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Four unlikely ways universities prepare students for entrepreneurship

Jun 23 2017 07:39
Sheraan Amod, RecoMed CEO

Giving people a chance and evaluating them purely on their merits is a huge factor in entrepreneurship, explains Sheraan Amod.

A while back I gave a talk at my alma mater to a group of students eager to learn about entrepreneurship. I always relish the chance to engage with students, who are so full of nascent potential and paths not yet travelled.

I decided to share some of the less common lessons to be learned at university, thinking back on my experiences as an electrical and computer engineering student, and later, as an internet and tech entrepreneur.

1. Demystifying complexity and learning anything

I remember a few courses during my degree that had me particularly baffled. For the electrical engineers (like me), it was signals and systems. (I recall that for my actuary friends it was financial maths and for my accountant friends it was tax). Faced with the upcoming exam, upon opening the textbook and seeing what looked like gibberish, a special sense of panic would set in.

Like so many students, I was faced with two choices: accept failure or push through the wall of confusion and learn this subject. Do whatever it takes. I chose the latter path, forcing myself to read, test, re-read and re-test the textbook material until the subject finally started to make sense.

Challenges like this teach students (science students at least) that they have the ability to learn anything; to never shy away from a tricky subject. Give a former science student a financial statement, software system model or set of performance data metrics that they have never seen before, and instead of avoiding it, they will know how to invest the energy required to learn, understand, and possibly even master it.

In my current startup, RecoMed, this lesson has helped me to develop a rapid understanding of the complex world of tech startup metrics as it applied to the sophisticated healthcare environment.

En route to acquiring the 1 200 medical practitioners that we currently have on our platform (RecoMed is a booking platform for patients to book medical and healthcare appointments in SA), we had to change our approach to customer acquisition several times. Even now, we’re still experimenting with new channels of customer acquisition and achieving customer success.

2. Rapid fire document output

Faced with a never ending torrent of assignments and tutorials, as students we were forced to prioritise our workload and sometimes be creative. The method was simple: each person from the group did the tutorial for a different subject and all of the others creatively copied it (making appropriate adjustments so the crime wasn’t obvious), usually right before submission was required.

The ability to quickly review another piece of work from somewhere else, make appropriate adjustments, and then create something new is something that entrepreneurs need to do all the time. It isn’t copying so much as respectfully imitating (eg, a design, report, contract, presentation), and in business it’s considered a skill.

3. Talking the talk (while understanding it)

In my case, I am no longer a software engineer or a formal practitioner of the general field in which I studied (engineering) or subject that I majored in (telecoms). However, I do still work in the business and product side of the tech industry and interact on a daily basis with technical people within and outside my own company.

Without the solid grounding in technical principles of software, networks and systems theory that I got at university, I would undoubtedly be less equipped to not only understand my company’s technical development process, but also earn the respect of my team and peers.

4. Open-minded acceptance of people

University is great at throwing a diverse set of people together into one big heterogenous melting pot. Unlike school, where popularity rankings and “in” vs. “out” groups are quickly established, varsity tends to create an ecosystem where different types of people coexist side by side.

In class, we were forced to work with people we normally wouldn’t have interacted with, and this helped instil a sense of meritocracy among the students, i.e. it doesn’t matter who they are, as long as they can get the work done.

Giving people a chance and evaluating them purely on their merits is a huge factor in entrepreneurship. I remember a particular fellow from my residence at university who was very quiet, odd looking and generally a loner.

I spoke to him a few times about casual topics and one day he emailed me something. I have long forgotten the subject matter, but I still recall the quote he appended to the bottom of his email:

“The more of a loser someone thinks you are, the more surprised they’ll be when you kill them.” (Nida Tahir)

Now, I’m sure he was being metaphorical, but let’s just say that I never again underestimated him or brushed him off… and try never to do that with anybody else.

Such unexpected lessons are part of the magic of university.

* Sheraan Amod is a young entrepreneur currently residing in Cape Town. RecoMed is his second successful venture, the fastest growing online healthcare booking platform in South Africa.

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opinion  |  entrepreneurship
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