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Reflections on leading a university to work like a start-up

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29 March 2021

Joining the University of Auckland Business School in late 2015, I felt very curious. A number of questions were swimming around as I’d been running my own business for 12 years in London, so I wasn’t used to working in organisations and having a boss. How long would I stay, and how would I make an impact in such a large traditional institution?

Five and a half years later, those questions have been answered and as I depart, our Engagement Manager, Naomi, has asked me to reflect on my time here. I’ve missed her deadline, twice. I now realise that I’ve been avoiding writing this piece as already I feel the emotion of leaving welling up.

I stayed, and my team and I have created impact not just at the University but also in the ecosystem and internationally, achieving being named the Entrepreneurial University of the Year for the Asia Pacific region in 2020.

This impact has been achieved in the same way a start-up goes from a scribble on the back of a napkin to a fully funded venture. It’s been driven with an audacious goal, passionate entrepreneurially minded staff, quick wins, funding, and a network of supporters.

The CIE was run like a start-up for the first two years of its transformation. Those of you familiar with a university may be wondering, ‘how is that possible within the confines of a large bureaucratic organisation like a university?’

Every start-up founder must have a dream, and a big reason why. To make a dent in the New Zealand economy, to assist it in moving from being based on primary industries, to one built on innovation and enterprise was ours. And with this motivation, our team then dreamt even bigger, and envisioned being the leader in innovation and entrepreneurship in the Southern Hemisphere. Great stuff for vision statements, but we knew our generous donors would want to be able to measure this. So, we set an audacious goal; that by 2020 we would have engaged with 10% of the university’s students. The University of Auckland has a student roll of 42,000, so we had to increase from 800 participants to 4,200 in five years.

Here’s the thing about audacious goals – when people first hear them, they look at you as if you are crazy, then they start to wonder, ‘imagine if’. Their thinking then shifts to ‘what could we do to get there’, and the blue touch paper has been lit! Anything is possible, and a movement is born.

Whilst the CIE was a small team, the movement comprised of many supporters inside and outside the university. It was through their generosity of spirit, stretching our thinking, challenging our approach, and giving up of their time that they enabled us to achieve all that we have. This multi-dimensional collaboration from a wide range of stakeholders allowed us to co-create new initiatives and ensured that many groups across the University felt the CIE was truly open to them. The best example of this is the development of Unleash Space. Many hours and many steps walked across campus, plans in hand, seeking input and opinion to ensure we created a magnetic hub for all.

At the heart of our movement is the CIE team. We grew quickly and all new members were recruited for their entrepreneurial mind-set – being able to solve problems creatively, work in teams, deal with ambiguity, being tenacious, taking risks, and persevering. As the majority of the team was new, we invested time and energy in creating values to exemplify our approach, and also to support one another as we launched our new programmes and experienced high growth. And the inevitable stresses and strains of such rapid growth.

I wish I could say it had all been easy but those of you I know personally will recall my periods of utter frustration at the lack of pace, funding ambiguity, and complex politics. I joke that the development of Unleash Space turned my hair white but sometimes it felt like that. So why keep on at it?

Seeing the students at the start of our programmes, timid, questioning and unsure if their idea, or even they, are good enough to even be in the room, and then watching them transform over the weeks has been my fuel to keep on. Wandering through Unleash Space and speaking with students about their creations and the possibility it represents is not only uplifting, it’s also a great privilege.

I will miss so much about the CIE and all that I have been fortunate enough to be involved in.

Participation rate was 800 students in 2015 when I first started working at CIE. By the end of 2020, it had increased to 4,011 – a 401% increase. We are so close to achieving our goal, and the dream remains.

Our big reason why has not yet been resolved and I know that the team I leave behind will continue to unleash their own potential to enable all in our community to unleash theirs.

Kia pai mai i roto i ngā manaakitanga katoa.

Director Wendy Kerr led the Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) from September 2015 – March 2021.  Among her many achievements, she led the development and launch of Unleash Space, the epicentre of entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland, nearing her audacious goal of having 10% of all University of Auckland students engaging with innovation and entrepreneurship programmes. This positioned the University to win Asia-Pacific Entrepreneurial University of the Year 2020.

