Strong role for universities in training entrepreneurs

When a small-time builder did a short course on entrepreneurship at the Naryn campus of the University of Central Asia, he became very enthusiastic about what he learned and went on to become a small-time contractor. For young people in countries where job opportunities are scarce, self-employment or setting up a business may be the best chance of making a living. Universities can help.

The YEPI initiative

The Youth Economic Participation Initiative, or YEPI, a joint initiative of the global Talloires Network of engaged universities and the MasterCard Foundation, aims to help universities in developing countries to test out ways of speeding up the transition into the workplace, either as employees or through entrepreneurship.

Eight universities – including Chile’s Universidad Austral de Chile, Mexico’s Universidad Veracruzana and Malaysia’s Universiti Kebangsaan – have been awarded grants of between US$350,000 and US$465,000 for three years starting in 2013 to boost their programmes to prepare students for the labour market.

Research by YEPI has shown that students and recent graduates are interested in opportunities that also benefit the community.

However, there are barriers to engaging in entrepreneurship and they include lack of professional and personal networks, high entry costs, poor access to capital and the high degree of personal risk involved.

The University of Central Asia

Back at the University of Central Asia, the small-time builder won a small contract to build part of the university building in Naryn, a small town in a depressed part of Kyrgyzstan, followed by a larger contract.

“He is now helping to build the university,” says Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, executive chair of the university's board executive committee. “Give him 10 years and he could be one of the biggest contractors in Naryn.”

One person’s story of how training has helped him up the professional ladder encapsulates the university’s approach to promoting entrepreneurship and helping boost the economy of the communities it serves at its campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

It provides short community-based courses in carefully chosen locations – towns in remote high mountain areas – to people who are usually already working rather than fresh graduates.

“These are skills you need today and they are skills for people who are already working,” says Kassim-Lakha. “You don’t train entrepreneurs by asking a 22-year-old who has just graduated if they want to set up a business.”

He believes that many young people can be risk-averse, may have debts from studying and may be more interested in a steady job.

Budding entrepreneurs the world over complain about how difficult it is to get seed capital so the University of Central Asia’s involvement does not stop there.

“We are saying to banks – we are turning out these people, we would like you to look at their business presentations then you decide whether you would like to lend them money or not.

“The university has so far presented around 40 of its would-be entrepreneurs’ business plans to the bank and 17 to 20 of these have been accepted,” says Kassim-Lakha.

“These were people who would never go to the bank by themselves. I can speak to the president, not only do I know him but he had better listen because I give him business.”