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Thinking like an entrepreneur

Through its SMEs and Entrepreneurship theme, Deakin Business School (DBS) is helping entrepreneurs and small-medium enterprises (SMEs) navigate a world of accelerating change

Small and family businesses – and the entrepreneurs who drive them – are the economic lifeblood of countries across the world.

In Australia, SMEs generate more than 30% of the nation’s GDP and provide jobs for almost half of its workforce.

And entrepreneurs? Well, they’re often the brainbox behind SMEs. With fresh thinking, new ideas, and the resilience to turn dreams into reality, entrepreneurs are a powerful force in economic development, driving innovation, productivity and job creation.

DBS supports SMEs and entrepreneurs

DBS has long recognised the importance of entrepreneurship and small business and now has a dedicated SMEs and Entrepreneurship theme that focuses on the success of this sector.

Director Dr Wade Halvorson says the theme enables DBS to deepen its engagement with industry stakeholders, work closely with aligned research centres and units, and integrate SME and entrepreneurship learning into Deakin’s curriculum.

‘Overall, we’re examining how to enhance the performance, sustainability and success of Australia’s SMEs while exploring ways to cultivate and build entrepreneurial skills for innovation and future growth,’ he explains.

Entrepreneurship learning – a first in Australia

In a first for Australia’s universities, Deakin has now incorporated a distinctive new experiential learning program – Developing an Entrepreneurial Mindset – into its curriculum.

The new program is a feature of the Entrepreneurship Experience unit and part of the university’s Work-Integrated-Learning (WIL) programs that deliver authentic, real-world experience, helping students develop entrepreneurial skills and capabilities.

‘Deakin is the first Australian university to adopt this curriculum which was developed in the USA. There, it’s being utilised by over 180 universities, winning international awards and accolades for its results,’ says Dr Halvorson.

He says the program is designed to help students develop an entrepreneurship mindset by building an entrepreneurial skillset that can enhance graduate potential and career possibilities.

‘For example, if you’re studying engineering, you may not think of yourself as an entrepreneur or see the need to explore entrepreneurship development or skills. But this program isn’t about turning you into an entrepreneur – it’s about learning the skills and developing the mindset that makes entrepreneurs successful. It means you can take the skills learned from this program and apply them either in a job or start-up business. There's a wide range of areas in which you can utilise these capabilities,’ he explains.

The six-week intensive takes students on a journey that begins with the development of a product idea through to validation from real customers.

‘We use a lean canvas worksheet that allows students to review all nine key elements of a business model and how they inter-relate and to test all of those before they move through to comprehensive development,’ says Dr Halvorson.

‘We also take them through the exercise of financial modelling and managing risk. By the end of the program, students have a clear understanding of whether their idea can be turned into a business or not … and interestingly, learning to how to fail is just as important as learning how to succeed. The essential skill is to learn from a failure and overcome obstacles.’

Entrepreneurial mindset essential in an uncertain economy

In an uncertain economic climate, Dr Halvorson says the Entrepreneurial Experience program offers students the opportunity to develop ‘an entrepreneurial mindset’ and a pathway towards controlling their personal career development.

‘Over the past decade we’ve seen business models change dramatically and new products merge with technology. And this means that not all students can be guaranteed they will learn a profession they will practise for their whole career. However, this program builds entrepreneurial capabilities and that’s what organisations are looking for … they need employees who can think and act innovatively.’

Women’s Entrepreneurship Research Alliance

The Women’s Entrepreneurship Research Alliance (WERA) is one of Deakin’s research clusters that’s aligned to the SMEs and Entrepreneurship theme.

Led by DBS’s Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, WERA partners with global institutions and organisations to focus on worldwide programs that support equal entrepreneurial participation and success for women.

Recognised for its work, WERA has received three grants from DFAT to run programs for women entrepreneurs in Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America. 

While the process of data collection is still underway, the Vietnam project is now completed and Dr North-Samardzic says it has identified a shortfall of grassroots entrepreneurship training for women.

‘This is particularly so for women who don’t have a business degree or who haven’t worked in the corporate sector. For them, there just isn’t a lot of knowledge or support out there.’

Another WERA project is providing DBS-led training for women in business across both Australia and Latin America and its aim is to build positive social and environmental impact.

Funded by DFAT’s  Council of Australian Latin American Relations (COALAR) grant, the project provides training and networks for women in Australia, Chile, and Uruguay who want to align their businesses more closely to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

WERA member Dr Jane Menzies says the project tackles two key global challenges.

‘It is important to improve the position of women in business and sustainability as these are both grand challenges facing the world today – equality for women, and also sustainability for the world, countries, businesses given our current climate change issues.’

Through the ASEAN Council, WERA is also focusing on women entrepreneurs and small business owners in Indonesia and the Philippines by providing networks and business opportunities with their Australian counterparts.

‘What we’ve done so far is demonstrate that Australia has an economic diplomacy role in global entrepreneurship for women,’ says Dr North-Samardzic.

One of the challenges, she adds, is that because entrepreneurs – as a group – are often fragmented which makes engagement activities all the more important.

‘Women, in particular, tend to not self-identify as entrepreneurs. Instead they’ll say, “I run a business or I’m a small business owner” so that all-round engagement has to be different to what we’d look at for entrepreneurs that included men.’

While WERA facilitates network building for women entrepreneurs Dr North-Samardzic says the organisation’s main mandate is research.

‘Primarily, we use our research for advocacy and secondly, for program development and interventions. But first and foremost WERA is about providing research that has an important public benefit.’

Institute of Public Accountants (IPA)­­-Deakin SME Research Centre

Another research group aligned to the theme is the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre.

Playing a key advisory role in government policy-making to boost the long-term viability of Australia’s small business sector, the centre produces small business research-based white papers and broadly examines issues around the regulation, trade and sustainability of SMEs, including the wellbeing of SME owners.

In late 2020, it attracted a $2.24 million federal government grant as part of the government’s COVID-19 Response Package to support mental health among small businesses.

One of the outcomes is DBS’s Counting on U program which enables small business advisors to better support their clients through a free workplace mental health intervention program.

SMEs play a significant role

Professor George Tanewski, Director of the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre, says that although SMEs account for more than two million small businesses in Australia, many business schools tend to look only at capital markets which are the listed or large private companies. 

‘However SMEs – in terms of sheer numbers – swamp everyone else and are a significant player in the economic environment,’ he says.

By using ‘live research’, such as data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Tax Office, the IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre is able to provide robust empirical research that’s applicable to the SME sector. 

‘We also utilise a longitudinal data set which means we can look at the behaviours of a firm over a long period of time. This gives us the ability to pre-empt any problems that may be coming up for SMEs,’ explains Prof. Tanewski.

A focus on empowerment

Dr Halvorson says a key focus of DBS’s SMEs and Entrepreneurship theme is empowerment.

‘It plays a vital role in translating academic research and writing into language that businesspeople can readily grasp and apply in their day-to-day operations. It responds to a changing world where, as the contributors of a recent Forbes Magazine article wrote: “The world has changed in ways that now require all of us to think like entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are resilient and resourceful. They are creative and critical thinkers who can recognize opportunities, mobilize resources, and make things happen when the rules are not clear, and the path is not well defined. Simply put, they possess the personality traits and learned skills the world now demands. They are the pioneers of innovation and progress on a global scale”’.