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Global Entrepreneurship Week 2023: study ranks MDX in top 20 most entrepreneurial universities in the UK

Being an entrepreneur "is part curiosity, part that diehard, Bruce Willis mindset. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by creating greatness” - MDX alumnus Tevin Tobun

A black man in jacket and grey trousers stands holding a pad of notes in front of a screen, addressing an audienceMDX Health Studies alumnus Tevin Tobun at MDX's Enterpreneurial Fair, 14 November 2023

Global Entrepreneurship Week runs until Sunday 19th November, with tens of thousands of activities in 180 countries, aimed at encouraging more people to start their own business or forge new connections and collaborations.

Research by Novuna Business Cash Flow (the new name for Hitachi Capital PLC) places MDX among the UK’s Top 20 most entrepreneurial universities in 2023, with more than 3% of graduates in the 2020-22 period already becoming company founders.

MDX hosts and partners enterprise contests, including the MDXcelerator programme which this year was held internationally across London, Dubai and Mauritius campuses. The University has an Enactus Society which fields teams for youth social enterprise and social action competition Enactus UK, and entrepreneurship is one of eight graduate competencies underpinning the learning experience for all MDX students.

A young woman with long, blond hair smiles at the camera. Behind her is a space age backgroundMA Graphics Design alumna Trixi Marx

Senior Lecturer in Management Dr Simon Best held an entrepreneurial fair in the Quad on Tuesday 14th November, with stalls for a range of local and alumni businesses such as 2021 graduate Mahsa Samadi’s Mahsa Jewellery. Sessions during the day included a talk by Dr Best on effective networking, covering factors such as emotional and cultural intelligence and reciprocity, and a talk and Q&A on growing start-up businesses with alumnus and serial founder Tevin Tobun, CEO of the multi-sector GV Group.

A young black man in a grey suit jacket, black trousers and black tie is seated, looking at the viewerTobun told students his education and career story, offering compelling insights about how he got his breaks and navigated setbacks. Asked what makes an entrepreneur, he said: “it’s part curiosity, part that diehard, Bruce Willis mindset. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by creating greatness, and that’s the thing that keeps me going”.

He described his determination growing up in Camberwell to make the jump to go to college in a different part of London, and credits MDX with helping him get over imposter syndrome: “it made me realise, they don’t know any more than me”. His first office was in a basement next to a boiler room, and crucial junctures on his career journey came when sitting on a bus, watching the news, or making a spontaneous approach to Westminster City Council.

Tevin's three pieces of advice to students were: to seize opportunities and accept the reality of strategies and work strands failing (“there isn’t a problem with failure – it’s how you react to [it]”); continuous learning (“what gets you up and gets you motivated is being part of something great”), and steely resilience.

For Global Entrepreneurship Week, entrepreneur alumni with wide-ranging backgrounds and experiences reflect on their time at MDX and share advice on starting a business.

Following a chance meeting and inspiring chat with Simon Best, Kwaku Appiah switched to MSc Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship after arriving at MDX. Kwaku had worked as a chef with a sideline as a DJ for more than 20 years and saw he could bring his practical experience of evaluating and managing costs to his studies. “It was just a fertile environment to be around” the 2017 graduate says of his MDX experience.

Kwaku says he always intended to do a degree, but aged 19 had opened a restaurant instead, taking advantage of the Thatcher-era Youth Training Scheme. A capable cook (he’s the eldest of five) the appeal for him was not so much food preparation but “the happiness it brings people when, by magic, it appears.

A bald black man in a chef's jacket smiles at the camera. His right hand is outstretchedMSc Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship alumnus Kwaku Appiah

“My interests are in providing a quality service to people, and I just happened to be good at cooking!" he says. "I’ve always really enjoyed engaging with people”. It’s also, he jokes, because it was one job in which he was allowed to play music as he worked.

He had a stint selling sandwiches in the early stages of Canary Wharf, a car park attendant allowing him to use their office as a hub. He went on to open a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Highgate called Maple’s Kitchen, prompted by Camden Town Goths. Other ventures included catering at the Tricycle Theatre, cafes in Highgate Wood and at a National Trust property, and working on a cruise ship. There’s a strong community and social benefit dimension in Kwaku’s projects. In 2014 he set up Marlon & Company, which provided chef training and ran cookery classes, supper clubs and events as well as a café.

His current venture, Enola’s Kitchen, opened in Hoxton in January 2020. At the start of lockdown he researched care homes online, and was at peak providing six with 150 hot meals a day (he still supplies meals to three care homes). He wanted to “help in any way I can offer, and I felt old people get neglected the most,” he says.

Enola's Kitchen offers an eclectic daily changing menu of homely dishes. Kwaku takes whatever is in stock at the local greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers, priding himself on producing ten times’ less food waste than the typical restaurant.

On Fridays and Saturdays it just serves BBQ food: inspired by an annual pilgrimage Kwaku takes to the American South, which itself came about through people he met while DJing. He has travelled the world performing club nights, residencies and private events, and recently donated the 15,000 CD collection he had amassed to libraries.

