What's the big idea?

Local entrepreneurs recently came to Newcastle to share their business ideas with pupils as well as fire new ideas. Jerome Monahan reports

It's Enterprise Week in Newcastle and the DJ's set is so loud it sets up a vibration in the diaphragm. Several teachers grimace in pain. Their pupils, however, are in their element, settling into the plush seating of the Odeon Cinema, New Gate Street and preparing for the show. It is the third of four Blue Skies events to play to a packed house this week and by the end of the day almost 1,200 Newcastle students will have got the message that business can be exciting and liberating.

"More than 35,000 young people in 25 cities have had the Blue Skies experience over the last four years," explains Jenny Lambert of Businessdynamics, the education charity that organises these events. "Its content has been honed in the light of the feedback we get and this 'in your face' approach has proved successful. And this year its enterprise message has never been more relevant, with over half (53 per cent) of young people questioned in a recent survey we conducted telling us they want to be entrepreneurs. That's up 20 per cent on our 2001 findings."

With a nod to the DJ, compere Al Convy, who has a string of youth TV credits to his name, strides to the front of stage where a twin burst of stage pyrotechnics announces the performance has begun. "Today is all about blue skies thinking," he explains. "The kind of thinking that will help you turn your dreams into reality. One in two of you it seems want to run your own business - you may be sitting next to your future boss! How sick does that make you feel?"

Unfazed by heckles, Convy skilfully shimmies through the opening material, itemising inventions that made their creators a fortune and cataloguing well-known entrepreneurs, before introducing the local ones that have agreed to join him on stage today to share their experiences. All are given 30 seconds to spell out their "big ideas". There's Danielle Cowan with her company supplying specialist labour for the building trade; Aneela Awan with her clubwarefashion show concept that's already providing a launch pad for young local design talent; and finally Mark Earnden, the North East's answer to Jamie Oliver, whose many strings include in-school exhibition shows underlining the healthy eating agenda.

All are young and sassy. "Knowledge is power," suggests Convy - turning to each of the entrepreneurs to explain the work they did studying the opposition and developing their business plans. He follows this up by getting each of them to explain the unique selling point (USP) that underlies their companies. Mark Earnden explains how his passion for good food drives him and how the money he makes is subordinate to the enjoyment he derives from what he does. After a break, the show commences with a film of young entrepreneurs that made their dream of beautiful radiators a reality, and then it is back to the stage for a QA session.

Convy sets out the "ABC" of entrepreneurship - "ambition; belief and commitment", asking each of his guests to spell out how their success to date has relied on these elements. Aneela has clearly had to battle to maintain her self-belief: "Your confidence does get challenged - there were times that I thought it would never happen, until I made contact with the Prince's Trust who gave me start-up money and support." Danielle explains how Project North East came to her rescue with a pound;5,000 start-up loan and the offer of cheap central Newcastle office space.

Then it is time for audience participation, with Convy in search of participants for the end-of-show quiz. Ten are selected, representing each of the seven schools and colleges in situ, and all have a chance to play for voucher prizes, winnable if they can recall a detail from the show so far. Some leave empty-handed - after all, business can be tough, says Convy.

Afterwards Sarah Han (15) from Sir John Spence School felt Blue Skies was "entertaining", but she also appreciated the entrepreneurs' honesty: "it obviously takes a lot to run your own business". Of those that came harbouring their own entrepreneurial aims, the show clearly boosted their ambitions. "I've always wanted to run my own beauty therapy business," says Anneka Davis (18) of Newcastle College. "Today has only made me want to improve my ideas and to work on how to communicate that to people."

Teachers are also impressed. Sarah Hindson, progression coach at West Gate Community College, feels the on-stage entrepreneurs were well selected.

"They were sufficiently young and local to bring home to our students that making a business of their ideas is quite possible. We will be following up the event by working on individuals' employability skills."

For Diedre Thirlaway vocational co-ordinator at Sacred Heart School, this has been her fourth Blue Skies event. If anything, she suggests it was better than last time, her only reservation being the radiator-men video diary which she felt left her students cold. "Blue Skies ties in really well with our Unit 2 Business Planning module, part of the GCSE business we're taking," says Sacred Heart student Laura Morris (17). "It's also ideal for the GCSE applied business course which requires students to grasp the range of stakeholders involved in a start-up," adds Sacred Heart business studies teacher Pauline Fitzgerald.


Businessdynamics homepage: www.businessdynamics.org.ukgenm1_i1_aboutus.aspx

Students' attitudes to business surveys: www.businessdynamics.org.ukgenm1_i3_downloads.aspx

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