Fiona Reid is the founder and former Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Saïd Business School. She returned to Oxford in 2001 to help set up the centre, after having completed an undergraduate degree at Magdalen College, and having had a career in the private sector as an entrepreneur herself. In 2002 she founded the Oxford Entrepreneurs which has since grown to be the largest entrepreneurship society in Europe, with 12,000 Oxford University Members and more than 65,000 network members. Since then, Fiona has been involved in a number of start-ups across the UK and has continued to develop new programmes to support science entrepreneurship, linking universities with business communities.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I had been an entrepreneur before coming back to Oxford to set up the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. I was working for a sports company and had also been involved with raising finance for companies in London. I set up an entrepreneurship centre for Imperial College in 2000, then came to Oxford to set up theirs subsequently.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
The ability to see problems as opportunities.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, the ability to always learn. An entrepreneur needs to continuously be learning – about themselves as much as about the world around them. Secondly, it’s important to be able to lead and engage with other people. You need to be able to persuade people to follow you and engage with them in order to build up resources and knowledge. Finally, networking is a major skill in the world of entrepreneurship. Networking is an important part of leadership and it is crucial when it comes to building connections and gathering resources.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I really love all of it, but I especially enjoy being able to watch people grow – both as human beings and as entrepreneurs. Their idea develops as they themselves develop alongside it. Idea, opportunity, and self, configure to become this new, balanced thing. I like the appearance of new things and doing things better – in fact, student are often the agents and actors for many of the big changes that are emerging. Universities are where all of the best research and people come from. Especially in universities like Oxford where you have a combination of new knowledge and good people – when you put those two together exciting ideas starting to form.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I think that some of the incubators and accelerators working in very focussed spaces like regulation technology are really exciting. Also, the companies that are working directly with researchers, like KQ Labs, an accelerator run by The Francis Crick Institute that’s looking at digital health by combining data science with work by clinical researchers. Another organisation is Aspect, which runs out of Oxford. Aspect takes researchers from the social sciences, who have a background in academia, and uses them in the world of business whose ideas could create social and/or economic value, and trains them in how to develop it into something real. Researchers have great ideas that they want to see out there in the world – up until now they haven’t really had a vehicle for that. Companies like Aspect and KQ Labs are amazing at picking up a group of highly entrepreneurial academics who haven’t had the chance to do something that’s specifically focussed for them.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
From an entrepreneurial and leadership perspective, I’m really interested in how people deal with uncertainty. Uncertainty has always been an issue within entrepreneurship – you have to be able to lead through uncertainty. That’s how it differs from standard management. Most business schools and MBAs teach you things that were relevant fifty years ago, but leadership now is not all about certainty and decisiveness. In the twenty-first century, management is all about complex diffuse interfaces; it’s about how you lead in conditions of doubt. That’s the skill set we need now. Talking to leaders who have managed this is really interesting, and I think that hearing from them can really help progress entrepreneurs through a commercial world that is growing ever more complex.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
Starting up the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation was an amazing thing for me personally and also for the world of entrepreneurship within Oxford. When the centre was first set up it was a highly controversial entity within quite a controversial business school. The business school was brand new and up to that point many people did not think that business was a suitable degree to be studied at Oxford. My job at that point was to give business education to scientists, but also to connect them to small business communities and entrepreneurial life in Oxford. So, we had the opportunity to open the doors for the business community to come into Oxford. We created a space for open, free business education, which worked as a networking opportunity between entrepreneurs and businesses. That had never happened in the university before. The course I gave was an eight week evening lecture course designed for post-doctorate and PhD science studentsscientists who were interested in ideas and innovation. Nobody really thought that it would work – they indulged me by giving me one term’s worth of space. Within a very short period of time we had 200 people a night coming to the lectures. This quickly turned to 400 people a night, and kept growing. It was like Woodstock for physicists! From that connectivity, lots of things began to happen. That whole venture was incredibly satisfying. It was the delivery of an education product that did more than just educate, it also produced businesses. It serviced a need which hadn’t been pulled out by the university. Setting up the Oxford Entrepreneurs was similarly rewarding – it also became very successful very quickly. The presence of Oxford Entrepreneurs did extraordinary things for the university.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?Lots and lots. I think I was a little bit too compliant with the existing powers of the technology transfer office at the time. I wanted to do more but was halted at the gateway of some of the intellectual property based businesses. We started up an incubator, but it was just me and one other person at the beginning. Now, I regret not pushing back harder against authorities. That being said, I think that all of the things I should have pushed back against at the time have changed now. Also, I think I didn’t quite get the balancing act right between keeping entrepreneurship off of the curriculum but still making it a serious enough topic that it wouldn’t just be considered “extra, fun stuff”. That’s always a struggle at every university, and it’s one that I didn’t quite crack at Oxford.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
