‘Even if You’ve Launched Your Own Startup Once, You Begin to See Opportunities Everywhere and Stand More Firmly on Your Own Two Feet’
This year, the minor with the highest student enrollment at HSE University is the ‘Startup from Scratch: Creating Your own Business’, offered by the Department of Innovation Management. In September, 500 students from all four HSE’s campuses will begin studying the art of entrepreneurship. This number is less than half of the students who applied: in total, the minor course received more than 1,700 applications. Associate Professor Margarita Zobnina, who supervises the minor, spoke with the news service about why students from different faculties want to learn the secrets of a successful business, what skills they gain in the minor, and how they expand their professional networks.
Why is the ability to create a startup especially important in 2021?
Students of the ‘Startup from Scratch’ minor create and develop their own businesses. This is an experience that will be useful to them in life, regardless of what career they choose next. If you’ve launched your own startup once, even if what you did with it was relatively simple, then you already know how to recognize opportunities, and you know how to build a business out of them and make money. This is the first thing.
Secondly, this experience gives you self-confidence, because you know that if you get bored or don't like your career in the corporate sector, then you can always work for yourself.
Thirdly, students of the minor gain specific knowledge and skills that employers value: experience in creating and developing a product, bringing it to the market, and so on. In fact, in the first year, our students do everything that a product manager does. There is a meme about how HR requires 20 years of experience from graduates right after graduation. This, of course, is a joke, but at the same time, companies really graduates to have experience that shows they are able to do something and willing to work hard. Starting a business in our minor course serves as a confirmation for potential employers that our students have the kind of experience they’re looking for.
Skills students gain in the ‘Startup from Scratch’ minor:
Creativity and innovation
Taking responsibility for risks
According to a study by PwC, a Big Four company, these are the skills that employers value most in their employees.
And finally, the last thing: on average, students today will change their careers five times over the course of their lives. And one of their careers will almost certainly involve entrepreneurship. Moreover, it may involve both independent entrepreneurship and intracorporate entrepreneurship, when an employee of a company comes up with an idea and develops it as a separate area of that organization’s work or a product.
What’s the secret behind the minor’s popularity among students?
First of all, when creating a start-up, students develop their own ideas and build a business out of them: by the end of the first semester they make a minimum viable product, and by the end of the second semester they put the product on sale. In their second year, they scale up the business and look for investors if they are needed. In other words, they take their startup from start to finish. Each lesson and task is a step towards creating your own startup; there is nothing irrelevant. This opportunity to make their idea a reality motivates students very much: students these days are aware, engaged, and independent.
At the same time, we see an interest in entrepreneurship not only at HSE, but in Russia in general. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, entrepreneurial activity amongst people aged 18-24 is gradually growing in our country: it went from 4% in 2014 to 14.5% in 2019.
Entrepreneurship is about relying on yourself. It’s not about being in a passive state of ‘well, the boss will come and decide’
Methodologically, we follow an active learning and a project-based approach: learning by doing. Our minor is very demanding—you really have to roll up your sleeves. There is a task at every lesson, no slacking off, you can’t just sit back in the last row. This is stated in the description of the minor, and I always emphasize this again in the first lecture. Nonetheless, there is a high demand for the minor. So, when someone says that students are lazy and passive, I get very indignant—they just know what they want and they know even better what they don’t want.
And, of course, there are the instructors. We have gradually assembled an excellent well-coordinated team. Each instructor is a role model but all of them follow a shared methodology of the team. And the students feel the same way: the average teacher evaluation score of our teachers is 4.6. In addition, the external experts of our programme—venture fund representatives and entrepreneurs who come to hear students’ pitches—positively assess the results.
So, I attribute the high demand for the minor among students to the their interest in the topic, the effectiveness of our methodology, and our teaching staff.
Of the ninety minors offered to students this year, ‘Startup from Scratch’ has the highest student enrollment: 500 students are taking the minor. The top five most popular minors include ‘Psychology’, ‘Fundamentals of Applied Programming’, ‘Management’, and ‘Data Mining’.
The ‘Startup from Scratch’ minor received a total of 1,721 applications, with more than a quarter of this year’s first-year students applying. The majority (60%) of students taking the minor are from the Moscow campus. 16% of the students are from St. Petersburg, 14% study at the Nizhny Novgorod campus, and 10% are from Perm.
We try to make it interesting and useful for students and, it seems, we have succeeded. For example, the first course of the minor programme received high marks from students: it ranked highest in terms of ‘usefulness of the course for your future career’, ‘usefulness of the course for expanding your horizons and diversifying your development’, and ‘new knowledge gained’.
Who are the minor course instructors?
