Johanna Harrison and Will Tomsett are both graduates of Regent's Park College (Johanna read English Literature and graduated in 2014, whilst Will read History and graduated in 2015). They are the directors of Oxbridge Future Leaders, a summer school focused on humanities, social sciences and leadership skills.
Q: What is your background? Why are you doing this?
J: We felt that we wanted to create an educational opportunity for those who wanted (as well as the typical 'Oxford' experience) a real focus on the qualities and skills that attract so many visiting students to Oxford; leadership, change and a sense of responsibility in global affairs. I in particular have done a lot of charity work abroad and felt that the academic and social resources of Oxford would be perfect to create dynamic and globally-orientated learning experiences to engage more young people in how to be responsible, compassionate and motivated community activists.
W: I think it’s also fair to say that we were both also troubled by the increasing difficulties with obtaining student visas in the UK, which is why so many UK universities are setting up branch campuses in foreign countries. We both feel that a British education is one of this country’s greatest exports, and wanted to widen the number of young people who could experience that in Britain itself as much as possible.
Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
J: Having a great idea and then learning very quickly which strategies to employ to make sure it works!
W: I think it’s also important to have the right team to build an idea into a reality. I’m lucky I found Johanna as a business partner - I think we both complement the other’s skillsets quite well.
Q: What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
J: For me, I don't think it was necessarily a decision to become an entrepreneur- we've sort of accidentally fallen into that role through creating this project. We are really proud of the school's early stage development and hope that it can be seen through.
W: I was really excited by the possibility of being able to design something from the ground-up and watch it grow from there - what we’re doing is intellectually exciting and focused on people and their futures. It’s people-based, unique, exhausting and fascinating.
Q: So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
J: Patience, creativity and great communication skills.
W: The idea has to be a good one, which you can successfully monetise, and you need to have a passion for what you’re doing - it’s a lot of work sometimes!
Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
J: I really like the problem-solving aspect. I’ve worked in some pretty difficult environments and that’s always been the area I feel is most rewarding- being faced with a problem and using your experience and information to solve it.
W: I’ve absolutely loved being able to design our own curriculum with world-leading experts in their fields. I get genuinely excited when Johanna and I discuss what opportunities we’re going to be able to offer our students, and when we discuss what social activities and cultural tours we’re going to run. It’s such an amazing opportunity to help develop someone’s intellectual curiosity in this sort of way.
Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
J: I don’t tend to have role models, which I appreciate is a bit of a weird answer- I generally think very highly of organisations that are socially responsible. Scholarships and bursaries were written into OFL from its conception and I feel very strongly that being able to offer these is something that we want to protect going forward.
W: I’d strongly echo that statement. I really admire charitable endowment funds such as the Wellcome Trust - the transformative work that it is able to fund is inspiring, and its sense of a social mission seems to me to be a fantastic basis for an organisation. I don’t think it’s a surprise that we don’t have quite as much money as Wellcome to do good with - but we’re very keen to grow our own scholarship endowment over the next few years to make the largest global impact we can.
Q: If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
J: I’d want to discuss how best to encourage charity involvement and volunteering as a really integral part of the company structure. I like workplaces that encourage, for example, matched or payroll giving, as well as time written into the year for charity volunteering.
W: I’d really enjoy understanding a company’s culture - what gets people out of bed in the morning, and how they work when they’re in the office.
Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
J: We’re at the very early stages but when the first application was submitted within 45 minutes of our website going live, I was very pleased indeed.
W: Seconded. That was a moment where I suddenly realised how much demand there is out there for what we do.
Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
J: I think so far it’s been to not put information in the public domain until it’s been completely finalized and approved- no information is better than the wrong information!
W: I agree. I have a tendency to leap to make things public as soon as they come into my head - which I’ve realised as our summer school gets higher profile is not the right way to do it!
Q: What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
J: Our biggest selling point of the entire business is that we’re based in Oxford and at the University. We both really stand by the fact that this is an inspirational place, whichever way you look at it- already we have absolutely incredible people involved and we are so excited about building and stewarding an outward-looking and different educational summer experience.
W: There is such incredible talent in Oxford, and so many helpful and friendly people keen to use their skills to help you. We’ve really benefited from having so many world-class thinkers in the city, as we’ve been able to draw on their expertise to help us run this summer school.
Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship information or resources in Oxfordshire, where would you send them?
J: Said Business School has been great to us- it’s amazing to have such a resource literally on our doorstep.
W: Agreed. The Startup Launchpad has been such an incredible hub of knowledge.
Q: Any last words of advice?
J: I was once told that you can’t go into business without a partner, and I think this has been proof of that- Will and I are good at very different things so complement each other really well. Having a business partner also means there’s someone to tell you to pull yourself together when you have the inevitable “Can we do this?” wobble- and that goes both ways!
W: Seconded. Having a partner who shares your vision and enthusiasm means that you share the workload!
Oxbridge Future Leaders is a humanities and social sciences summer school for international students aged 16-23 taking place in Oxford in August 2016.