Shelley Meagher is an Oxford alumna with a DPhil in English Literature who has spent the last three years supporting entrepreneurship and leading initiatives in entrepreneurship at Magdalen College, Oxford, and its broader community. She is now shifting out of the college environment into the entrepreneurial and investment arena. Shelley is currently exploring how she may be able to help Oxford’s spin outs, in specific those in the very early stages which have the technical expertise but need someone – perhaps for just 4-6 months – who is good at drawing the right people together and at leading strategy and delivering projects, to achieve early growth in a rapidly changing environment.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
After starting a career in English Literature and Irish Studies, I realised that I wanted to work with other people much more extensively than these fields allowed. I wanted to know what you can achieve when you work in teams of people diverse in their skills and expertise. At the same time, I had a hankering to do something practical to help stop the destruction of biodiversity across the globe. I knew that my peers in other sectors had had a lot of training in leadership and I felt I had gaps in this area. However, I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to the Centre for Sustainability Leadership’s fellowship programme in Melbourne. During this programme, together with other fellows I founded a campaign to bring nature back to Australian cities. To my surprise we won awards and media attention. I discovered that while others are better than I at visual communication, and others again held the technical expertise, I was effective at coordinating people and activity, and leading strategy and its implementation.
The success of the campaign created commercial opportunities which led me to found Do it on the Roof. This business designed, constructed, maintained and managed ecological infrastructure (i.e. gardens on roofs and walls, and water sensitive urban design). As CEO, one of the most valuable things I did was to draw together a host of talented ecologists, horticulturalists, designers, engineers, architects and builders, not to mention marketing creatives, and provide the structure and framework within which they could collaborate fruitfully to deliver innovative infrastructure. I ran this business for five years before I moved back to the UK, where I moved into the Development Office at Magdalen.
My core role as Senior Development Executive at Magdalen was major gift fundraising. On top of this day job, I established the Magdalen Means Business enterprise and innovation network between fellows, alumni, students, members of the University, companies in The Oxford Science Park and others with interests in this area. Lots of alumni became involved in developing this network, as did the Bursar and others in College. I was certainly not alone in growing the network, but I led the seed initiatives which supported it. The work was enormous fun and enormously fulfilling, and it included, for example,
Guest-curating an exhibition on entrepreneurship at Magdalen, past, current and future
Convening a speaker series which explored the relationship between the entrepreneurial world and colleges in Oxford
Mentoring entrepreneurial students and/or finding them other mentors, and supporting and identifying student enterprises the College might wish to support
Making many introductions between people in the network from different backgrounds and in different roles from one another, who might not otherwise have met
Developing a tool design to scale up the introductions I provided, so that more people in the network could meet one another more quickly and explore ways to collaborate.
The goal of all these activities was to promote awareness of entrepreneurship at Magdalen, and to build the network.
There were a number of reasons why I got involved in supporting entrepreneurship at Magdalen, some institutionally strategic. Leaving those aside and speaking to my more personal drivers, quite simply, entrepreneurship is exciting! Secondly, from the time I returned to Oxford in 2018 I was struck that there are really incredibly exciting things happening in the sphere of commercialisation of IP and entrepreneurship in Oxford right now. Through my position at Magdalen, I grew interested in the very special role that colleges play in this. I think a lot of people instinctively know this, but in a way we almost take colleges and their role for granted in Oxford. We don’t necessarily talk about what is special and distinctive about the role they play. That’s what I wanted to do at Magdalen, especially because what I found there was a markedly entrepreneurial community of fellows, students, and alumni. I saw there was much to be gained by joining up the dots and creating unexpected links between the various sub-communities and individuals and also between them and Oxford University and The Oxford Science Park. So that’s what I tried to do, and now that work continues at Magdalen.
For my part, I am turning my attention to the support available to Oxford IP spin outs in their early stages. I have chosen this focus based on the many stories I have heard from Magdalen’s fellows and students of their experiences, especially those of various University spin outs. To a degree, Oxford’s spin out model is proven now in a way that it had not been ten, or even five years ago. The successes are consolidating and we know the model works. But what I hear very often is the need for additional support in the early stages. OUI and OSI and the Foundry and Enterprising Oxford are each working on this challenge and tailoring for it in all sorts of ways. What I want to do is get in there with spin outs and get my hands dirty. I want to get things organised, and pull the right people together to make the headway you need to make in those early stages when the founders have all the technical expertise they need but (in some instances, not all) they need someone to bring people together and organise the knowledge into projects and make these projects happen. The end goal is to move things along, and grow the company and win more investment before pushing myself out and handing the baton to the best leader for the next stage of growth.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Fun! Play with serious intent.
