Teaching the business of entrepreneurship

Posted on: 22 Nov 2018

Suzie Longstaff, headmistress of Putney High School GDST, argues the importance of teaching pupils about the business of entrepreneurship.

With the world changing at such a fast pace, how can we ensure that we are giving our pupils the very best preparation for the jobs that await them? Helping them to achieve their academic goals is certainly an excellent start, but I am well aware that it is by no means enough. We need to give them the critical skills to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace and the agility to adapt and respond to the challenges that await them. So how do we do it?

We know that increasingly, aside from top grades, employers are looking for evidence of the practical skills that are essential in the world of work: fluency in languages, collaborative problem-solving; an understanding of technology and coding, innovative, creative thinking – in fact as Cindy Rose of Microsoft UK told us when she visited last year, these are skills for any young school-leaver today, regardless of the field they wish to go into.

Putney has always had a “can do” culture, so increasing our modern foreign language provision was an obvious first step to offering a truly global education – this September we have added Arabic and Italian to our already broad range of language options – there is, after all, only so far you can go when relying on Google Translate. But how do you teach resourcefulness, adaptability and what amounts to the all-important “Entrepreneurial Frame” of mind that so often sets the highest achievers apart?

Last year, for the first time, we brought in our first Entrepreneur in Residence to help pupils grasp the key skills for growing and maintaining a successful enterprise. This was the sixth in a line of Residencies which provide students with life-changing learning opportunities through unprecedented access to specialists in their fields. In the pilot scheme, Jo Cruse of The Unreasonables reminded us that it’s not all about success; learning to cope with and learn from failure are essential elements of any entrepreneur’s toolkit. Featured by the Evening Standard, the scheme sparked so much interest that we are now working on phase two of the project.

I’m happy to say though, that business brains are already booming at Putney where would-be tycoons have been applying in record numbers to the Year 12 Young Enterprise scheme and students’ own business initiatives have won awards two years running. Holly Hallawell, Year 12, Co-founder of Kalafi Discos, one of three successful businesses run by pupils, said, “We started with a hoodie business which didn't receive the attention and demand we hoped, so we held a disco to fundraise. It was such a success that we realised it would be better to run a disco company, something we were more passionate about.” In its first period, the company was turning a 91% profit and went on to be featured on Wandsworth Radio, having won best overall company and best interview in Central / South West regional finals, and the BLP social impact award in the Central London finals.

Our Putney Ideas Exchange (PIE) programme has had a strong entrepreneurial focus of late with visiting specialists from a wide range of fields. Pablo Ettinger, joint founder of Caffé Nero and experienced business leader spoke convincingly of the importance of following your passions. At the other end of the business process, young award-winning British shoe-designer, Camilla Elphick inspired a rapt audience with her relatively recent path to success from college to the work experience placement which put her on her path to success.

Getting first-hand experience of any business role is of course priceless, which is why last year for the first time, I was delighted to see a group of 50 successful Year 10, 11 and 12 students obtain work experience placements at Vodafone where they had the opportunity to be involved in every aspect of the company’s business from marketing and product testing to coding and web building.

This week our Careers Evening welcomed the brains behind a number of successful start-ups, including Steve Locke, of cocktail bar chain, Be at One and Rebecca Saunders, Founder of Balance Me skincare, to inform and excite our students. Let’s hope they are on the look-out for talent – they would not be the first: Farid Haque, Founder of leading Insure Tech start-up, Asset Vault, recently hired students from Putney to work as interns: “To work at a tech start-up when still in high school is impressive. Students were motivated and self-directed. The team really enjoyed working with the girls; they were responsible and dependable beyond their years.”

It is gratifying that these inspiring leaders see the same promise within our school as we do. It is this fresh approach to learning, combined with a healthy dose of curiosity and a strong foundation in scholarship which is already giving our students the edge, equipping them to rise to a challenge, to be original in their problem-solving and above all, to persevere when the going gets tough, with the spirit and determination that is such a hallmark of Putney pupils.

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About Suzie Longstaff

Suzie Longstaff is Headmistress at Putney High School, a girls' school in South West London.