Velocity Team 2020
Velocity Team 2020

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29 March 2021

Joining the University of Auckland Business School in late 2015, I felt very curious. A number of questions were swimming around as I’d been running my own business for 12 years in London, so I wasn’t used to working in organisations and having a boss. How long would I stay, and how would I make an impact in such a large traditional institution?

Five and a half years later, those questions have been answered and as I depart, our Engagement Manager, Naomi, has asked me to reflect on my time here. I’ve missed her deadline, twice. I now realise that I’ve been avoiding writing this piece as already I feel the emotion of leaving welling up.

I stayed, and my team and I have created impact not just at the University but also in the ecosystem and internationally, achieving being named the Entrepreneurial University of the Year for the Asia Pacific region in 2020.

This impact has been achieved in the same way a start-up goes from a scribble on the back of a napkin to a fully funded venture. It’s been driven with an audacious goal, passionate entrepreneurially minded staff, quick wins, funding, and a network of supporters.

The CIE was run like a start-up for the first two years of its transformation. Those of you familiar with a university may be wondering, ‘how is that possible within the confines of a large bureaucratic organisation like a university?’

Every start-up founder must have a dream, and a big reason why. To make a dent in the New Zealand economy, to assist it in moving from being based on primary industries, to one built on innovation and enterprise was ours. And with this motivation, our team then dreamt even bigger, and envisioned being the leader in innovation and entrepreneurship in the Southern Hemisphere. Great stuff for vision statements, but we knew our generous donors would want to be able to measure this. So, we set an audacious goal; that by 2020 we would have engaged with 10% of the university’s students. The University of Auckland has a student roll of 42,000, so we had to increase from 800 participants to 4,200 in five years.

Here’s the thing about audacious goals – when people first hear them, they look at you as if you are crazy, then they start to wonder, ‘imagine if’. Their thinking then shifts to ‘what could we do to get there’, and the blue touch paper has been lit! Anything is possible, and a movement is born.

Whilst the CIE was a small team, the movement comprised of many supporters inside and outside the university. It was through their generosity of spirit, stretching our thinking, challenging our approach, and giving up of their time that they enabled us to achieve all that we have. This multi-dimensional collaboration from a wide range of stakeholders allowed us to co-create new initiatives and ensured that many groups across the University felt the CIE was truly open to them. The best example of this is the development of Unleash Space. Many hours and many steps walked across campus, plans in hand, seeking input and opinion to ensure we created a magnetic hub for all.

At the heart of our movement is the CIE team. We grew quickly and all new members were recruited for their entrepreneurial mind-set – being able to solve problems creatively, work in teams, deal with ambiguity, being tenacious, taking risks, and persevering. As the majority of the team was new, we invested time and energy in creating values to exemplify our approach, and also to support one another as we launched our new programmes and experienced high growth. And the inevitable stresses and strains of such rapid growth.

I wish I could say it had all been easy but those of you I know personally will recall my periods of utter frustration at the lack of pace, funding ambiguity, and complex politics. I joke that the development of Unleash Space turned my hair white but sometimes it felt like that. So why keep on at it?

Seeing the students at the start of our programmes, timid, questioning and unsure if their idea, or even they, are good enough to even be in the room, and then watching them transform over the weeks has been my fuel to keep on. Wandering through Unleash Space and speaking with students about their creations and the possibility it represents is not only uplifting, it’s also a great privilege.

I will miss so much about the CIE and all that I have been fortunate enough to be involved in.

Participation rate was 800 students in 2015 when I first started working at CIE. By the end of 2020, it had increased to 4,011 – a 401% increase. We are so close to achieving our goal, and the dream remains.

Our big reason why has not yet been resolved and I know that the team I leave behind will continue to unleash their own potential to enable all in our community to unleash theirs.

Kia pai mai i roto i ngā manaakitanga katoa.

Director Wendy Kerr led the Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) from September 2015 – March 2021.  Among her many achievements, she led the development and launch of Unleash Space, the epicentre of entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland, nearing her audacious goal of having 10% of all University of Auckland students engaging with innovation and entrepreneurship programmes. This positioned the University to win Asia-Pacific Entrepreneurial University of the Year 2020.


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