Kathy Harvey is the Associate Dean of MBA and Executive Degrees at the Saïd Business School in Oxford. She is also the leader of the Entrepreneurship Project for the Executive MBA. In this role Kathy has expanded the programmes offered by the business school and oversees the MBA, executive MBA and other executive degree programmes. The MBA and Executive MBA programmes which Kathy works on are based on three key principles. Firstly, understanding global complexity; teaching individuals how to think globally, and understand the increasing complexity, pressures, and changes in global business. Secondly encouraging individuals to think about their personal leadership styles, and where they want to take their professional leadership; and thirdly, teaching and fostering an entrepreneurial mindset. Entrepreneurs are at the forefront of making big decisions every day. Motivating a small team to scale up an idea, using their abilities to make decisions, marshalling resources under conditions of risk and be willing to take those risks, are all characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. This is the entrepreneurial mindset which the MBA and Executive MBA programmes Kathy works on aim to foster. Her role and that of her team at the Entrepreneurial Project is essentially to curate entrepreneurs’ ideas and nudge them into thinking for themselves, thinking about how to marshal their resources and then how to develop their ideas with those resources. Kathy also sits on a number of the boards of start-ups begun by students at the business school.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My role now in the Business School and working with entrepreneurs is my third career really. I began my professional career as a political journalist working for the BBC. Then like many people with children I wanted a better work life balance and so started working free-lance. Almost by mistake I was asked to put a proposal for a new business idea in front of an investment bank and this led to starting began my own media consultancy firm which I was the CEO of for several years. However, I also continued writing and one of my focuses was on business schools through which I found out about the Saïd Business School at Oxford. I realised this was a special place and seized the opportunity, when it arose, to join the team expanding the School’s activities. Since I joined, my focus has been on building new programmes and expanding the flagship programmes. Through all the changes in my career, I feel I’ve been guided by my own entrepreneurial spirit to always take myself in new directions because what I really love is trying to make something better than it already is. I love asking questions; how can something be improved?; can I create something new which will benefit the world around me? So, while I work in an organisation, I see myself as an entrepreneur within an organisation, which in itself cultivates entrepreneurship. This is so important because entrepreneurship immensely benefits not just those who work for and with the business, but wider society. There is nothing more exciting than a new idea and it is such a privilege to be on the side-lines of our students’ ideas, helping and watching them grow as entrepreneurs.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
There are so many different definitions of entrepreneurship, so I find it easier to first to try to define what an entrepreneur is. To me an entrepreneur is someone on with a good idea, who can motivate investors, employees and customers to turn that idea into a successful business, regardless of the barriers, and regardless of the limits to their resources. They are someone who determinedly pursues what they believe is right and gathers the resources around them to make their idea happen. So coming to entrepreneurship, I would say as category it is all about the intersection of ideas, risk, positive decision making and above all being a person who really cares about what they do.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why
Persistence is key because inevitably things will change, obstacles will come up and the idea will have to pivot and be adapted. Communication, the ability tell story, inspire your team, investors and the customers is crucial. All entrepreneurs have to persuade others to believe in their idea and gain the support needed to guarantee the progression and success of the venture. And finally, a great entrepreneur has the ability to change his or her mind when it matters most. I suppose what I mean here is that they need to be able to reflect, understand when something doesn’t work and be driven to overcome obstacles.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
There are two moments in the process of supporting entrepreneurs which are my favourite. The first is a painful moment for the entrepreneur and their team: when they realise, they have to pivot. The idea as they saw it in the beginning is not going to be as successful as they hoped and they are going to have adapt because the customer wants something different. That moment of realisation is very exciting because I can then see that the entrepreneur and their team can really fly and take their idea forward. This is hard to watch though, and as a supporter you have to be very sensitive to make sure the entrepreneur reaches the point of being wiling and ready to adapt in a way which works for them.