At once creative, practical, challenging and exciting.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Perseverance: you rarely see results immediately and without overcoming obstacles.
Persuasion: you need to be able to inspire, influence and persuade others to work with you, buy what you sell and help turn ideas into reality.
Clarity of insight. Whether your clarity of insight relates to your vision, strategy, the market value of your product, or who your market is, there must be something you see clearly, and with some validity, on the basis of which you inspire, influence or persuade others.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
Seeing things created out of nothing.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’d like to name some women who inspire me:
Leah Thompson, who runs Enterprise Oxford
Emma Palmer Foster, strategic communications consultant at Oxford Science Park
Fiona Read, a senior fellow at UCL who founded the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship
Ranti Williams, business coach
Barbara Domayne-Hayman, entrepreneur in residence at the Francis Crick Institute
I have enormous respect for the insights, achievements, expertise and style of each of these leaders. I admire their focus on the importance of people in entrepreneurship; their robust defence of its importance, sometimes in the face of considerable challenges; and their talents for persuading people who have different strengths that people are paramount in anything entrepreneurial!
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?They’ve all very kindly and generously offered me 5 minutes and more of late. I’ve been asking each of them for insights into the needs of companies in the early stages of commercialising IP. Is there a need for someone to draw together the right people and make things happen? How long is this phase? How many of the companies which have this need are actually aware of it? What is the most valuable service accelerators deliver?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
It’s hard to pick just one from the many! In general, I love hearing of something I never envisaged that has come about through collaboration between people I introduced to one another. Often I make introductions based essentially on instinct, trust and an intimation of possibilities. I don’t know exactly what will eventuate, and I love hearing what happens. I also love witnessing how rapidly some of Oxford’s entrepreneurial students try out advice and how quickly they develop as a consequence, a recent example being the Oxford Business Review team. Some other moments of great personal fulfilment that are also very particular to Oxford arose when I was running Magdalen’s speaker series on entrepreneurship. Professor Constantin Coussios gave the opening talk in the series, and later in the series, Professor Liam Dolan gave a talk. I asked each of them to talk about their entrepreneurial journey with their spin outs and also, crucially, to comment if possible on any relationship between their spin outs and the collegiate environment. I was amazed by what resulted. Constantin and Liam took this brief incredibly seriously and explored it in depth. Both illustrated that there was a lot more to the initial hypothesis, that colleges play a special role in fostering entrepreneurship, than I had foreseen or understood. Both their talks, as indeed all in the series, sparked a lot more ideas and insights. These emerged over drinks, dinners and subsequent meetings between fellows within College, figures in the University, students, entrepreneurs among alumni, and companies in The Oxford Science Park. Constantin and Liam’s making something so very substantive from my initial request was rather awe-inspiring and humbling. It is an immense privilege to be able to ask some of the best minds in Oxford to test a hypothesis. I suppose, in addition, the experience gave me my own glimpse of that special combination of knowledge, intellectual might, insight, good will, and generosity of imagination and spirit, that makes Oxford’s entrepreneurial culture so very rich and fertile with possibilities.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
In Oxford, there is a great, obvious, necessary difference in the pace of activity between the ancient collegiate institutions and start-ups. Similarly, the ancient institutions and their entrepreneurial alumni commonly operate on different timeframes and within very different frameworks for making decisions. And these differences can create friction. I used to think this friction was a problem. It was an easy assumption to make, because friction causes irritation, just for a start. But it was a mistaken assumption. The problem in making it is that it leads you to be dismissive of one party or another, and that leads you to miss opportunities and to lose time fighting unnecessary (and perhaps unwinnable!) battles. Conversely, when you accept and work with the differences in pace and process between the ancient institutions and entrepreneurial ventures, the symbiotic relationship between Oxford’s colleges and spin outs or start-ups is powerful. It creates unique opportunities for development for all parties involved. To realise these opportunities you have to find the right time and place, the most productive times and places for the two to intersect. When and where will bringing the two together create fruitful, but not overwhelming friction?
