Endless possibilities: what roles will universities play in new hybrid ways of creating inclusive entrepreneurship?

Dean Jo-Ann Rolle, Professor Thomas Cooney and Associate Professor Nigel Coates joined chairs Jacqueline Winstanley FRSA and David Walsh for a debate on higher education’s future role in inclusive innovation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions have transformed the way universities interact: with their students, within the academy and with collaborators. At the same time, the acceleration of digitisation has shifted the international perspective on inclusive entrepreneurship and provided new opportunities for innovation and growth.

On Wednesday 27 April, we were delighted to welcome Associate Professor Nigel Coates (Director of the Business Clinic, Northumbria University), Professor Thomas Cooney (Professor of Entrepreneurship, Technological University Dublin) and Dr Jo-Ann Rolle (Dean of the School of Business at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York) to debate the question: “What roles will universities play in new hybrid ways of creating inclusive entrepreneurship?”

This debate forms part of an ongoing discussion into inclusive entrepreneurship as part of a Regional Studies Association-funded project by Professor Helen Lawton Smith.

The discussion was chaired by Jacqueline Winstanley FRSA (Universal Inclusion, Visiting Fellow CIMR Birkbeck) and David Walsh (King’s College London).

Building a digital network for inclusive entrepreneurship during the pandemic

Jacqueline set the context for the discussion (http://www7.bbk.ac.uk/cimr/2022/04/25/endless-possibilities-what-roles-will-universities-play-in-new-hybrid-ways-of-creating-inclusive-entrepreneurship-april-27th-1pm-2-30pm/) by reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on the Inclusive Entrepreneur network. Moving the network’s portfolio of activity online supported the mental health of network members and ensured marginalised voices continued to be heard throughout lockdowns and ongoing restrictions alongside creating and providing the Secretariat for the APPG for Inclusive Entrepreneurship. As a direct result of this digital presence, the network was able to engage with universities on a new level.

Jacqueline said: “In terms of the fine balancing act of having a disability with creating enterprise, all indications within our network and within the APPG are that hybrid working is the preferred way foward.”

David reflected on universities’ crucial role in future innovation, commenting: “Higher education institutions have become trailblazers in terms of building accelerators, hubs and services for entrepreneurs.”

How did universities engage with students and collaborators prior to the pandemic?

The panellists shared their experience of pivoting completely from face-to-face to fully online. Nigel commented on the breadth of Northumbria University’s collaborators, from big names such as Proctor and Gamble, Akzo Nobel and Arriva to social enterprises and charities. Much of the Business Clinic’s work aims to reach socially disadvantaged communities or those with disabilities, for example their work with autistic entrepreneurs.

Jo-Ann reflected that in Brooklyn, minority entrepreneurs took the heaviest hit in terms of closures during the pandemic, however those that were able to come back “came back bigger and better”, having evolved to take advantage of hybrid activity.

Tom shared a different perspective from TU Dublin, which set up its Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship in 2006. As early as 2016, Tom gave a TEDX talk arguing in favour of online learning. He noted that the change is not in the institution’s desire for online activity, but in the receptivity of the audience who have now adapted to new ways of engaging with universities and businesses.

How have universities adapted to new hybrid ways of teaching and learning?

Nigel shared his experience of moving a popular business consultancy module fully online. Far from considering the experience of a lower quality, businesses welcomed the support in navigating the pandemic and were happy to engage remotely. Nigel found that students and clients adapted “remarkably fast” to online ways of working. The university now has the capabilities to support organisations in a much wider radius.

Conversely, interaction between students for projects proved far more challenging, as students had not had the usual opportunities to socialise and make connections.

Tom echoed Nigel’s comments on the challenges of building social groups in an online context, but contrasted this with the positive of being able to attract high calibre speakers from all over the world. He shared a model developed by one of his PhD students, Emma O’Brien, on how HEI’s can improve community engagement to support enterprising behaviour in disadvantaged communities.

