Spotlight on… Pauric McGowan

Pauric McGowan is the President of the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE), and a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Business Development at the University of Ulster in Belfast. He is passionate about how an entrepreneurial mindset can help people navigate their careers and how this, in turn, can shape our social, cultural and economic climate. This month we chatted to Pauric about his role as a professor, and how everybody can unleash their entrepreneurial potential.

How did your enterprising and entrepreneurial journey begin?

My father had his own business and I was heavily influenced by the idea of working for yourself, and I also liked the idea of business practice. When he passed away, my brother and I took over the company – a retail outlet – and this gave me the experience of running a company, before I moved into academia. However, even though I’m working at a university, it’s still an entrepreneurial challenge, and I use the same sorts of skills and thinking to help me to be effective in this space.

Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?

I think of myself as a ‘pracademic’, rather than an academic; I’m a practical person and find myself more comfortable doing things. I like being active, I like being challenged, and I like solving problems – finding an issue, and then finding a way to overcome it and make it work. I think that’s an entrepreneurial trait – keeping at a problem until it’s solved – and setting up and running a business is one demonstration of how that entrepreneurial attitude can be exercised, but it’s not the only way.

Tell us about your position at the University of Ulster…

I’ve been attached to Ulster Business School for 23 years, though I’ve been seconded out to focus on work that helped SMEs to develop in the region, and to work as the Director for the Northern Ireland Centre of Entrepreneurship. I’m now back as a Professor and I teach mostly on postgraduate programmes, which means that the majority of the people on the course are senior managers within existing enterprises.

We run some amazing programmes here, and one of the best is the MSc in Business Development and Innovation, where I teach the entrepreneurship model. Entrepreneurship is not simply about starting a business; it’s about developing an entrepreneurial mindset and entrepreneurial thinking.

Is this a new innovative way of approaching entrepreneurship – is it an old-fashioned perspective that it simply means ‘starting a business’?

I think the principles and practices of entrepreneurial

venture can and should be fine-tuned to other constituencies – I’m working on this outside of the university, and it’s bearing fruit. As the President of ISBE, I’ve been working to develop this type of entrepreneurial thinking within allied healthcare, for example.

I also do workshops with teachers and healthcare providers in developing entrepreneurial thinking and competencies, and I regularly speak at conferences and events. Last year I was a keynote speaker at a conference for the National Institute of Occupational Health – look at healthcare in the UK, and most commentators would agree it needs some entrepreneurial thinking.

What do you think defines being an entrepreneur?

Literature and research talks of ‘The Entrepreneur’ as a discreet individual, but I don’t think it exists like that. I think everyone has it – there are degrees of entrepreneurial thinking and potential, and we need to try to get people to be more entrepreneurial.

When I start a programme, I usually ask who thinks of themselves as an entrepreneur, and you’ll see about three hands raised out of 40. By the end of the workshop, everybody feels like they are, and that’s where it begins – changing people’s mindset. I’m extremely passionate about that, as it has the potential to be a game-changer for people, which is incredibly exciting.

When people once stayed within a company or industry and ‘climbed the ladder’, ‘portfolio careers’ and flexible working are becoming more common today. As a result, do you think it’s become more essential to develop entrepreneurial skills?

Absolutely, I would definitely subscribe to that idea. The more that we can get people to recognise their entrepreneurial potential, the better – but we’re already shifting. I know colleagues who have developed standards in Higher Education for entrepreneurial thinking, which shows that entrepreneurial education is growing.

The more we can get people thinking entrepreneurially in UK, the more people will start new businesses, and you can’t do it the other way around – encouraging people to start businesses and then think entrepreneurially would be like trying to roll a rock up a hill. Changing the way people think could change the whole environment of our society – we would change socially, culturally, politically, economically.

You’re very active in research, having been involved in over 50 research publications and case studies. What are you researching at the moment?

One of the key interests I have is in gender entrepreneurship, and I’ve recently supervised four Ph.D projects in this space. There’s a very real issue around self-confidence, so it’s about encouraging women to behave in a more entrepreneurial way and take these calculated risks – whether it’s launching or developing a new business or, say, challenging the status quo in the public health services. The more we get answers, the more we can move forward, and I’m very interested in working through gender entrepreneurship issues for a positive outcome.

What advice would you give to people who have set up their own businesses, or aspiring entrepreneurs?

From a behavioural point of view, there is a tendency to give up too quickly. One of the key issues I like to challenge people with is their sense of determination to see a project through. There will always be moments when things don’t work out the way you want them to, and there’ll be the temptation to throw in the towel, but it’s all part of the process.

I’d advise people to use personal networks as well – I definitely benefited from people guiding me throughout my career. At the end of the day, entrepreneurial activity is a team sport. Absolutely everybody needs to know that their team is both inside and outside the business.

How do you see entrepreneurship in the future?

I think that self-employment is going to be the ‘New Big Thing’ in the next five to 10 years. I attended a workshop in Westminster about 18 months ago, where we looked at the challenge of developing self-employment, and there were some incredible statistics on the subject.

One USA study predicted than from 2025, over 50% of graduates would be self-employed. Imagine if we could release that entrepreneurial potential in everybody – it would be massive! It’s going in the right direction, and it could be revolutionary.

One of the challenges we have is to ensure that mentoring is something people are excited by doing, that it continues to be stimulating. Various factors contribute to the amount of bank mentors we have at any one time, but we’re currently looking at ways to increase the number, and one of the ways we will do this is by reenergising the programme.