Red Emprendadora - Retp TMP
This case study was prepared by Ivan Diego from Valnalon, edited by Joseph Tixier from the OECD LEED Programme
With a population of slightly more than 1.000.000 inhabitants Asturias is a small autonomous region located in the northwest of Spain. The region boasts of a glorious industrial past largely based on coal mining and steel industries. The onset of a protracted economic and social crisis in the late 70’ led to a steady stream of coal pit and factory closures and subsequent loss of jobs and social unrest during the 80’. In this respect the region shared the same fate as many other mining areas in Europe (Lorraine, Yorkshire, Ruhr, South Wales). Spain’s accession to the European Union in 1986 granted access to a considerable share of Structural Funds that should help Asturias to overcome such a dire economic and social situation. Considerable efforts and funding have been devoted to the promotion of entrepreneurship ever since. Whereas during the late 80’ and 90’ the regional development policies focused on the development of new infrastructures and industrial state as key enablers of entrepreneurial activity, the turn of the century saw a shift to a more holistic approach in entrepreneurship policy broadening the scope and goals and seeking to engage a wider constituency of stakeholders. To date three consecutive action plans have been put in place to promote entrepreneurship in the region : Primer Plan de Fomento de Cultura Emprendedora (2005-2008), Segundo Plan de Fomento de Cultura Emprendedora (2009-2012) and the current one, Programa Integral para el Fomento de la Cultura Emprendedora (2013-2015). This 3-year plan contemplates a 26.7 Million € budget for investments in three strategic areas:
- Nurture entrepreneurial talents and entrepreneurial culture: entrepreneurship education
- Provide support for startup and consolidation with a specific focus on social entrepreneurship
- Follow-up, dissemination and positioning of Asturias as an entrepreneurial region.
The Action Plan is firmly anchored in a broader policy known as the Agreement for Employment and Progress in Asturias (Acuerdo por el Empleo y el Progreso de Asturias 2013-2015) that entrusts the Regional Department of Economy and Employment to design and implement the plan in close cooperation with a broad range of stakeholders including business associations, business centres, trade unions, schools and universities.
The promotion of entrepreneurialism in education took centre stage in the first comprehensive regional entrepreneurship action plan (2005-2008) and has never ceased to gain traction. In this respect, Asturias efforts in making entrepreneurship education an integral part of wider socio-economic development have been lauded by the EC in the 2010 report “Towards greater cooperation and coherence in Entrepreneurship Education”.
In the next section we will be looking at Valnalon contribution within this constellation of regional stakeholders to push forward the entrepreneurship education agenda.
Valnalon was initially conceived and set up as the first public-funded Business Centre in the region. It started operations in 1987 in the premises of an old steelworks factory and its creation somehow signalled (a more or less traumatic) transition into the post-industrial era. Nowadays Valnalon is a regional government agency in charge of promoting entrepreneurship. Valnalon staffs 25 people and has developed some expertise in two different but interrelated areas:
- Entrepreneurship Education
- Business start-up support
While start-up support was certainly encoded in the DNA of the organization, Valnalon understood that this alone will not suffice to bring about the changes needed to increase entrepreneurship in the region. Valnalon continues providing business start-up advice, training and support to budding entrepreneurs but entrepreneurship education is considered on par as a key strategic area. Thus, since 1994 Valnalon has spearheaded developments in this field bringing together decision-makers, practitioners, and other social agents such as employers and third sector organizations to design and deliver a coherent portfolio of entrepreneurship education projects in primary, secondary and VET schools in the region.
The design and kick-off of the First Regional Action Plan for Entrepreneurship in 2005 represented a tipping point. Whereas previous efforts were largely dependent on the willingness of isolated schools and teachers to get involved in our entrepreneurship education projects, political endorsement and a medium-term funding strategy provided better leverage to expand and deepen the entrepreneurship education agenda in Asturias. Although it should be pointed out that a first step in this direction was taken a couple of years before, in 2003, with the embedding of EJE as an optional subject in the regional curriculum of secondary education. As a result, the regional government acknowledged Valnalon’s pioneering efforts and access to a well-developed network of schools and the Regional Action Plan granted our organization a leading role in the promotion of entrepreneurship in Education from Primary to VET.
