The Foundry opens up a new wave of Oxford student-led innovation

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Defining entrepreneurship, it’s too easy to get hung up on affluent, white men, who skipped university and started business empires at a young age. Industry beacons such as Richard Branson, Alan Sugar and Jeff Bezos. Contrary to this impression, creativity and business acumen are not restricted to any single demographic, industry or age group. Ana Bakshi, Inaugural Director of the recently opened Oxford Foundry, Oxford University’s first facility dedicated to supporting student-led enterprise, is keen to reinforce this message, that ‘anyone can be an entrepreneur’.

The Oxford Foundry is Oxford University’s first facility dedicated to supporting student-led innovation. Prior to taking up her new post in October 2017, Ana championed and led the King’s College Entrepreneurship Centre from its launch in 2013.

Born into a family of entrepreneurs, and with almost a decade’s experience in the field, Ana has enterprise in her DNA. At Oxford, she also has a vibrant enterprise context to work with, with the well-established technology transfer organisation Oxford University Innovation, and a government-priority regional growth strategy extending towards both London and Cambridge.

Foundry interior

We caught up with Ana, one month in to her new role to find out more about the Oxford Foundry and her vision for the future of entrepreneurship at Oxford:

How are you settling in?

The wonderful thing about Oxford is that there is so much entrepreneurial talent already here. I have already had so many students coming to me with amazing and inspiring ideas.

The diversity of talent and expertise is astounding: in my first week here, the Department of Engineering gave a presentation on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and we had artwork from the Ruskin School of Art displayed in the room at the same time. The whole effect really showed how diverse and inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation can be. It can be anything!

For those that don’t know, what is the Foundry in a nutshell?

The Foundry is about creating a diverse, student-led community where innovation and creativity lives and breathes, and it’s about delivering high quality hands-on learning for all our students. 

The Foundry will inspire students to think more entrepreneurially, to find like-minded people, to build confidence, overcome fear of failure as we all create solutions to big problems. It will be as much for the student who wants to become an employee as it is for the student who wants to set up their own venture.

The Foundry is about people, it’s about finding your tribe and unleashing your best you. We want to support students to ‘smash it’ and achieve success. Success means different things to different people and we want to help give students the practical skills they need to support their respective futures.

pink Foundry

What do you think sets the Foundry apart from other entrepreneurial initiatives at Oxford?

First and foremost, the Foundry will be student-led. I am currently pulling together a student advisory board, which will be representative of the diverse student population at Oxford. The advisory board will include presidents of sports societies, entrepreneurial societies, technology-focused societies as well as societies focusing on music, the arts and beyond. The board will co-create, influence and support, helping us to evaluate the impact we are having on student futures and experiences.

The Foundry is a collective, and our audience is pan-University: we want to encourage collaboration between medics, engineers, historians, philosophers, musicians and more. We want students to know us as interactive, immersive, impactful and most of all, fun.

All of our students deserve to be part of a community that will develop their entrepreneurial mindset, and the psychology of entrepreneurship will be a big theme for the Foundry.  As much as it is about starting your own venture, it is about promoting self-advocacy, building confidence, empathy and personal resilience skills.

Our workshops will help our students to push themselves to explore the lesser-known entrepreneurial side of themselves – to release their inner innovator! The intention is to create an environment where every single voice in the room gets an opportunity to be heard; not just the proactive, confident students.

There’s a perception that entrepreneurs are naturally confident and outspoken, but the loudest person in the room doesn’t necessarily have the ideas to match their self-assurance. We’re interested in cultivating the ‘diamonds in the dark’, those people who may not naturally push themselves forward, but whose contributions are just as valuable. A lot of our workshops will take the focus of preparing students for their future, post-University. It’s ok if they don’t initially have bags of confidence or experience to go for that specific opportunity or pitch that idea – all they need is a willingness to try, and we hope to support our students in building that self-efficacy.

What would you say is the biggest challenge that you face in launching the Foundry?

To me, the biggest challenge of anything on this scale is to make sure that it’s inclusive and that everyone who wishes to use it gets to do so.

Even the word ‘innovation’ itself can be a barrier, so we have to be really careful how we use it. It can mean different things to different sets of people: In the sciences it is about creating amazing technology or doing ground-breaking research, whereas for people in enterprise and education it relates to creativity or just doing things in a different way, taking a different approach.

I think it’s important that the language we use is as inclusive as possible. We want to attract the students that wouldn’t conventionally identify themselves as being entrepreneurial: the historians, the philosophers, the artists, women and people of colour.

I hope the Foundry will be a neutral ground and a very informal space for everyone. But to achieve our goal of finding and shaping new entrepreneurial talent, we have to communicate in a language that they will respond to. That means adapting our tone of voice and losing the business jargon.

How will the Foundry encourage more diversity in entrepreneurship?

I think everyone from economists to academics would agree that women in enterprise are under-utilised and under-supported, and need greater visibility.

I think that interacting with - as well as showcasing - positive role models that students can identify with is really important.

Currently, women and people of colour may feel less inclined to get involved or may think ‘I can’t be an entrepreneur’, because the entrepreneurs that have been put in front of them – or who come up in a google search - don’t look like them.

Through the Foundry, I want to demonstrate to our students that entrepreneurs come in all colours, genders and from all backgrounds. I’d like to put the Beyonces and Serena Williams of this world alongside amazing artists, scientists and self-employed successes, showing that they are all entrepreneurs in spirit and in practise, and that you can be one too.

How have these barriers shaped your experience in the industry?

At times, I have felt the need to be quieter or more reserved because I am young, I’m a woman, and I’m from an ethnic minority, and have felt that these are the things that have singled me out or made me feel intimidated and ‘not in the club’, because everyone at the table looks different from me. But actually, I think that the things that make me different are also my biggest strengths: being a woman, being a bit younger, being from an ethnic minority, for me that has been something I could draw on, to move me forward in my career. It’s what makes me, me. Characteristics that set you apart enable you to provide different perspectives to your environment. I am of the strong opinion that diversity breeds success, and we should see our perceived differences as challenges that provide us with opportunities to make a positive change. 

What do you have planned for the first few months of activity?

Tim Cook [Ed note: yes really, the CEO of Apple!] couldn’t have kicked off our programme of activities more effectively for us, and we are aiming to have a few more high profile speakers over the next few months, as well as hosting workshops and other student-led events, so keep checking our website for updates.

Image of ‘Foundry’ flanked by flowers by Fisher Studios, others by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse