entrepreneurship supports most European countries’ GDP growth, the groundbreaking innovations that entrepreneurial ventures bring about, or the importance of getting more young people excited about launching their own startup.
Here at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL), our elective on developing entrepreneurial projects accounts for the most popular course in the final year of study. By the time students finish the course, the comment most often made is: “Why did we not have this course much earlier? There were so many ideas I already had in my first year of study!”
Fact is, although these statements echo the entrepreneurial drive that resides within many young students, it also clearly pinpoints the lack of existing infrastructure available to help them. Yet, this does not mean that students need to miss out. In fact, from where I stand as a faculty of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, students have it in their hands to generate an entrepreneurial environment in any institution. The best example is our own Club des Entrepreneurs (CDE), which is a self-organized student body that has made it their mission to not only garner their own entrepreneurial interests, but provide a point of contact for any student who may have a potential idea to develop.
The CDE and comparable collective actions are generally referred to as grassroots initiatives. Grassroots initiatives are collectively self-organized actions through a bottom-up rather than top-down approach, with the aim of encouraging a community with similar interests to take responsibility and initiative to drive a goal. This kind of movement relies on individuals who are willing to drive the change that they are concerned about from the ground-up. Hence, the reason we also refer to these initiatives at grassroots is linked to the fact that it tackles the problem where it is felt – at the root.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mark-Oliver Wiesner, the head of the Club des Entrepreneurs, to understand where he sees the club's place in the overall lifecycle of a student’s entrepreneurial development. He was kind enough to provide us with three important takeaways on why grassroots programs are needed and how the CDE helps students in developing their entrepreneurial ideas into potential startups.
1. Democratizing knowledge
One of the biggest roadblocks entrepreneurs’ face in the early stages of launching their business – which is not only true for young entrepreneurs – is knowing where to find reliable information.
Generally, here many student entrepreneurs face one of two options: either acknowledged institutions like incubators, which have highly competitive access requirements and are hence limited, or companies that make a business of supporting entrepreneurs and often turn out to be expensive.
Here is where grassroots programs like the CDE can be tapped into by leveraging the context they operate in. It is not about replacing courses in the curriculum of a school or competing with actors in the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s about giving students of the community a first point of contact to not lose the momentum in a chase for information that may either be expensive or unreliable.
Concretely speaking, the CDE taps into the resources that the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne has to provide, whether this is by encouraging faculty to offer free-of-charge sessions, access to the local innovation hub or granting financial support from the school to organize initiatives for the student body.
As Mark-Oliver pointed out:
You cannot teach someone to have creative ideas - that is born out of the moment or circumstances, but you can teach execution.
Here the club makes the sometimes hard to reach insights accessible – free of charge and reliable!
2. Hands-on opportunities
The second point Mark-Oliver pointed to was the importance of providing opportunities. Every venture must start with the first action one takes. Yet, often enough student entrepreneurs don’t even know what that first step needs to be.
Here grassroots programs can provide a broad and wide ranging portfolio of activities that speak to the different needs of their community. On the formal side, a great opportunity are talks with entrepreneurs that explain how they tackled the initial steps in their entrepreneurial career. Not only do these encounters break some of the myths residing around entrepreneurship, but they showcase that it’s ok not to have all the answers.
Entrepreneurship is about creativity and giving people the chance to create.
While talks and exposure to entrepreneurs are an important tool to allow for vicarious learning from the mistakes that every entrepreneur ultimately makes, it is equally about taking concrete action for the CDE. After all there is a famous saying about learning: “Make me hear and I will forget. Make me see and I will remember. Make me do and I will understand!”
To that point the CDE provides more informal initiatives that range from competitions on food waste reduction to blockchain seminars. Regardless of the focus an initiative takes, the mission is direct engagement with the matter. For instance, in line with the Sustainability Week held at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne in early May, the CDE set out a competition on how to reduce waste in the area of finger food, allowing the winning initiative the opportunity to be implemented on campus. In sum, the CDE sees itself as planting seeds that will then be grown by the community. After all, as Mark-Oliver points out: “Entrepreneurship is about creativity and giving people the chance to create”!
3. Connecting the dots
It may sound like a cliché, but one cannot go about it alone. Grassroots initiatives are centrally there to build a community and network that collectively work with each other. Particularly while still in university environments, student entrepreneurs feel a vacuum between their university life and their ability to transfer over to the entrepreneurial scene. Here early connections are forged while still in their studies, student entrepreneurs can access the wider ecosystem, allowing for a smooth transition rather than a cold start after graduating. For instance, the CDE forges connections with EHL alumni as well as the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem of the canton Vaud and beyond. Once a year they also organize the business angel’s dinner that grants up to three projects the opportunity to pitch for financial support. This access is not only crucial for the resource access, but the community building that naturally occurs. After all, the CDE is formed of students, who themselves cannot be a center of competence on all accounts – but if they are not – they are sure to find you the right contact.
What can we take away from this interview? Grassroots programs are central to fill a void in the lifecycle of a student entrepreneur. For those organizing entrepreneurial grassroots initiatives it also grants the first opportunity to follow through on their entrepreneurial ambition, while generating positive externalities. This further allows for the support of those that may otherwise see their ideas die without access to crucial resources and the right network when they need it the most. After all, entrepreneurship is only 1% about the idea, 99% is execution!