Description of the organisation and its work
Valnalon’s workforce consists of a multidisciplinary team of twenty-four people. It is primarily funded through regional government revenues ring-fenced in the regional entrepreneurship action plan. An output-based budget is reviewed and approved with a total yearly sum of 350 000 € for the work in entrepreneurship education.
In its role as intermediary organization, Valnalon does not only help schools in translating policy into practice but nurtures ongoing collaboration and dialogue among decision-makers, practitioners, and other social agents such as employers and third sector organizations in the design and delivery of entrepreneurship education projects in primary, secondary and VET schools.
Valnalon designs and publishes teaching resources, provides teacher training and offers advice and continued support to an extensive network of schools implementing different entrepreneurial education projects. Valnalon’s project portfolio aims at creating a continuum of experiences for students and teachers touching upon different aspects of entrepreneurship. Our project portfolio creates a continuum of experience from Primary to VET for students and teachers touching upon different aspects of entrepreneurship (economic, social, cultural, etc.)
This extended portfolio has slowly built up throughout the years. Experience shows moving from a project idea to widespread adoption requires the right mix of early engagement of a team of committed teachers in the design phase, political support, budget availability, and a “start small”/”lean entrepreneurship” mentality. In the earlier stages teacher workgroups are configured and the methodology and teaching resources are fine-tuned through small-scale pilots and interventions at school and classroom level. Teachers involved in the piloting phase tend to become our best ambassadors. This process has been re-enacted in the design of our latest project for Early Education. Pilots have recently started in some Early Education Centres during this school year and hopefully improved before it’s fully fledged in 2015-2016.
Yet entrepreneurship education does not rank high in the list of priorities or concerns of teachers in the Asturia region. The usual raft of factors used to explain the limited buy-in of entrepreneurship education in Europe are insufficient to fully explain the situation in this side of Europe. Some teachers seem to equate entrepreneurship education with some of our mini-company based projects while some others ignore it altogether or are openly critical about the alleged benefits of entrepreneurship education. Active participation in European projects and initiatives represents another core area of our work. Europe provides a good opportunity to identify trends and new developments in the field, to share ideas with likeminded people and organizations and to explore promising areas for further work that are aligned with the organization’s strategy. For instance ADEPTT, a Leonardo da Vinci Transfer of Innovation project, was devised as a possible way to engage a broader cross-section of teachers in the conversation surrounding entrepreneurship in the region.
A great deal of work is needed on the parents’ side too where entrepreneurship education is mainly perceived as a mechanism to encourage business start-up. Overcoming such misunderstandings is the main motivation behind Valnalón pilot project for families, EFE.
Valnalon devotes considerable efforts to transfer know-how via agreements with different local, regional and national authorities. Steps for a 2-3 year implementation process are clearly delineated in the agreement and comprise the training of teachers, adaptation and translation of teaching resources and a schedule of regular meetings with schools, teachers and groups of students in order to track down and develop a precise understanding of most aspects of the implementation phase.
Description of the initiative
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Micro Businesses (UK) recommendation to increase local engagement between SME businesses and the education system resonated with Valnalon approach. As aforementioned, education and start-up support represent our core areas of work .However, we felt something was missing. Bridging the gap between those areas was our main motivation a couple of years ago to launch a very simple and straightforward scheme with exactly that same goal in mind: To create a network of SMEs willing to cooperate with schools, teachers and students and reinforce employer engagement in entrepreneurship education. The idea did not really deviate from other "employer engagement in education" schemes currently rolled out elsewhere in Europe but there are some lessons we would like to share with you. First thing we did was contacting the main employers’ organizations in the region to gauge interest. They were eager to help and started circulating information among their constituency almost immediately. The response was overwhelming and lots of small companies in the region were ready to jump in. In its first two years the project has exceeded all our expectations. More than 150 companies have developed some sort of collaboration with primary and secondary schools in their local area. Most of them are microbusinesses and sole traders. Different industry sectors are well represented in the sample as well as a good bunch of start-ups attempt to break away from tradition, entrepreneurs are given different possibilities of collaboration demanding different levels of commitment in terms of time and resources. The menu includes activities such as: talking about their experience as entrepreneurs, mentoring student-run enterprise projects, or posing a real-life challenge to a group of students. The latter represents our conscious attempt to abandon the somewhat old-fashioned business-plan contest approach.