Kwaku felt his MSc, which he juggled with work, helped bring “method to [my] madness”. It led him to understand the importance of marketing and recognise where innovation could best come into his food projects. He was grateful to gain the practical skill of formulating a good business plan. He enjoyed the camaraderie and working with people from all over the world with different views and ideas: MDX is “like a mini LinkedIn!” he says.

He teamed up with one fellow alumnus to run a weekend stall at Brixton Market selling Venezuelan food, and mentored another, and he has offered mentoring for the entrepreneurship course since graduating.

His advice to current students and new graduates thinking about starting a business is: “Go ahead and do it - even if it fails. But do it wholeheartedly, don't half-do it”.

“Either way, you find out whether it's for you or not”.

“Timewise, people spend hours on social media stories and on Netflix. If you want to do it, you make time”.

A young woman in a black vest smiles at the camera. She has a sleeve tattoo on her left armMA Graphic Design alumna Trixi Marx

On time out from her Graphic Design Masters during the pandemic, Trixi Marx learned about biophilic design – which connects people to the environment by using natural elements. She went on to develop the concept of Growable Graphics: living signage for exhibitions and other events, made of little hexagons of real moss and lichens, which can be taken outside to grow when not in use. Due to the tiles’ geometric shape, they can be arranged in any number of ways, and can be used repeatedly without creating waste.

Trixi is also devising luminescent packing and business cards using species of fungi which give out light, as a graphic design response to the energy crisis. She produces her sustainable inventions and graphic design commissions through a creative studio, Sugar Studio, which she hopes to use “to explore nature-inspired future concepts through interdisciplinary collaboration around the globe” and to raise awareness about biophilic design.

She was one of two MDX winners of a CCA Creative Conscience Gold Award this autumn, was nominated for a Green Product Award and has had her work exhibited in recent months at Dutch Design Week and the London Design Festival.

An overhead image of a woman putting moss into a large outline metal G shapeTrixi Marx working on biophiliac design concept, Growable Graphics 

“Through my supervisor Amanda Skeet and my lecturer Rujana Rebernjak, I learned about speculative and social design, which flipped my whole perception of design's power and possibilities,” Trixi says. “[Technician] Sam and his team from craft facilities were a big support when it came to visualising another crazy idea of mine, such as an aquarium-shaped book cover or laser-cut bacteria stamps.

Trixi is currently looking for a collaboration partner to scale up her production of tiles. “I hope to offer them at an affordable price, so more people can experience the soothing effects of grown graphics in urban areas,” she says.

She cautions students thinking about starting their own business that "a strong will and working hard are not enough. It's important to be well-connected and have the right contacts, as well as a strategy and a plan".

She suggests seeking a mentor or advisor from the start - or getting a taste of corporate life before taking the start-up plunge - and finding a niche rather than trying to do too much.

“For your own sake, look for something to make the world a little bit better instead of creating more waste and useless products,” she adds. “If we designed our way into an unsustainable, wasteful and far from transparent system, it’s time to design our way out”.

Veteran founder of social businesses, and charity sector facilitator, coach and advisor Craig Dearden-Phillips graduated from MDX this year with a Doctorate in Public Works. His subject matter was how social enterprises can reconcile the demands of delivering social impact with being commercially viable. This enabled him to examine the evidence base internationally from the past half-century, and synthesize this with theoretical models and his own thoughts and insights from a 30 year career.

Photo of a middle-aged white man with brown hair, wearing a blue and white check formal shirtMDX Doctor in Public Works Craig Dearden-Phillips

Craig’s formula, with organisations he has set up and run such as Bolton-based baked goods company HM Pasties, is to “make sure the commercial side is in working order first”, so the social enterprise exists in the first place.

“I’ve really loved it at MDX,” Craig says. “It’s brought me together with a group of students I'd never have encountered – from different sectors, different parts of world and completely different and diverse styles of life”.

He pays tribute to supervisor Professor Kate Maguire, Head of Doctoral Transdisciplinary Programmes at MDX, for challenging and supporting him, and all the while being more like a learning partner. Having previously authored books but not written in an academic register, he describes doctoral study as “an achievement of willpower… You’re pushing the rock up the hill a long way before it starts to roll down the other side”.

A young man with a black and white beard looks through a service hatch with drinks cans and sauce bottles either side of him. He is wearing a baseball cap and above him is a sign saying HM PastiesHM Pasties employee

Craig founded award-winning advocacy organisation Speaking Up (now part of VoiceAbility) in 1996 and Social Club – a business club for leaders of mission-based organisations, offering masterclasses and action-based learning – in 2010. His venture Social Minds enabled NHS and local government employees to spin out more than 30 new mutual organisations. He was awarded an MBE in 2009.

As well as HM Pasties, which employs a revolving cohort of 10 ex-offenders, current engagements include chairing We Are Juno, provider of next generation care homes for children, and founding and investing in Signapse, which seeks to make British Sign Language available to everybody and to ensure deaf organisations benefit. “I tend to be involved in first five years, then let others take up the reins,” Craig says: adding that he now sees himself as more focused on helping social entrepreneurs than in being one.

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