María Zubeldía leads the Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. They support students and departments across the university, providing access to local and global networks, offering experiential learning and assisting students’ entrepreneurial goals.
As an innovation coach, María has years of experience mentoring entrepreneurs and has co-founded two of her own projects. As an intrapreneur, she launched the first Lean startup accelerator in Spain at CEIN.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I’ve been working with entrepreneurs for many years. My first contact around 2006-7 was working with tech-based entrepreneurs with the government of Navarra where I was giving them advice on how to move their business ideas forward. I was then promoted and ended up leading the entrepreneurship department. One of the things that caught my attention was how entrepreneurs were asked to write a business plan of around 100 pages outlining what was going to happen to their business in the next 3 years. It didn’t make sense to me, because they didn’t even know what was going to happen in the next month, let alone a year! So, I tried to change that methodology and explored the use of the Lean startup methodology with new ventures. We tested it with entrepreneurs, and it worked, so I managed to change the way we worked with entrepreneurs becoming the first Lean startup accelerator in Europe at that time.
I have always been really passionate about entrepreneurship. My background is in Economics and I did an MBA in Business Administration at Oxford Brookes University. My dad is an entrepreneur. Several of my brothers and sisters are entrepreneurs too. My grandfather was also an entrepreneur; I was born in a family of entrepreneurs and have been breathing entrepreneurship since I was little. I didn’t make a conscious decision to work on entrepreneurship but my interests have driven my career so far.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s about building a new solution for serving a relevant need. If there’s not a relevant need, there’s no entrepreneurship. If there’s no passion, there’s no resilience. That’s what allows you to move past all the barriers you’ll encounter when you start your own business as there are many.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why? Three is a small number! Firstly, being able to take controlled risks and not being risk-averse. It is not about taking many risks but those that are necessary in a controlled way.
It’s also important to have humility. You have to be humble to listen to others and be prepared to leave your idea on a side, be ready to dig into an opportunity and pivot if necessary. There is a strong component of flexibility that is closely related to humility.
Thirdly, you need to be a teamworker. Being able to attract the talent to get surrounded by a great team of people is instrumental to success. As an Innovation expert that I know would say: “You can invent alone, but you cannot innovate alone.” The team unit is one of the most important aspects to consider and can set a group apart, not necessarily the idea, which may change or pivot as things develop.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I run and oversee many programs, but the part I enjoy the most is talking to entrepreneurs directly. We run an entrepreneurship project where the students have to work in teams of five to move their business idea forward. I really enjoy working with them, giving them tips, asking them questions…. It brings so much energy! You can be talking about a health-related issue, and one hour later you’re talking about an agriculture idea to improve crop efficiency in Africa. It’s all very diverse.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’ve always been really inspired by IDEO. They are the fathers of the Design Thinking methodology. I really admire how innovative they are, as innovation is my passion.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I had the opportunity to talk with Tom Kelley, one of the co-founders of IDEO. I asked him why innovation could fail and he explained how people are scared by innovation and can see it as a danger because of the potential risks. He said you need to explore and experiment. Even if an experiment does not obtain or achieve the expected objectives: that’s not a failure, that’s part of the process. This sentiment is very close to my heart and beliefs; you need to try new things constantly. Some might work and some might not, but it’s all part of the game.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
One of the most difficult things when you’re starting your own business is that you’re asked to work on a broad scope of projects. To specialise you need to focus and a lack of focus doesn’t help.However, you need to bring cash to pay the bills and sometimes you can’t be selective and say, “Well I’m not doing this.” The difficult thing is to balance what projects you focus on at the beginning as they will be the ones that will generate revenue in the future.
In my case, with a co-founder, we started as an innovation consultant and launched Serendipty and at the same time, we launched a new initiative InnovAction Week, a big national event about entrepreneurship and innovation. We were running two start-ups at the same time which didn’t help us to have that focus. Doing two big initiatives at the same time is completely overwhelming and I’d never do it again!
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
It really depends on their needs and on what they are looking for. At the Entrepreneurship Centre, we have so many different outstanding initiatives For SBS students we run a broad range of programmes to support them with their entrepreneurial and innovation ambitions. To name just a few we have the Ideation Lab, the Intrapreneurship Lab, the ONetwork, The Liber Project, Oxford Said Entrepreneurship Forum, Ideas to Impact, the Entrepreneurship Project, the Oxford Seed Fund and many others….. For wider university students there is the Foundry where they deliver great programmes too.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve faced a lot of challenges, but were they necessarily because I was a woman? In my particular case, I don’t think so.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
There is a famous statement about female funders being able to raise funding less successfully for their ventures. I am not an expert in that field, but I think that there are so many female investors that we need to leverage that We need to focus on driving and moving our ideas forward while supporting each other There are many great skills that female leaders stand for and it would be great to understand how those skills could have a positive impact on success for female entrepreneurs.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
At the Entrepreneurship Centre we do a lot, and I think leading by example is crucial. We look for diversity in all our panels, and every single activity we run includes female experiences to inspire all female students to become entrepreneurs. Of course, we could definitely do more.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Being yourself and authentic is essential. I had a conversation with a faculty member at Saïd. She’s done a lot of research about women and their representation on boards and it’s proven that women are less risk-averse than men what is great for innovation. It shows there are so many benefits to being a female founder and a female leader. I think female founders need to really realise how great they are! Disregard the idea that maybe you’re not capable; be yourself, be authentic and leverage all the resources that are available as much as possible.
Any last words of advice?
I would say to any entrepreneur, it’s about digging deeper into the need. That learning helps you build a better solution to tackle that need. One of the reasons why most entrepreneurs fail is they build products or solutions that nobody needs. Secondly, surround yourself with the best team and talent. Recognise your weaknesses and find a team that is complementary to your skills.