“Reto TMP” is a 3-day enterprise challenge for secondary school students posed by a local employer (SME or NGO). During three weekly sessions (3 hours each) students get familiar with Design Thinking mind-sets and apply some of its methods to understand and reframe the challenge, gain empathy with real users, generate ideas and build prototypes that will be pitched to the local employer in the final session.
What differentiates design thinking from basic problem solving and project based work is its human-centred approach. Design thinking is not about building a birdcage in the D&T workshop but an approach to learning that focuses on developing young people creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving.
Thus “Reto TMP” basic configuration and delivery entails:
- Sign-up: VET and Upper Secondary School students enroll in a voluntary basis following a series of Careers Talks where a local entrepreneur shares its personal perspective and experience on entrepreneurship and self-employment.
- Planning: Once a minimum number of 10 students sign up, Valnalon and the local employer work together to craft a good question for the challenge. Students receive a message in their mobile phones with date and venue for the first session. A specific blog is set up for the challenge.
- Session 1: Employer introduces the challenge to the group of 10-15 students followed by a short Q&A session. Employer leaves the room and students start working in small groups with the help of Valnalon. Design Thinking is introduced and the teams devote the rest of the session to understand the challenge, identify stakeholders and prepare interviews to be carried out during the week.
- Session 2: Teams recap on key insights obtained in the interviews and reframe the challenge. Students apply divergent thinking techniques so that each team comes up with a shortlist of three ideas. Finally students agree on criteria to pick idea and move on to the prototyping phase.
- Session 3: A week later teams meet again to improve their prototypes and get ready for showcase. The employer joins the session and listens carefully to team pitches. In some cases this session is hosted in the company premises. The employer provides constructive feedback and takes some of the ideas on-board.
Anchoring in partner school
By way of example we would like to focus on a specific challenge developed last spring by secondary school students of Gijón (Asturias) in collaboration with a local company, La Cabina. In early September 2014 we visited La Cabina Headquarters to to recap on the experience with Isa. Isa Yende is a young woman entrepreneur. After graduation in VET School she gained some experience working for some TV companies as a camerawoman. Two years ago she took the self-employment route and started running La Cabina, a small video production company. A good friend of her and employee at Valnalon, Silvia Huerga, talked her into Red Emprendedora, a regional network of SMEs willing to cooperate with schools, teachers and students in the promotion of entrepreneurship. “The mere prospect of facing a group of teenagers in a classroom was a bit daunting at first” Isa recalls “but the experience was worth it. In our first meeting with Valnalon we were presented with different choices: Talk about our experience as entrepreneurs, hosting a visit to our company or posing a challenge to a group of students. The challenge option sounded interesting. At the time, we had just invested in a drone and we were already producing some footage with it but we were on the lookout for some fresh ideas not only on how to spread the word about this new service but also on different uses so as to recover our investment. In cooperation with Silvia we finetuned the challenge statement and everything was ready to meet the group of students from IES Montevil and Colegio Inmaculada who volunteered to give it a go.“
Let’s give the floor to Angela Guirado (17) and Alicia Arranz (18), students at Colegio Inmaculada, who took part in this challenge. It’s late September and we sat around a table during a school bread to get some feedback about their experience. The decision to get involved was kind of natural for Angela. She’s been involved in different enterprise education projects delivered by Valnalón since she was in Primary School. For Alicia this was her first encounter with entrepreneurship. Both admit the first session of the challenge turned their expectations upside down. What they thought was a theoretical course on business planning happened to be a very practice-based endeavor from the start. Their team focused on understanding to what extent the society as a whole, and potential customers of La Cabina were familiar with drones. Interviewees included an engineering teacher, the school director and a parent with working experience in the sector. The main insight derived from the interviewing phase was the need to raise awareness about this new technology. They also realized there were lots of dark spots when it came to legal aspects surrounding the use of drones for commercial purposes. Social media stood out as a good tool to promote drone-related services but students quickly noticed La Cabina was not really paying attention to this area. A prototype of their solution was a corporate twitter account for La Cabina. In spite of the short time, just a few tweets made the trick to generate a steady flow of followers. This was presented as a proof of concept to Isa in the last session of the course.
