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Leeds students join international entrepreneur’s bootcamp in China


Three student entrepreneurs at Leeds travelled to China to take part in an international entrepreneurs’ bootcamp in July, thanks to a collaboration between the University of Leeds Business Confucius Institute and Spark, the University’s business start-up service.

The Young Entrepreneurs to China event is hosted by the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) - Leeds’ Chinese partner university - and organised by the Confucius Institute at Victoria University, Australia. This was the first time that this event was open to other international Confucius Institute partners and only 18 places were available.

Says Frances Noble, Marketing Executive of the Leeds Business Confucius Institute:
“We needed to work fast to find the strongest applicants to secure the places for Leeds.  We immediately thought of Spark and the Year in Enterprise programme. As well as assisting with the application process, the Spark team was also able to source funding for flights and visas which meant that we could put not only forward great candidates, we knew the students could definitely take advantage of the opportunity and not have to worry about the costs.”

Abinav Bhattachan (BA Digital Media), Caitlin Pharoah O-Reilly (BA Film, Photography and Media) and Sarah Lloyd (BA Professional Studies), travelled to Beijing and Shenzhen where they took part in a packed 2-week programme of coaching sessions, business visits and cultural excursions, meeting with investors, visiting a Chinese start-up incubator and companies including Huawei Technologies, King Camp, Plug&Play and Lenovo.

Abinav said: “It all happened really fast. We’d only just learned that we’d won a place on the Year in Enterprise programme when we were emailed about the chance to take part in the trip to China!

“There were so few places available, we all felt very privileged to take part and extremely grateful for the package of support that the Spark team and Confucius Institute put together for us in such a short space of time.

“Being in an environment with other international student entrepreneurs, all discussing our business ideas together and learning from each other was brilliant. I’ve made new friends and contacts to draw on from all over the world.

“My business is an online platform that connects people who deliver creative and well-being-related activities and events with potential clients.  In China, we were encouraged to pitch our business plans to each other, to business professionals and investors, so I’ve had lots of useful feedback to reflect on and since coming back I’ve already evolved and refined my plans. The trip has totally expanded my horizons, and I feel empowered and enthused with a clearer grasp of what I want to do with my Year in Enterprise.”

Says Caitlin, who plans to set up her own photography business: “It was a real culture shock in so many ways but the cultural briefings from the Confucius Institute before we went were really helpful, as I think we’d been a little apprehensive about what to expect.

My favourite business visit was to Lenovo headquarters, where we were shown the kind of futuristic world they’re planning for. We were given a tour around a set-up of a home and a workplace where everything was enabled by smart technologies. I was completely blown away.

“In China they do business in an insanely intensive pace and the hours they put in are incredible. It’s humbling to see. It’s also so advanced technologically, it was a real eye-opener to see how technology is so central there. The main thing that I’ll take from the trip and apply to my business is the need to stay ahead of the game with technology; I need to be aware of all the new cameras, software and equipment so I don’t become overshadowed by it.

“There was lots of discussions about scaling up our businesses, and I was a little anxious at first because my photography business is just me. But it’s inspired me to think about how to expand my business in ways that I’d never thought about before - for example I’m now I’m planning some online teaching, because there’s a market for it.  I’d never have believed I would ever have an opportunity like this and I’m very thankful to Spark for this incredible experience.”

Sarah was also a little anxious at first – not least because she’d never flown before, let alone travelled as far afield as China - but also because her business is not focused on profit, like her peers on the bootcamp. Sarah is setting up a foundation for knife crime awareness and provide support for families affected by knife crime in Leeds, and has plans to roll it out nationally.

“I did worry that it might not be relevant as my business is a social enterprise focused on social responsibility,” she says. “But it’s actually helped a lot, inspiring me to think of ways to make the foundation sustainable long term so that I can grow it. I’ve also made loads of contacts, people who have connections within their own governments who want to talk to me more about what I’m doing and my social policy research, and this is fantastic.”

It’s been quite surreal really. It’s been an opportunity I never thought I would ever have, both in a cultural and business sense.  It was amazing and I loved every minute.

Kairen Skelley, Spark’s head of Business Start-up said: “This was a unique and incredible opportunity for these three talented student entrepreneurs. We knew that they would make the most of it and it’s fantastic to see the impact that it’s had already on their outlook, confidence and their business plans as they start their Year in Enterprise.”

Dr Giles Blackburne, Executive Director of the Leeds Business Confucius Institute added: “This collaboration was a great example of being able to use the benefits of the connections that we have with China to facilitate and enhance other valuable programmes that are delivered at Leeds. It was a seamless collaboration and we hope to be able to offer the trip in future years too.”

Photographs by (shot by Caitlin Pharoah O-Reilly, University of Leeds, Year In Enterprise 2019-20).