Our instructors are selected based on their experience, their willingness to follow a common methodology, and their personal qualities. In teaching, these qualities are extremely important. Students learn better from people they trust, so a teacher’s sincerity and integrity are very important. The teacher should not dominate; otherwise, they will hamper students’ motivation, independence, and engagement—that is, all the qualities that an entrepreneur needs. In addition, our teachers are united by a faith in our students, a positive, kind attitude towards them, and a desire to help them develop: we are always on the side of the students. We have an excellent team of experts. I really appreciate everyone and am happy to work with them.
Now we are expanding the teaching staff (after all, we have more students), and this is a big challenge, both managerially and methodologically. We will do this by hiring new people with practical experience, and we will teach them our teaching methods. I have been training teachers in project-based entrepreneurship education since 2014, so the process is well-established. Therefore, now I am deep in the search for teachers, bearing in mind our requirements and endeavoring to create a smooth onboarding procedure for new team members, so that we can ensure consistent or even higher quality and engagement.
In addition, we are expanding to all campuses, and I am glad that the minor has co-leaders from Nizhny Novgorod and St. Petersburg—Mikhail Nazarov and Alexander Kaysarov—who led the entrepreneurial minors of their campuses before the merger.
How is the academic dimension of the minor structured?
At the lectures, we give assignments, each of which is a step in the startup creation process. After the first lesson, where we talk about how to develop, choose, and formulate an idea for your business, students are assigned the task of coming up with their own business idea. After the second lecture, students must assemble a team and distribute responsibilities, and after the third lecture they must determine their target audience (TA) for their projects, and the list goes on. Accordingly, we, the instructors, provide the tools and facilitate role playing activities to help students master the tools in practice. For example, there is the tool of Customer Development, which helps you get to know your consumer better. We discuss it during lecture, after which students play the game ‘Snowflakes’. The game allows them to actively experience the customer development process. Then they need to do it themselves for their startup and get feedback from the teacher in the practical lesson.
At the seminars, in accordance with our active learning methodology, students play games and solve cases. This helps ensure that the theoretical knowledge they gain is maximally transformed into practical skills. After all, if a person just listens to information, then the information does not get fully processed. Most of it becomes forgotten. To quote Confucius: ‘I hear and forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Therefore, all students engage in active role playing activities in the seminars in accordance with our methodology.
In the practical classes, thanks to a traction map, an individual track is actually built for each startup, taking into account its industry and progress.
What are some examples of successful student startups?
In 2020, even with the quarantine from mid-March to the end of the semester, 23 out of 33 first-year startups in the minor made sales. This year, 9 startups of the first year of the minor outstripped the plan and began selling already in the first semester.
For example, a startup called LoyaltyLab, created by students of the Faculty of Computer Science and the Graduate School of Business (GSB), Alexey Obraztsov, Alexander Kondrashkin and Kim Murashov, attracted investments from the Moscow Seed Fund and The Untitled, and it also acquired clients from MTS and the Victoria supermarket chain. Based on AI algorithms, LoyaltyLab selects buyers who are more suitable for solving a specific task, and helps implement a form of communication that is most relevant to a specific recipient.
Adelina Khafizova (Foreign Languages and Intercultural Communication) and Alexandra Stepanova (International Relations) created the UnderTouch project (ex-Bandi Duck) and, already in the first semester of the minor, they organized their own body production and started making sales. Despite the fact that the students parted ways with their investor, in the second year of the minor programme, they made a new company for the production of dresses and are now releasing a summer collection.
Mihran Sharoyan, Ivan Lyutak, and Alexander Makiev of the Faculty of Social Sciences, GSB, and MIEM, created General Parking, an app for locating and reserving parking spaces and a B2B solution for parking management. Now the team has implemented a pilot version of the product in the HSE building on Pokrovsky Boulevard, so if you come to Pokrovka by car, you can already test their application.
What does the future hold for the ‘Startup from Scratch’ minor programme?
The future is bright as always, and we are working on it. We are now developing infographics and posters for our students to improve the user experience of the minor.
I believe that if a teacher is happy, then their cheerfulness and spirit will extend to their students, so I will continue working to improve the conditions for our teachers: we plan to streamline a number of business procedures and create additional tools for their convenience so that it is a pleasure for them to work.
In addition, we are working on a number of projects: a methodological manual on teaching entrepreneurship, cases for publication in the Case Center, and a study in the field of entrepreneurial education and entrepreneurial thinking, with which Professor Alexander Chepurenko has been immensely helpful as a supervisor and mentor.
I plan to develop our minor as a community. When students graduate from the programme, we want them to continue to receive support and collaborate. We have gathered wonderful, positive, active people who in the future can be of use to each other, wherever they work
We will develop a professional network for minor students, and I am now planning to create an alumni community.
On April 12, 2021, at a meeting with aerospace university students, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin noted that universities should have startup schools. ‘Startups and accelerators should be where the students are,’ said Mr. Mishustin, noting that launching one’s own business could be a full-fledged topic for graduation theses. The prime minister said he would speak with Minister of Education and Science Valery Falkov about the possibility of ‘creating startup schools and approaches that could be incorporated into universities.’