The radical new self-employed placement year that will revolutionise business education

02 July 2018 -

Young manager skills

Future Leaders can learn how to start their own businesses in a self-employed placement year

Jermaine Haughton

Young graduates want to be future leaders – and a daring new twist on business education will enable them to become entrepreneurs. At Kent Business School, undergraduates can start their own businesses during their traditional placement year, with access to a mentor throughout.

The Chartered Management Institute’s 21st Century Leaders research shows 84% of students aspire to be a company leader, while two-thirds are aiming to become the next superstar founder.

But with around 50% of UK start-up businesses failing and few clear avenues for young entrepreneurs to test out their skills, taking the big step to leadership can be daunting.

Aiming to bridge the gap, the University of Kent successfully introduced self-employed placements in 2017, which saw four students on degree courses devote one year to turning their business idea into a fully-fledged company. The programme has already led to the growth of a thriving street fashion brand, an engaging online learning app and a highly regarded crowdfunding website for young entrepreneurs.

Students traditionally spend industry placements at big corporations and SMEs, but Debbie Kemp, head of employability and placements at Kent Business School, says the self-employed placement programme offers the best of both worlds. It allows entrepreneurial students to hone their craft as business leaders, while remaining in a supportive and educational environment.

Kemp explains: “Our motivation for starting self-placement placements was the students. They were increasingly approaching me, saying ‘we’ve got a great business idea, is this something that we could do on our placement?’

“Our placements – at either large companies in London or with smaller businesses – weren’t suitable for their needs. We felt a disconnection between encouraging them through our teaching to be entrepreneurs, yet not being able to support them when they came and asked us.”

How to encourage entrepreneurship

Business schools are commonly recognised as prime academies for finding future leaders, but the Chartered Management Institute’s 21st Century Leaders research shows only 17% of the CMI’s members look to business schools when recruiting first-time managers.

A lack of practical experience is a common gripe from employers. More than three-quarters (78%) of them say business schools need to do more to help their students develop practical skills, with an additional two-thirds (65%) of employers admitting graduates lack the interpersonal skills necessary to manage people.

The CMI itself has launched a Future Leaders Network to encourage young people to bridge the ‘employability gap’, through resources and events, and access to likeminded individuals.

Find out more: The Future Leaders Network that could boost career progression and employability

Kemp says self-employed placements prepare students perfectly for managing projects, working with stakeholders, and winning client contracts.

She says: “They’ve moved from being students to business people in a very short space of time. Running a business from scratch is tough! Our students have had to step up in unfamiliar situations, lead employees and clients, and maintain a strong strategic view of their business. At the start of the placement, they didn’t have that. Those skills are very transferable and highly valued by graduate employers. They know they will get knocked back, but also know how to get back up, learn from mistakes and move on in the right direction.”

How do self-employed placements work?

To qualify for the self-employed placement at the University of Kent, students are expected to complete the ‘Business Startup Journey’, a total of 12 hours in extra-curricular workshops validating their ideas and learning about their key responsibilities as an entrepreneur.

Future participants are also required to attend a two-day pre-placement induction with peers and organisers, encouraging entrepreneurs to socialise, share their opinions and experiences, and build a reassuring support network for leaders.

During the placement, experienced business mentor Adam Smith delivers regular coaching to cohorts, which is followed up by monthly telephone calls and gatherings. Also, Smith checks on their health and wellbeing, and helps young entrepreneurs tackle major obstacles. He joins students for key pitches to major prospective clients to show support.

Kemp explains: “There’s a fine balance. We want to give young leaders enough support, and setting them up for success, but equally we aren’t there to run their businesses for them. There are times when they do fail. Our mentor and I are here to help them reflect on what has been their experience and how they can move forward. That’s vital part of the learning curve for any budding entrepreneur that they have to be able to cope with those failures.”

The future of business education

Now a permanent fixture in the curriculum for Kent Business School, Debbie Kemp has set her sights on expanding the scheme university-wide in coming years.

“We can’t go backwards now – self-employed placements are definitely the way forward,” adds Kemp. “Already, we have an economics student who successfully completed the Business Startup Journey workshop, joining the programme, and I think this will eventually become university-wide.”

“My ambition for the programme is to encourage undergraduates from different disciplines to build businesses together across the university – a fashion student working with a computing student, or a history student teaming up with a business student.”

The student view on self-employed placement years

Emmanuel Enemokwu, founder of the street fashion brand Jehu-cal has used the self-employed placement year to successfully expand his side-business into a thriving and sustainable lifestyle clothing company, partnering with major brands including Nike.

He explains: “The self-employed placement year took me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to step my game up. I could no longer just release a couple of T-shirts here and there so I could make enough money to survive and go shopping, I needed to grow and develop Jehu-cal as much as I could in 12 months. In the space of 12 months Jehu-cal’s 2018 Q1 showed turnovers three times higher than the 2017 Q1 turnover.”

To develop his business know-how, Enemokwu combined months of research on how to create a successful fashion brand and retail business, with an internship at The Dune Group, gaining practical experience in the buying, merchandising, PR and design departments.

“In the last 12 months, I have learned more about myself than I have in my whole life,” he recalls. “My mentor has played a vital role in the success of my self-employed placement, he provides me with useful advice. We we would talk on the phone daily at the start of the year to make sure I wasn’t slacking. He explained to me that I had to make each day worth X amount, either through sales or tasks I complete, or I might as well have gotten a placement working in a company.”

Advice and support for future leaders can now be gained through joining the CMI Future Leaders Network – sign up now.

Find out more about Jehucal at

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