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How UAE-based universities must be refurbished as creative free zones

How UAE-based universities must be refurbished as creative free zones

Better education for entrepreneurs is required to ensure they build products and services that people want

“We want our universities to not only graduate students, but also create companies and employers.” This was the challenge set forth by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in the government’s Fifty Year Charter published early in 2019.

Universities have long been a natural breeding ground for enterprise and innovation. Entrepreneurship is a journey; a process of self-actualisation that can be learnt and cultivated by anyone. As much an art as a science, it requires a change in mindset that embodies both personal and professional growth.

So if we are to shift from the organic route into entrepreneurship that we have seen in universities for years, to a process that both stimulates and facilitates enterprise activity, educators need to start unlocking this new mindset in their students.

The key to this is to create a structured approach based on the principles of design thinking and experiential learning. From ideation to market entry, students are inspired by real-life, hands-on lessons.

This ‘learning by doing’ method allows students to brainstorm ideas in response to real-world challenges and apply design thinking approaches, like testing and reframing concepts based on empathy with their consumers. Ultimately, the process allows them to convert those functional prototypes with Minimum Value Features and to activate Go-To-Market strategies.

Providing a step-by-step framework for the enterprise journey is just one part of the story; such interventions cannot exist in isolation. The sobering truth, according to research by the enterprise community, Failory, is that 90 per cent of all startups go out of business; 10 per cent in the very first year and 70 per cent during years two to five. Of those 10 per cent that do survive, most encounter severe ‘near death’ experiences along the way.

Findings from the London-based data analytics firm, Autopsy, show that a lack of market need and team-related issues are among the leading causes of start-up failure in the MENA region.

This points to the need for actions that don’t simply promote entrepreneurship, but that also improve survival and success rates. Among these actions, we need better education for entrepreneurs to ensure that they build the products and services that people want, and avoid cognitive biases and pre-conceptions that may lead them down the wrong track.

More opportunities for mentorship and a broader spectrum of funding options would also help to boost survival rates, as well as incubation and acceleration programmes that apply a selection process to ensure startups meet basic criteria for support.

The re-thinking of enterprise education is also under the spotlight at an international level. Earlier this month, the United Nations convened a global panel discussion to reflect on the role of universities and academia in fostering youth entrepreneurship. Alongside academic experts, scholars, and students, were international figureheads such as Ambassador Daniel Carmon, former head of MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation and former Ambassador to the UN; and Ambassador Rudi Warjri, former Ambassador of India to Columbia, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The panel discussed concrete examples to help guide academia to support the process of enterprise education, beyond the confines of the meeting room or lecture theatre.

What has emerged is that entrepreneurs need early and sustained support in three fundamental elements of startup success. First, they need to acquire the business skills and professional acumen to establish a viable product or service. Alongside this, they need to develop the technical expertise and product knowledge to ideate and innovate in their chosen sector. The final piece of the jigsaw, and a particularly challenging one for new founders, is securing startup investment.

UAE universities are the ideal space to bring these components together in a supportive and motivational environment. Academics are there to play a part in developing the students’ skills and knowledge, industry experts are on hand to provide guidance and professional mentorship, and links with investment bodies like Dubai SME, Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund, and the traditional angel investors and venture capitalists can be brokered to provide the start-up investment to get new businesses off the ground. It is this enterprise support ecosystem that will see our universities become hubs of creativity and innovation in the years to come.

Dr. Sunitha Kshatriya is a manager at Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center and Tatiana Zalan, an associate professor of Management at American University in DubaiDr. Sunitha Kshatriya

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