Once you meet Nina Jussila it shouldn’t surprise you that aspiring entrepreneurs from Newcastle Business School have given Northumbria University the distinction of winning a national contest to find successful start-ups.
A learning support officer, Nina is also a key personality behind the launch of a new entrepreneurial business management degree course, which Northumbria to its credit has been the first of four UK universities to introduce. If the course proves as successful as early results suggest, we shall be justified in asking why UK universities haven’t tried it out long before, since it has been turning out successful entrepreneurs in Finland for around two decades now.
Nina herself is a product, and today is an educational entrepreneur. Jyväskylä University, Finland’s second largest university – in terms of masters degrees conferred, and the birthplace of education in the Finnish language (from 1863) – has gained Jyväskylä (population 135,591) the soubriquet Athens of Finland, precisely for its contribution to education.
Jyväskylä, though the largest city of central Finland is a much smaller host to academia than Oxford, Edinburgh, and certainly Newcastle, Sunderland or Teesside. Yet its innovative programme for entrepreneurs started easily enough. A lecturer there, wishing to try something different, displayed a poster. “Do you want to travel around the world and learn some marketing?” it asked. The first team of students, on graduating, went on the road with the money they had made.
Newcastle Business School’s course has been developed with what’s called the Team Academy in the Jyväskylä Institute of Science and Technology. A 10-year check of the programme in Finland showed the percentage of Team Academy graduates there starting new businesses was five to 10 times higher than in traditional higher education institutions. One out of every three of the Finnish graduates start a business straight after finishing their studies.
To anyone wavering about a university education the course towards an entrepreneurial business management degree sounds tempting: no teachers, no exams, no classrooms. But there’s always a day of reckoning, and for these students there are still assignments to be done, presentations to be made and reflections expressed – all fully connected with their chosen business.
From the start they’re doing business with real money, cultivating real customers. They’re pushed into the field to talk to people and make contracts. “Everything is real,” Nina points out. She heard about the course when considering her future and thought: “That’s something I’d definitely like to do. It’s made such a huge impact on me. I was able to do things no-one would ever expect me to do,” she recalls.
After graduating at 23 and taking a gap year, she started her own company as an educational coach and working on other projects also. “So many young people feel they don’t fit in the normal model of learning,” she observes. “I wondered how I could help others like that to succeed as well. Afterwards I didn’t want to stay in Finland. I thought Spain could be interesting but decided England’s business culture was closer to Finland’s, and it’s a nice place with the opportunity I was looking for.”
Newcastle and Bristol were the first cities to test the course. “I had the opportunity to come to Newcastle for a few months to help out, and here I am after just over two years involved in running the course,” says Nina, who is 26. Northumbria’s course is going well, she feels, as the success in the competition seems to have borne out. “The first year is always hard for students,” she elaborates. “They have no role models. But some people are passionate about a particular interest and think how to build a business out of it. Many come in with no idea at all. They simply feel that running their own business is how they want to do things.”
By the second of the three years’ study they understand the culture more and can see others who started their business. It’s all about learning by doing. Aspirants are not told what they should do. “When they first come in we lend them £10,” Nina explains. “They must make as much with that £10 as possible. They’re a bit shocked at first but that’s the whole ethos. That’s their seed fund. They bring in some money with the start of their business and invest that for the next project. It works.”
They obviously have to decide how to learn about marketing. They have to find books, find people who already knowledgeable about marketing, and adapt as necessary to plan their project and improve their concept.
“It’s just-in-time learning,” Nina explains. “We don’t tell them ‘you must learn all this now’ because they won’t need it all now and may soon forget it. So it’s learning through need. Once you need that information you have to learn it.” Also the students are based in a business rather than a traditional environment of academia, so they can be surrounded by actual entrepreneurs. That’s why the Newcastle course is run at the Northern Design Centre at Gateshead, rather than in Northumbria University itself. They don’t have a work placement because, as Nina puts it, their own company is their work placement.
Around 65 students – team entrepreneurs, they are called – are on the Northumbria course, making up six teams in total. Each team company has one coach – “our academic staff coach rather than teach,” Nina stresses. “I’m not academically inclined and don’t have my own team. But I’m part of every team, running everything other than the academic side.”
When Nina and her team colleagues graduated they closed the company they had been building. But four different companies, which had already been started during the course, continued. “On graduating, you can decide whether you want still to be with the company you have worked on. Our third year students here are now deciding whether to incorporate their businesses,” Nina says.
So what of her own entrepreneurial future? “I’d love to stay a few more years in England, then who knows?” she wonders. “I have a passion about considering how to change education. I’m doing my masters now and it could help me get credibility for a future company. People will listen to me more. But I don’t see myself as a lecturer. Bouncing ideas off other people is what gives me energy.”
Meanwhile her existing endeavours draw appreciation. An associate says: “She’s a lovely, vibrant young woman – a huge support and font of knowledge for the students already firming up their business plans for the future.”