It’s important to remember that there are lots of investors in Oxford – there are also lots of formal and informal networks. In terms of physical spaces, the Oxford Science Park is amazing, as is the Begbroke Science Park. Those physical locations create networks in their own way of educational inputs and support, which can be really helpful. Personally, I also know a lot of people who are interested in investing in early-stage ideas and new entrepreneurs, so I would probably send individuals to somebody that I know might be interested in their project. We used to run a programme called ‘Silicone Valley Comes to Oxford’ in the early 2000s, where Silicone Valley entrepreneurs were brought over to Oxford to do MBA classes. We had entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and the founder of Twitter giving lectures. Through this we built up a network of connections with entrepreneurs in the US, especially within technology. So I’d probably send anybody interested in tech along to one of those people.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?Personally, I would describe myself as an entrepreneur working disruptively within academia. By and large I have found that there is always very good support from the top levels of the university. Where it’s been more challenging has been where other people have wanted to own my success. The world of entrepreneurship in Oxford became very successful and there were a lot of pushbacks, particularly within the business school, from people who wanted that success to be something within their own space. As a woman, I was not allowed to be the architect and director of all of this success. It had to be subsumed within some other ill-fitting, organisational vehicle. I suppose I encountered an element of glory-claiming from all over the place. People wanted to add an element of structuring to the centre, which for me didn’t work so well. I wanted everything to be open and free across the university and beyond, into the wider Oxford community. Unfortunately, that was considered something that didn’t fit within university tramlines. In terms of the wider challenges that female entrepreneurs face, I think it’s important to note that over the last twenty years the number of female entrepreneurs has gone down dramatically. What used to be a more gender-balanced community has become increasingly male-dominant. Stereotype figures like Mark Zuckerberg – that “man in a T-shirt with a laptop whose going to take over the world” figure – became a very dominant image of what people expected an entrepreneur to look like. Women judge themselves against this type of masculine, performative figure, and because most women are not like this stereotype, and don’t want to be like this stereotype, they decide that the world of entrepreneurship must not be a place that they belong. It’s not been the most helpful environment in the past few years for women entrepreneurs. Just look at the venture capital data on how many female-led businesses get funded. Data from the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association shows that only 15% of all venture capitals in the UK went to start-up companies that had any women on the team. The amount of funding that went towards female-led businesses was around 4%.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
For women entrepreneurs I think education and training are really important. Both of these give people the confidence to feel like they can do things like write a business plan, present their ideas, or network with investors. Often it’s that confidence barrier that is the hardest thing to overcome at start. Many women think that they need the appropriate skill set before they can take advantage of any opportunities out there. Giving them those skills helps to unlock the door. I would say that you just need to know enough. Enough about finance, enough about legal contracts. We need to give women enough of the skills and education to have the confidence to go out and do things. Nowadays you can find the resources online to teach and train yourself.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
For universities, profiling successful people is very important. Of all powerful things, the role model effect is incredibly inspirational and educational. Universities should celebrate their own. Recently we’ve seen people like Sarah Gilbert at the top of her field, but there are many more amazing female entrepreneurial academics like her who have had hybrid careers – academic activities are often also business activities. In fact, the overlap between successful academics and entrepreneurial behaviour is very high. Academia is place where highly intelligent women have been allowed to thrive for a long time, and many successful women academics also run companies alongside their work.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I think that it’s really possible for young people to change the world – and they really need to. Being a skilled entrepreneur is the way to do it. Learn how to manage uncertainty and make sure you have the drive and vision required to be a good leader. That’s how you can make the really big system changes. Even if the entrepreneurial path doesn’t necessarily involve a start-up at the end, it’s the entrepreneurial methods that will change the world.