An enterprising outlook for IOEE Centre of Excellence academic

Entrepreneurship lecturer Dr Louise Chalkley of Anglia Ruskin University shares with us her thoughts on enterprise, education and the unexpected adventures life can present.

Cambridge-based Dr Louise Chalkley has been an entrepreneurship lecturer at IOEE Centre of Excellence Anglia Ruskin University for four years. However, the 46-year-old’s route to academia has been varied and unconventional, taking in various adventures along the way. Having left school before she turned 16 following a childhood spent in the care system, Louise performed several casual jobs before gaining a place at the University of Nottingham in 1995 to study archaeology as a mature student. This degree, and a second Masters degree in the same subject became the foundations for Louise’s first official business. In her late twenties, with two children and divorced from her first husband, Louise met her second husband, an Irishman, with whom she went on to have two more children. It was at this point, aged 30, that self-employment became a reality for Louise:

“We moved to Ireland and I set up a company called The Archaeology Company, which went on to become a multimillion euro company – we became very successful delivering large infrastructure projects across the country.”

The Archaeology Company was an archaeology and heritage management consultancy, which at its peak employed 58 people and carried out some of Ireland’s largest and most significant excavations. In 2008, after many years of hard work and incredible success, the business, like many connected to the construction industry – fell victim to the financial crash. Louise and her family lost everything. However, this wasn’t Louise’s first foray into independent enterprise and earlier experiences had taught her resilience. As a 19-year-old, she had bought her own studio flat in Essex. She says:

“I think that was my very first taste of entrepreneurship because I bought a run-down flat and developed it myself. I actually only ever lived in the flat for six months, but property prices rose quickly. I rented it out and it provided me with a small income. This helped fund me through university.”

Having spent several years in the care system Louise had developed a fighting spirit She says:

“When I left the care system aged 16, there wasn’t any safety net at that time – so you had to earn your own money immediately. I hadn’t really had much stability in my early years so I think that’s what drove me to buy my first property at a young age. Buying my own home was the first thing I wanted to do as soon as possible. I needed independence and never wanted the ‘street’ experience ever again.”

The determination, drive and hard work during Louise’s early life had instilled in her returned with a vengeance whilst watching her archaeology business fail. By the time it was wound down Louise was already nearing the end of her PhD and an entirely new life awaited her.

“I had seen the crash coming so I worked really hard to achieve my PhD really quickly – completed in three and a half years part-time. Within ten months the business had gone to nothing, absolutely nothing. All our money, property and savings were gone, eventually we even lost our home.”

In the face of this catastrophic financial loss, Louise and her family moved back to the UK in order for her to take up a lectureship in entrepreneurship at Anglia Ruskin University.  Louise credits her own challenging background as the reason her academic research focusses on enterprise as practice – and social mobility. Rather than seeing entrepreneurial characteristics as innate within people, she perceives them as developing in response to specific life experiences. Louise says:

“I’ve experienced both severely disadvantaged and very successful. Even after that success there are no guarantees, as I found out for myself. That’s made a real difference to how I now teach entrepreneurship. I want to inspire people to look back into their own pasts and see what capabilities have been developed from their personal life experiences. They can draw from these in an entrepreneurial context (or not) using them to build a better future for themselves wherever it may take them.”

Rather than encouraging students to come up with the next ‘big idea’ and complete detailed business plans for ‘get rich quick’ schemes,  Louise encourages them to reflect on their own experiences in relationships, with family and at work and try to explore areas where they have already acquired skills that could be applied to an entrepreneurial context. She calls this creating their personal Entrepreneurial Toolbox.

“Students may reflect on four or five things that have happened in their lives. Rather than pressuring them to immediately set up a business, or begin with a business idea – I encourage them to reflect on what they have already achieved and what they have learnt which could be useful in their particular life-journey. If you’re a severely disadvantaged person this is an especially helpful and personal process.”

Currently, Louise is teaching a post-graduate module called Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Students create their ‘Toolboxes’ as part of their overall assessment during the first five weeks of lectures, before even thinking about a ‘business idea’. The form the toolboxes themselves take is as varied as the students who create them, as Louise explains:

“Some have presented me with art, posters, videos, cartoons, or even with an actual toolbox – it’s very open ended and I encourage students to express their own spirit of entrepreneurial creativity through this assessment.”

The teaching method is flexible so can be explored in just one two-hour session. For example, working with the university’s Science and Technology faculty Louise has run two-hour sessions with MBA and international business undergraduates who have simply noted down the ‘tools’ they have developed through a variety of their own experiences.

Recently, in keeping with the theme of inclusivity and social mobility, Louise was involved with the team developing the Channel 5 television programme, ‘The Great British Benefits Handout’.  This saw individuals on benefits receive the maximum 12 months allowance of £26,000 all in one go, and see if they could change their lives around for good. However, Louise was disappointed at how the press responded to those who featured in the programme.

“The people who appeared on the show were vilified in the media, especially the women. They were attacked for how they looked, and for getting ‘handouts.’ Their efforts weren’t seen as entrepreneurship, although one of the impacts of the cash was they set up their own small businesses. People who are on benefits or socially disadvantaged in some way aren’t seen as entrepreneurs and the terminology used to describe these people was very negative.”

Louise was keen to point out that the people who appeared on the show opening tanning salons, hairdressers and removals businesses (many of which were employing other people) were exhibiting classic entrepreneurial behaviour, however the media responded to them:

“These are entrepreneurs too but the enterprises they start don’t seem to link in with our ideological position or view of ‘who entrepreneurs are’. It may not be glamorous like Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice, but they are entrepreneurial too.”

Through her work, Louise has been asked to contribute to a book on social mobility. She explains her starting point for this project:

“It’s about using entrepreneurship as a way of allowing people to take better care of themselves. Instead of vilifying them, let’s help them. Let’s applaud the efforts of people who are trapped in the poverty cycle and trying to get out. Imagine if the government provided a fund to help people on benefits set up businesses. It could actually save taxpayer money!”

This is an area of work that Louise intends to explore further in her future academic research and she believes that in the long-term Anglia Ruskin could become a significant champion of social mobility through enterprise and innovation:

“I would like the university’s Enterprise Agenda to focus on social mobility and using enterprise as a form of social empowerment. The university is a progressive, hard-working organisation and it’s very supportive of all kinds of entrepreneurship – this is something they push strongly.”

In fact, Louise is keen to express how rewarding she finds working for a university that pushes enterprise as a route to empowerment for all:

“Anglia Ruskin University is synonymous with the spirit of entrepreneurship. It has an entrepreneurial culture and enterprise is embedded across the whole curriculum; students from very diverse backgrounds are empowered to become more entrepreneurial as a way of either helping themselves or making themselves more attractive to employers. The entire environment fosters equality, social mobility and entrepreneurship. I am very proud and privileged to work in such an entrepreneurial institution where lives can potentially be changed for the better by the work we do.”