Achievements and impact
Isa, the local entrepreneur, remembers “Something clicked in my head during the students’ pitch. Obviously that idea of using social media had been lurking at the back of my mind for a while but this was a sudden realization that the time to act was now. Ever since we’ve gained a lot of presence in social media and this has resulted in having access to new customers and business opportunities.” On a less positive tone, Isa points out “ It’s quite unfortunate we did not keep in touch with students after the challenge”. Alicia, one of the students, feels the same. She happens to live just across the road but she admits she never found the courage to drop by and say hi. In any case, both students seem to grasp the whole intention of this kind of initiatives when asked about the whole purpose of the challenge. Both of them point out this was a good chance to think and act on their own ideas without a guidebook. They also enjoyed the mix of students from different schools in the challenge. “Listening to other group ideas made us realise a problem could be approached in many different ways. What looked like a big obstacle for us, all of a sudden disappeared when you heard some fantastic ideas of other groups to solve it. It was a good way to learn”. Although the evidence base on the benefits of employer engagement in education is growing, nothing has been done yet to assess the impact of this particular initiative on students and other stakeholders. Liaising and learning from existing initiatives such as the Education and Employers Taskforce (UK) with a strong research area may be a good next step to revert this situation.
- Keep it simple. In our opinion a key success factor was reducing paperwork as much as possible.
- Make it easy for both sides. Valnalon plays a mediating role by supporting and enabling contact between schools and entrepreneurs.
- Win the hearts and minds of Employers’ associations from the start
- Relevant and highly practical. Some of the ideas had a direct application for Isa. Students analysed La Cabina marketing strategy and offered a possible way forward to make a better use of social media. Isa took onboard some of these suggestions and a few months later, she reckons this fact alone has expanded her customer base.
- Creativity takes center stage. Isa was overwhelmed by the incredible creative potential and the fresh insights of that heterogeneous group of young people with different interests. This was particularly enhanced by the fact that students came from different schools in the city of Gijón.
- Lo-fi prototyping (a key aspect of the Design Thinking approach) facilitated discussion and understanding of project ideas. Isa was particularly surprised and pleased to see the paper prototype of La Cabina website presented by one of the group of students looked really similar to the revamped website soon to be launched.
The concept was first prototyped in 2012-2013 and launched in 2013-2014 where it has seen exponential growth.
- 150 local employers involved
- 30 challenges successfully solved last year (2013-2014)
- 350 Secondary school students involved
- 32 secondary schools
Obstacles and ways to overcome them
- Impact research is needed. Good topic for a phD student perhaps?
- Greater visibility should be given to participating companies
- Uncertainty in outcomes: Each challenge is very different
- Some students seem to prefer traditional business planning course.
- Further development of ideas require more than a three 3-hour session course Moving beyond the ideation /prototyping phase shall require further sessions.
- Extracurricular activity that may go unnoticed by most of the teaching staff. Plans for this year include a new option to embed it in school hours.
- Most of the companies involved are SMEs with limited office space to host visitors even when Isa thinks it will greatly reinforce the benefits of the project.
- Expect some eyebrows raising if the whole purpose of the challenge is misunderstood as a way to tap into the creative potential of young people for commercial purposes
- More often than not the relationship between the entrepreneur and the group of students is discontinued once the challenge ends.
- Adoption of student ideas by companies may go unnoticed. Valnalon to devise a protocol to keep track of this via telephone call 6 months after the challenge has ended.