I don’t have any definitive answers. In fact, I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. But I have learned that in any one instance, to have even a fighting chance of getting the place and timing right, you need to be very familiar with the organisations concerned, above all the people who comprise them. And you need to earn trust, and this takes time.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I focus on putting people in touch with others they might not otherwise meet and with whom I think they have something unexpected in common that might open a fruitful new perspective. If I can’t think of the right people to introduce them to, I introduce them to others who might. One person to whom I am constantly introducing others is Leah Thompson at Enterprising Oxford. She has a wealth of knowledge on all things entrepreneurial in Oxfordshire and is great at making links across silos.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
When I started my ecological infrastructure business, I expected to find it challenging to be a woman in an industry which overlaps with construction. However, I never found that to be the case. What was important in establishing credibility with customers and suppliers was whether I knew what I was talking about, said when I didn’t, looked them in the eye and did what I said I would do, or contacted them if there was a problem. There were certainly challenges in dealing with other companies, but I never felt that being a woman was the issue. I was quite often the sole or one of few women in the room, but if anything, I found this made me stand out in helpful ways. Equally, on several occasions I dealt primarily with women senior leaders in property development companies. Discussions did work a little differently in these situations and I found that really fun, but it was the diversity in how things worked that I found fun, not that one situation or the other was better.
With regard to supporting women entrepreneurs at Magdalen, I can name all the women entrepreneurs of whom I am aware among the students, fellows and alumni off the top of my head. I would be able to name many, but not all the men off the top of my head. This is both because there are more men and because I consciously focused on women among other less represented groups. I don’t make any claim to know of all the entrepreneurs in Magdalen’s community, nor is the number of women entrepreneurs among them negligible. It’s impressive, in fact. But it is not equal. I wanted to make sure that I saw and gave platforms to women as well as men entrepreneurs.
I was really proud that one of our alumni, Charlotte Hochman, founder of Wow! Labs, was to give the closing lecture in Magdalen’s inaugural speaker series on entrepreneurship. Wow! Labs designs and creates places and incubators that foster entrepreneurship. It has worked with the Obamas in Malaysia and with refugees in France, and Charlotte is a visiting fellow on entrepreneurship at Stanford. Charlotte read philosophy and modern languages as an undergraduate. She focuses on people and communities and friction in informing designs that purposefully create culture, while her (male) partner is an architect. I suspect that many people find it easier to grasp what her partner delivers, because it is tangible and we all know what architecture is. To my mind Charlotte is one of the most interesting and original thinkers on entrepreneurship and universities I have encountered, and I was terribly disappointed that Covid led her lecture to be postponed until such time as it could be delivered in person. That was essential since it physical interactions between members of the audience within given spaces were to be key. It is vital that we make sure to draw on insights from leaders like Charlotte. The Wonder Women series is doing amazing and crucial work to ensure that such leaders stay front of mind.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
I can’t go beyond the Wonder Women series. Over the last I have attended many a panel on women entrepreneurs and women investors. I have rarely seen such an extensive, diverse and varied line up of women entrepreneurs as that of Wonder Women. The collective impact is enormously inspiring and moving. (So too, of course, are the individual women.)
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I am delighted by the creation of IDEA’s advisory board of around 30 women, and look forward to hearing its proposals and recommendations.
I am fortunate to be mentored by men as well as women who are alert to, amongst many other things, the differences in outlook and experience between men and women. These mentors share their advice and time with me with tremendous generosity and their impact has been and is transformative. To give an example of the relevance of this to entrepreneurship, many women are less confident in their professional value than men. Both men and women mentors can provide very significant help in this respect – just as mentorship can be invaluable for men and women seeking to overcome other challenges. Running a mentorship programme well is time-consuming and resource-intensive. In universities across the UK and beyond, mentorship programmes are full of potential yet are often not resourced as they need to be. But if the resources were available, I am confident that tailored mentorship could achieve a great deal. One might – somewhat provocatively – argue that there are few universities better-placed to realise the value of investing the necessary resources in mentorship than Oxford, whose true, deep commitment to its tutorial system so rightly wins global esteem, admiration and support.
Any last words of advice?
Go for it! Have fun, know that there is a world of support around you, and just keep making decisions and taking action, again and again and again.