June 12, 2018

The best ways to foster student entrepreneurs

Career counselling is quite often a matter of helping students find either their next study path, either a way to get their dream job. Building a company isn’t the usual way of ending your studies; it is, however, a fast-growing trend for several reasons. Here is some advice we compiled on how to counsel a would-be entrepreneur and what events and programmes you could help set up for the aspiring makers in your institution.

Counselling a would-be entrepreneur

Why do they want to build a company?

Finding the underlying motivation in entrepreneurship can be a great starting point for counselling someone. Indeed, some motivations are perfectly valid, and in that case, you can encourage and help them as much as possible. In other cases, however, the student doesn’t realise how hard it is to build a company from scratch: then, you should get them to understand that they might not be ready for it yet.

Some students want to build a company because they don’t want to be subject to other people; others care more about making something with their own hands and might want to learn a trade to sell with their company instead of technical expertise. Others yet have a very specific project and they want to see it grow. In general, the best entrepreneurs will not be those who don’t want a boss or those who want to make a lot of money: there are simply the entrepreneurs who want to make the world better with their company.

Finally, there is another group that could think they want to build a company, just because they have been told it was a good thing to do, or because it sounds fun, or because they want to make a lot of money. You should be able to identify these people with no clear motivation and find a better-suited path for them given the personal investment that comes with building something from scratch and making it a full-time activity.

Finding the right timing

There are really three times that a higher education student can become an entrepreneur:

1. When they graduate, which is usually the most common and least risky way;

2. By learning a trade after they graduate, so that they have a real expertise that they can sell with their higher education skills (especially if they are majoring in entrepreneurship);

3. While they’re still studying, building a small company in their free time outside of class and preparing it so that they can easily scale it when they graduate.

Every student will have their own way of approaching entrepreneurship. Some of them will be more risk-averse; others will be ready to jump in, and maybe fail, but at least try. So many factors need to be taken into account that there is no end-all strategy that you can use for all the students you counsel.

Preparing would-be entrepreneurs for the future

During counselling appointments

As a career counsellor, you can start giving future entrepreneurs a taste of what building a company looks like: going for business strategy courses, for example, or getting an internship in a very small structure where they see founders on a daily basis and understand what is really going on in their work life.

Of course, the easiest way to start is to just follow entrepreneurship classes inside their institution, if at all possible. If not, you can organise events and invite speakers who founded their own companies, so that they can share their knowledge and experience with your students.

You can also share events organised by other institutions, typically business incubators.

Your job entails encouraging would-be entrepreneurs and giving them useful advice to grow a great company. Remember not to downplay how hard it is to build a venture from scratch. Tell your student that starting with a few co-founders makes the work much simpler, as there is a lot of work to be done and being several people involved will help with commitment.

They should not keep their secret either. Many founders feel like someone is going to steal their idea if they talk about it before launch: as a result, when it launches, nobody expects it and wants to invest in it, and more importantly, the product or service might simply not answer a real need. Tell your counselled students to confront the market as soon as they can so they will adapt the product and the business model to the market’s needs and desires.

Organising panels

A simple way to get students to understand what entrepreneurship entails is to invite a number of people who founded their own company.

Your best bet for that would be to search the alumni database and find people who made this choice. Most of them, given that they care about what they created, will be glad to use the free publicity and help students who go to the institution they went to. One good piece of advice would be to stay in touch with your former students so you can reach out to them at any time.

After the end of the event, invite everyone to a networking cocktail so that students can ask specific questions to the founders and founders can meet your young talents. On your side, you could also make the most of this alumni participation to set up corporate partnerships in which your current students could intern at startups founded by alumni and get the first-hand experience of the company life.

Setting up mentoring programmes

Ask founders if they would be able to dedicate time to mentoring students who want to follow their footsteps: one hour per month, for example, or one hour a day for a week every year. This second format is the one that engineering schools cluster Grenoble INP choose to adopt: every semester, they reach out to former students in all fields and ask them to mentor students and recent graduates for just one week. They call it the Mentorship Week, and we will talk about it in detail in an upcoming case study.