The pitch is also an exciting and fulfilling moment. Seeing a well-prepared pitch being delivered, the distillation of their thought process, the reception of the ideas and new insights which are gained from the process is very satisfying. I feel very privileged to be in working in such an energising space.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Two individuals come to mind who are great inspirations to me, and very topical. Firstly Sarah Gilbert, who is of course the scientist who led the team which developed the Astrazeneca vaccine. She and her team were so inspiring in their united determination to do something good for the world. The other individual behind the scenes in that story who really inspires me is Bill Enright CEO of Vaccitech which developed the technology enabling Sarah and her team to develop the vaccine. Bill took on the role before the pandemic when this company was not expecting to focus all its efforts on this particular vaccine research. He and his colleagues made the right call. I admire Bill for being able to steer the team to, and through, this very difficult task. What a lot of people don’t realise is that most vaccines fail so being able to commit all the companies’ resources to this effort would have taken immense insight and courage. Bill was not the scientist behind this vaccine, but as CEO of a company chose to serve the needs of world at a very uncertain time, which is a truly inspirational act. Vaccitech, which originated here at Oxford Univeristy, has now gone public and is starting a new chapter in its development.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would want to ask how they made the most difficult decision during that time. Who did they consult? How long did it take to come to the decision? What were the key moments in the process which could’ve changed everything? And also I would like to know what they want to do next?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
As mentioned, the moment of realisation when the entrepreneur knows they will have to pivot and does, as well as the pitch, are the most satisfying. I have been in this role working with entrepreneurs for over 8 years it has been a privilege to have worked with such motivated, creative individuals, who began their entrepreneurial journey at the school when their ideas were only little seeds. I’ve seen them grow and now some are taking the big leap to becoming public.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned supporting entrepreneurs?
One lesson I have learned is not to move in to help too quickly. The adage ‘fail fast fail often’ is a cliché but it is so true. You can only learn through experience. Yes of course, there are processes, tools and techniques we as entrepreneurship mentors can teach. They help individuals reflect on whether what they are is doing right, but generally entrepreneurs are moving so fast because they really believe in what they are doing and they might not stop until they learn the hard way. They should reflect more but they don’t always do this. An entrepreneurial education, before you even hatch your idea, is certainly a great toolkit. But learning how to use the tools successfully comes in the school of real life. That’s why entrepreneurship projects are important as part of MBA programmes. They are as near to “ real life” as you will get – so you can start making mistakes without too many consequences. It’s important to let budding entrepreneurs experience the process for themselves and learn from mistakes without intervening too early.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
We have an amazing Entrepreneurship Centre her at the Said Business School in Oxford, with a lot of online and in person activities for everyone. The centre has so much expertise it’s a treasure chest. I would say it is important not to forget the resources that you already have around you. Use your existing network and business connections, you don’t need to simply employ a team, you can gather the right “posse” of supporters around you from among your friends and family who will support you.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
There are huge challenges for women entrepreneurs. One that is well documented is the lack of money given to female entrepreneurs because they don’t fit a stereotype that many investors (mainly male) are looking for. They also face the broader problem of there being a fixed image of the entrepreneur, that of the Silicon Valley male tech entrepreneur which probably contributes to the problem of securing investment. I do think things are looking up; there are lots of female VC groups, angel investing groups, niche investment firms more interested in female entrepreneurs and so on. But investment opportunity is still the biggest problem to solve, and the key is to provide as much heavy hitting support for those who put themselves forward in the marketplace as possible. I also believe this support must come from male mentors as well as female mentors.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Business education. Skill yourself up as much as possible, learn for example how VC finance works and how to present and communicate in a pitch. Anything women can do to skill themselves up is important because so many women in the entrepreneurship space feel like imposters, that they won’t be taken seriously. While I can assure them this isn’t true it needs to be felt, women need to believe in themselves as entrepreneurs. Persuading investors is not only about the 5-year projections it’s also about being confident in yourself and your idea, so skilling up to gain that confidence is essential.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
It is our job is to create a climate for change. This can be done by fundraising for more scholarships for women, making sure women are well represented in entrepreneurial teams; something our whole team of entrepreneurship experts are aware of. Also having more business incubators for women, more places on MBAs and just overall more education to give women confidence. Specialist initiatives can work but they are one drop in the ocean compared with facilitating a good general business education for women who are interested in being entrepreneurs.
Any last words of advice?
Anyone with an idea, don’t let it sit in your head. Don’t be afraid to pursue your idea, and if it doesn’t work that doesn’t matter, having a go is the most important thing.