Tom emphasised the importance of co-creation and mutual benefit in genuine partnerships between Higher Education Institutions and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. He argued that the use of hybrid will be context-dependent according to the needs of disadvantaged communities.

Jo-Ann reflected on the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at City University New York, where its impact is still being felt as a loss to individuals and the wider community and economy. She reflected on society’s perceptions of life before the pandemic: “Some folks say ‘we want to get back to normal’. Across the globe, normal wasn’t good for the masses. We have to do better than what was normal.”

As a result of a commitment from scholars and practitioners to include marginalised voices in the discussion on entrepreneurship, Jo-Ann put out a call for chapters for the book ‘Sustainability and the Future of Work and Entrepreneurship for the Underserved’. The team were inundated with almost 70 abstracts and later almost 50 full chapters.

The book features inclusion on women, minorities, people with disabilities and was one of the highest rated books of the publisher in terms of geographic diversity.

What else can higher education institutions do and what role can they play to support inclusive entrepreneurship within this hybrid way of working?

Tom called for universities to recognise the variety of different communities and the distinctive challenges that they have, commenting how some groups, such as seniors, marginalised youth and the Roma community, are still underrepresented in research and interventions.

Nigel suggested that “There’s a lot of good work that people don’t know they’re doing” and encouraged institutions to do an internal audit and to promote their activity to communities. He also called on universities to take a critical view on how welcoming they are to external stakeholders and to make it physically easier for people to come into premises.

Jo-Ann noted the need for universities and industries to work in partnership and for universities to question what is needed for the jobs of the future.

How can universities and industry partners work together more effectively around concerns with Intellectual Property?

The speakers shared their experience and success stories of university-industry partnerships. Jacqueline highlighted co-authorship and the positive partnerships that can come from working together with integrity.

Tom reflected on a TU Dublin system where individual staff members fully own their Intellectual Property, which attracts talent to the university. He commented that co-ownership is becoming much more the norm, but that there is work to do to allow universities to match the pace of industry.

Summing up and next steps

Co-Chair David Walsh summarised the key learning points from this debate and the action needed to move forward:

Our panellists described how their institutions are working with entrepreneurs that face barriers. Tom described the engagements with disadvantaged communities, including minorities, prisoner inmates and refugees. His college is delivering the first online entrepreneurship programme in Ireland for those with disabilities Nigel described how their courses and access were designed from the outset to be inclusive. Jo-Ann explained the importance of addressing the needs of the ‘under-served’ and with social entrepreneurship as a force for social cohesion, as well as giving back to the community.

Despite the challenges of Covid it was clear that experiential learning was alive and well. Nigel was able to explain how projects were created with local businesses during the lockdown and recovery periods. Jo-Ann echoed that experience on how her College ‘pivoted’ during the pandemic almost ‘overnight’ as to how teaching and assistance were provided. Tom described how the minority groups were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, but also how the audience has become more receptive to self-employment being a viable option. All our panellists described that the challenges faced did not mean a drop in standards or productivity. Innovative approaches were adopted.

Tom went on to describe that we are at a critical moment in terms of inclusive entrepreneurship initiatives – describing the six trends that are coming together. Nigel described how the future of more digital formats were helping to extend the reach of the knowledge transfer, as well as reducing the capital intensive demands that Higher Education Institutions face in terms of facilities. But it was agreed that the Hybrid way still requires the need for social interaction and Jo-Ann described how boot camps and even trips abroad helped the entrepreneurs to learn the business language and to look at opportunities globally. Tom illustrated a new engagement model for Higher Education Institutions with all the relevant stakeholders.

It was clear that there is a rich vein of innovation and leadership actively developing and delivering effective solutions to help inclusive entrepreneurs and Jacqueline proposed a call to action on the creation of an international consortium on this subject which would be very helpful to have in place.

We would like to thank the panel for their insightful and passionate contributions to today’s debate.

A recording of the event is available on YouTube:


This blog has been contributed by Isobel Edwards and Jacqueline Winstanley