Features sits down with Abbas Kazmi, student entrepreneur, to chat about the Guild’s latest project, a start up incubator, the Oxford Accelerator
1) How did Oxford Accelerator come to be?
The Guild is always striving to innovate and stay ahead of the game. We like to try out new and exciting ideas and this is one of the reasons behind our phenomenal success in the past four years since Abbas Kazmi relaunched it back in 2011. Since then we have grown to be Oxford’s largest society with over 11,000 members, still free to join and over 100 events a year, won 9 out of 9 national best university awards in the past 3 years, set up the National Union of Student Business Societies (NUSBS) hosted world class speakers from all areas from Kanye West and Lil Jon to Zac Goldsmith and Theo Paphitis and featured in over a thousand newspapers, magazines, TV and radio outlets and websites globally in over 100 countries including Time, MTV, the Telegraph and the Independent.
Our own story is very entrepreneurial and the Guild’s overall aim is to improve your overall student experience at Oxford and we worry about your career so you don’t have to! We work hard to equip our members with the knowledge, transferable skills, and networking opportunities needed to develop successful careers in their chosen area and the Accelerator fits perfectly into this. We realise that entrepreneurship is becoming an increasingly popular choice and more students want to make their own path in life by starting up their own companies. Even ‘intrapreneurship’ in large companies has become a hot theme. I have had numerous friends and friends of friends approach me for advice about business ideas that they wanted to get off the ground but they didn’t know how best to go about it. I, along with many others, noticed myself that the level of guidance at Oxford for students looking to get advice and support about creating their own companies was lacking. I had set up my first company at 16 and have set up 3 companies whilst at Oxford and have taken part in an incubator. I found that when looking for guidance along the way I had to get it from other sources outside of the University. As Vice President of Oxford Entrepreneurs I had helped organise talks and events, but OE has not done as much on the actual training side to get people from idea stage to funding and a viable company. As a result, the Guild which has continuously come up with new innovations such as our student run investment fund, to our state of the art intranet, decided to change the status quo and try to improve the offerings available for those wanting to create their own business and give entrepreneurship a go. We in fact started over a year ago in trial mode and have helped several companies along the way so far with great success, helping them go from idea to a real product that could raise funding and then we connected them with investors to raise more capital.
Now, off the back of this, we are launching the Accelerator officially to the whole Oxford area with the goal of helping to make Oxford one of the entrepreneurial capitals of the UK. We will be running a lecture series alongside the actual accelerator programme which includes sessions from famous entrepreneurs, and alumni and current students who have successful set up companies at Oxford, which will aim to ease students into entrepreneurship and find out more, even if they do not have a specific idea at the time.
2) You mention that students in Oxford are less likely to own a company compared to the national average, do you think there’s a specific reason for that?
Yes, many Oxford students have traditionally ‘followed the herd’ and gone into law, consulting and banking careers because their friends did, without actually making an informed decision. Everything behind the events and services the Guild offers is aimed at helping students to understand the range of possible career options, find out what they might like or dislike, get more experience and then make a choice off the back of all this. There have unfortunately been relatively fewer success stories of businesses growing out of Oxford, compared to the Cambridge’s, Stanford’s and Harvard’s of this world that Oxford should be competing with. We feel this is down to a lack of sufficient guidance at Oxford for students looking to get advice and support about creating their own companies.
Furthermore, it is also due the culture and attitude towards entrepreneurship at Oxford (and in the UK as whole) compared to the US for example. We want to engender a culture shift and show people that whilst taking the plunge and setting up their own company can be risky, you can take calculated risks to ensure it is a very rewarding and successful experience.
3) What do you hope people will get out of taking part and what would The Accelerator like to achieve?
The Accelerator wants to make sure that there are no longer lamentations in Oxford from people who have ideas but do not know how best to proceed to turn these into real, fundable companies. The Accelerator wants to help create a culture shift and show people that setting up a company is not as scary or risky as they might fear. The Accelerator wants to make a difference to the lives of as many of our fellow peers as possible and leave them with a positive experience after each part of our programme. We want to ensure that there is sufficient support at Oxford for those who might want to give entrepreneurship ago and that they don’t face the same lack of guidance that some of our founders did when setting up their companies. Long term there is no reason why we can’t aim to replicate some of the success of Silicon Valley and help make Oxford one of the entrepreneurial capitals of the UK on our own shores.
Exciting times are ahead so watch this space – plenty more big announcements to come!