Giving Bristol graduates a helping hand
Times are tough for Bristol's graduates. With a global recession at full tilt and UK unemployment the worst it's been since the late 1990s, the prospects may seem bleak for those leaving behind the protective bubble of higher education.
But the University of the West of England has launched a scheme to keep that "bubble" around graduates for a short while as they try to find their feet in the big wide world.
The UWE Ventures project aims to be an "incubator" for graduates' start-up businesses.
The institution has devoted almost an entire floor of the Harbourside Bush Building to the scheme, which offers office space for a nominal rent, along with the added benefits of business advice and practical help – such as assistance with book-keeping and publicity.
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"It's part of the university's role to help its graduates to get their intellectual ideas out into the economy," explains Jill Burnett, UWE's enterprise manager.
"We started the scheme in January, and currently have 35 new businesses based here in the office – though we have space for 65.
"Most of the businesses are linked with the university's own specialist areas – cultural and social innovations and IT.
"We're able to offer an equipped and well-managed office space, with every member being provided with a desk, phone and broadband connection, as well as shared services such as heating, lighting, cleaning, business rates and meeting rooms.
"But we also offer tailored business support from the Enterprise team and their network with regular access to mentors, specialists, partner services and our strong links with university expertise.
"There are also opportunities to take part in our events, including workshops, seminars, and one-to-one surgeries, which cover all aspects of running a business.
"Residents are also encouraged to attend regular business reviews which are held with a panel consisting of local business experts and professionals.
"But coming here also offers members daily access to a dynamic business community. People coming in can learn a lot from those who are a few months ahead with their business – especially when it comes to things like setting up websites, applying for grants and developing their own publicity strategy."
Many of the young entrepreneurs currently in Bush House have made their mark at UWE's Biz Awards – an annual start-up business awards ceremony for graduates.
Rachel Horrocks was a runner-up in last year's awards, and was offered a place on the UWE Ventures programme shortly afterwards.
"I'd been a UWE student, on the BA course in textiles," the 29-year-old explains. "I had an idea for a business selling my own unique wall decorations, which are made from woollen felt, but area attached to the wall by Velcro.
"It means the customer can arrange the felt cut-outs in the way that best suits their home, and they can put some of their own artistic input into the way they appear."
Rachel's woollen felt cutouts include butterflies, flowers and baroque-style swirls.
"I think it's the sort of idea that could really take off in the world of interior design," she says. "It's something totally different to anything that's out there in the market already.
"I was intending to start my business and simply work from home, but it makes all the difference to be able to find an office space like this that I can actually afford."
P oppy Stephenson, 25, from Lockleaze, won a rent-free 12 months in her UWE Ventures office space, after winning a Biz award for her project – the Bristol Festival.
She says: "A group of us got together to launch the Bristol Festival, after the annual Ashton Court Festival came to an end a couple of years ago.
"I'm the only full-time member of the business, though we do have five other trustees who work for around 20-30 hours each week, and a committee of 55 volunteers.
"We realised that, despite the failure of the Ashton Court event, there was a place for an annual festival in the city. All we really had to do was to go back to basics, and to centre it in the middle of the city where people could gain easy access to it."
Poppy's office couldn't be better placed for planning the event – overlooking, as it does, the festival's Harbourside location.
"We're a not-for-profit company, with all our profits going back into the festival," Poppy explains. "And it's not just about organising one event each year.
"We see it as a business where people can learn about event organising, so we have many mentoring days. It's a difficult business to get into, so it's very rewarding to be running a company that allows people to come in on the ground level and get the chance to work on the planning for a big event."
Another of the office spaces is being used by Vashti Richards, a UWE philosophy and sociology graduate, who set up an innovative social enterprise company called Deki.
"It's a website, through which people can offer micro-loans to people in the Third World," explains the 32-year-old, from St Werburgh's.
"I named the company after a Tibetan girl, whom my father had sponsored when I was young. We often received letters from Deki when she was growing up, and I can remember being frustrated for her when, despite the fact that she'd received an education, she had been unable to set up her own business.
"That's what gave me the idea for the company. I've managed to establish contacts with field representatives in Nepal and Ghana. They go out and find people living in genuine poverty with realistic dreams of starting their own business, but who would need to borrow money to get going.
"We then put their picture and their story on the website. Anyone who comes on, can make a small donation of between £10 and £50 towards their project via PayPal, and we then use the field representative to deliver this money to the recipient.
"They then pay back the money, on an interest-free basis, normally over a period of six or 12 months, during which time the lender receives regular updates on how the project is doing."
He added: "Most of these people only need a very simple piece of equipment to make all the difference in their business' success. Many are farmers, who simply need to buy irrigation equipment to make sure they are able to harvest crops at the end of the year."
A nother truly worthy project is being developed under the incubation of the UWE Ventures team by Julie Owen.
The 52-year-old, former disability nursing student at UWE, set up Out & About & Away earlier in May.
The not-for-profit social enterprise business aims to offer respite to carers who look after people with severe learning difficulties, by arranging specially-tailored day trips and holidays for their loved ones.
"I was inspired to do this by my 21-year-old daughter Angharad, who has a neurodevelopmental disorder called Rett Syndrome, which has left her with severe learning difficulties," the Downend mum explains.
"I know just how important it is for the young people to get away in a safe environment and enjoy themselves, but also how important it is that their parents and carers get a break.
"My dream is to be able to offer people specially organised breaks, where we only charge the basic minimum to cover for the cost of nurses and travel arrangements.
"There are charities that organise group trips, but it strikes me as an old-fashioned idea to take people out in a large group, just because they all suffer from learning disabilities.
"Sometimes it's nice to tailor packages for individuals."