On a more regular basis, Copenhagen Business School has implemented an application form for anyone who would like to mentor their students, in order to always have the right profiles on hand to help their students. This is great and implies low effort for you. However, to put it in place and see some results, you will need a top-notch alumni communication strategy.

Don’t make it all about founders either! Teach your students how to make an elevator pitch and how to design a business plan, then find former students who would be glad to support these kinds of projects and invest time or money into them. Any alumni can take part in that effort by offering pro bono consulting or loaning money to early-stage projects in exchange for shares.


Hackathons sound like they are made for programmers, but their spirit goes far beyond software development. Joshua Tauberer, a successful hackathon organiser, defines a hackathon as “any event of any duration where people come together to solve problems”: not necessarily technical, but very goal-oriented. This is exactly what building a company is about: finding a solution to a problem that people have, and then pitching it convincingly.

This definition by Tauberer is absolutely accurate and easier than it seems to set up. You will just need a large room and, preferably, free food and drinks. Let students sign up for the event and create their own teams, from 2 to 5 people; try not to get involved, as personal bonds are essential to building a sustainable project. Then make student groups choose what problem they want to solve if they don’t have an idea already. Try to offer prizes to winning teams, ranging from extra credit for the best elevator pitch to actual funding for a full-scale project. If the administrative implications are too complex, offering a new pair of headphones or a dinner at a nice restaurant will do the trick too.

Online resources

The initiatives we’ve talked about can yield important results, but these results will be best complemented with a long-term and low-maintenance approach. What you can do on the longer term, with lower effort and better help for students at any time, is build an online resource library.

In this resource page, you could add different types of information, starting with print resources you have in your school. For instance, do you have books dedicated to building a business plan in your library? Put their names on that page. Do you know of websites and blog posts of interest to future entrepreneurs, such as the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurswebsite?

Then, list information that is specific to your institution. Maybe you have a career counsellor who is dedicated to entrepreneurship projects: in that case, add a link to your career counselling booking software so students can find it directly on that page. What about reaching out to alumni and making a list of founder alumni who would be glad to share their experience with students who send them a message?

Finally, focus on more local information. It would be useful to list startup accelerators in your region, as well as specific funding programmes for different demographics, especially student entrepreneurs, or types of projects, for example in education. If there is fairly simple paperwork to fill in to create a registered company in your region or country, link to it. For more advanced students, share contact details for a few business lawyers.

High investment, high results: building entrepreneurship programmes

This last way to help aspiring entrepreneurs is the hardest one to set up but also the most fruitful. It should be noted that to implement them and see real results, you will need support from all the stakeholders in the institution.

If there is a high proportion of aspiring entrepreneurs, you might want to build a business incubator, providing students with free offices, limited funds, adapted class hours and consulting. You can add technological tools as well to help them: one of them is 3D printers that will let them build cheap prototypes that they can easily show potential investors. In order to cut costs and diversify the areas of expertise of your aspiring entrepreneurs, you can build a network of institutions from the same city but with different specialisations. For example, Stockholm University has its own incubator, grouping all majors together regardless of what they specialise in.

Another solution, that is slightly lighter to set up but still has a lot of weight in students’ paths, is to build an entrepreneurship option into students’ classic study path. For example, emlyon business school gets students in teams of 4 or 5 and gives them one day per week for a semester to work on a fictional, or real, business venture. They need to create it completely from scratch, submitting a mock funding plan at the end of the semester, which is graded like any other end-of-term assignment.

Get started in your counseling by understanding whether and when entrepreneurship is right for the students you counsel. Then, organise events that will help them best, for example through panels, mentoring or hackathons. Creating entrepreneurship programmes in your institution or with other institutions is the hardest, but also most rewarding thing you can do for your aspiring entrepreneurs.

Posted by
Lexane Sirac
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