Placi Espejo is the Head of Business Development at Oxford Technology Park, one of the newest Science and Technology hubs in the county. With around half a million square feet of office, research, and production facilities as well industrial and warehouse space, provides an effective environment for innovation and entrepreneurship. The Park homes already a hotel and restaurant and is currently in phase 2 of its development, with the construction of Building 1, main frontage building with adaptable commercial space, Building 3 a larger hybrid building and their new concept ; “The Innovation Quarter” a cluster of micro hybrid buildings for small to medium size companies with an innovation focus. The Park is future-focused, and Placi is currently working on putting together a business support hub, as well as joining local organisations to develop a new business partnership to aid local economic growth. Placi also supports marketing and sales, community, and business engagement, liaises with the local council regarding local entrepreneurial, as well as researching and sourcing suppliers for the park.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
It was quite accidental! I did my final work placement during university within business incubation, working for Oxford Innovation, starting to manager my first innovation centre in December of 1999. I had a desire to learn more about the tech transfer sector, private equity investment, business support initiatives and their impact as well as the local ‘innovation ecosystem’. I moved into several different roles as part of Oxford Innovation, including investment networks, European-funded projects, and business coaching and mentoring.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
An entrepreneur is someone who sees an opportunity to solve a specific problem for potential clients, and is willing to put time, effort and resources into creating an organisation to solve that problem, and benefit those potential clients whilst making a positive impact in the economy.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Drive – entrepreneurship requires many hours, and lots of effort. Sometimes your body seems like it cannot physically carry on, but mentally, you need to know and feel that you want to continue and achieve your objectives. Drive is wanting to achieve a goal, and mentally focusing on it and working towards it until you have succeeded.
Resilience – as in everyday life, there are many setbacks in entrepreneurship. These could be issues with investors, banks, employees, legislation, or political climates such as Brexit, even. To me, being resilient means being thick-skinned and navigating through these setbacks without being discouraged by them.
An eye for opportunity – a lot of entrepreneurs that I know have come out with a very successful product by virtue of recognising a problem that exists and taking time to solve it in an efficient and unique way. Successful entrepreneurs are experienced and knowledgeable in their sectors, and it’s through their previous work that they recognise and analyse potential solutions to problems. I think that being entrepreneurial is experienced rather than learned, in the sense that it is an application and development of skills and ideas which an individual already has.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
When I see their success. To know I’ve been part of their successful journey is very rewarding, even though my work is just one component that contributed to their entrepreneurial journey. Throughout my career there have been a handful of extremely successful, global entrepreneurs, who have come back to personally thank me and acknowledge the contributions I’ve made to them in their professional lives. It’s this acknowledgement and knowing that I’ve been valuable in their entrepreneurial journey which makes my work worthwhile and enriching.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
In terms of organisations, I think that currently charities are very inspiring as they become more and more commercially minded in order to improve their fundraising efforts, employing commercial professionals and enjoying the benefits of taking this proactive approach to growing their brand. Charities face unique challenges and so it is great to see them develop and go in new directions regarding their business models.
As for an individual, my mother is a great inspiration to me. My parents worked in the hospitality industry since I was two years old, and it has become clear to me during my life and career that although my father was the ‘front man’ of their businesses, it was definitely my mother who was really doing the planning, innovating and decision making behind the scenes which was so crucial to their success. She encouraged and gave my father strength and guidance, all without any expectation of reward.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I do a lot of volunteering for charities, and I am currently working on the launch of new on new fundraising initiative called Business Beats Cancer, and so I would benefit from asking other charities what they’ve done to become more commercially minded but also would love to ask local companies to join in the number of fundraising activities plan in the near future.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
That moment when I see one of my mentees overcoming a major fear of speaking in public or writing the perfect business plan for investment.. it is a satisfying moment that you cannot explain, is like your child has got a distinction at school, and you know you are part of their personal achievement…also being invited to deliver talks abroad at major conferences in front of 500 people in the audience…again the adrenaline rush that you get is indescribable.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
I often want to do a lot more for entrepreneurs than I should. It’s important to guide them effectively, while letting them do the work themselves, and naturally, it is so easy to get too involved. This desire to do all I can to help and use my skills to benefit others has also meant that I sometimes want to help too many people at once, whereas the better approach is to select a few people or projects you know you can fully commit to. I have several other roles, many which relate to entrepreneurship; I chair the Cherwell Business Awards, I am a trustee for Activate Learning’s ALET, Head of Governors for a local school, enterprise link advisor for other local schools, Deputy Chair of Oxfordshire Business First and Chair of the Silver Start Sociate at the JR. I know all too well what it is like taking on every opportunity and offering help in every situation that arises! However, it can certainly be done, and prioritising and evaluating tasks is a great skill.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
If a new entrepreneur or start-up were coming out of the local universities, I would send them to the entrepreneurial societies, Enterprising Oxford, as well as the resources provided by the Saïd Business School and the Oxford Brookes Business School. If I was advising someone from outside the university environment, I would recommend they go to the Local Enterprising Partnership (LEP) which provides resources and government funding. Another little-known resource which I would direct new entrepreneurs to are Economic Development Officers in the area in which they are based. These officers are on the ground, work with local businesses and enterprises, and are well-equipped to support businesses in their area.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
I have experienced some inappropriate behaviour during my career, especially in the beginning. I have even been mistaken for an assistant and asked to provide tea in some male dominated conferences and meetings! My approach to these situations is to not take them to heart, but to laugh at them, re-focus and keep going. I’m lucky to have been working in the business sector for twenty years now; most people I now come into contact with know me through my network, but maybe ten or fifteen years ago there was still an atmosphere of gender discrimination which was definitely noticeable. I certainly used to feel a pressure to prove myself as a young woman in a male-dominated business environment. This atmosphere still exists today for many professional women.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
I would recommend finding women support networks and making the most of them at the start if you feel you are nervous in a networking environment. Women entrepreneurs and businesswomen often feel more comfortable in a women-focused environment, to begin with, especially young entrepreneurs or new mums who are looking for support and advice but please do also join in as many other networks putting yourself out there as much as possible, or as much as you are comfortable with, is a great way to seek out connections and opportunities.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I think that RisingWISE is a wonderful example of a programme that supports women entrepreneurs very effectively. I run one of their sessions, and I feel that this type of programme should be offered in more sectors and locations. I would also say that it is a good idea to bring resources directly to potential entrepreneurs; some women cannot access great resources because of location, commitments or the fact they simply aren’t aware of them.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Find as much support as you can. Make sure you have your unique selling proposition tight and well-developed so that you are assured that you are heading in the right direction. Having the unique selling point perfected means that your idea is valuable to your market, investors, etc. Also, take advantage of as much grant funding and business support as possible before receiving equity investment.
Any last words of advice?
Don’t worry about getting knocked down, everything you experience is part of the journey.