Birkbeck celebrates Global Entrepreneurship Week

Birkbeck Enterprise Pathways invited founder and CEO of EdAid, Tom Woolf, to speak to students for its inaugural ‘Audience With’ event.

Birkbeck Enterprise Pathways recently celebrated the start of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2017 with the launch of its brand new event series to develop and support students with entrepreneurial ambition. The Audience With event series is specifically designed to bring an outstanding entrepreneur to Birkbeck each term, to meet, advise and inspire.

The inaugural Audience With was delivered by Tom Woolf, Founder and CEO of EdAid. Jenna Davies, who runs the Enterprise Pathways programme at Birkbeck, expressed what an honour it was to host someone like Tom: “We’re delighted to have Tom with us tonight. He is an inspirational success and it’s fantastic he is here this evening to share his expertise, passion and his commitment to mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

Tom kicked off the event with an overview of his personal and education history, and his experience working in traditional businesses before starting out on his own. He openly discussed his ambition to achieve more and to pioneer his own way in the world; having had a less than easy start in life, the prospect of a better future motivated him to progress, and his energy and enthusiasm helped him to win a scholarship at a military school in Suffolk where he became heavily involved in sport. Surrounded by people who were brought up to believe they could achieve anything encouraged him to put himself out there and develop confidence.

He went on to study Economics at Royal Holloway before he was selected to play rugby professionally for the Harlequins. Unfortunately, a severe eye injury stopped his full-time rugby career in its track. But Tom regrouped and focused more seriously than ever on his studies. He interned at Arthur Anderson, now Accenture, and was selected to join their Financial Services strategy team permanently after graduation.

Despite the ‘8am-8pm, 6 days a week’ mentality, he continued to side-job the whole time: “Somehow I felt unfulfilled because no-one in the jobs I worked seemed to match my level of commitment to a cause. I started to dream of working for myself.” Tom did just that, starting a business out of Dubai, putting famous professional rugby coaches into sporty schools. Tom went on to secure further businesses, but, like many others, was rocked by the global financial crisis in 2008.

He bounced back again and found an opportunity within his network at the world’s largest fundraising platform for charities, JustGiving, which he launched across the Middle East & Africa in 2011. His most recent venture, EdAid, helps students to finance their higher education, interest-free. “My experience, personal failures and problems have helped to hone my skills to make something great, something sustainable.”

During the Q&A session, Tom encouraged students to think beyond the walls other people build around them: “Big business is not real business. It can be dogmatic – people have meetings about meetings about meetings, and end up caught in a vicious circle of ‘one-upping’ each other, forgetting the real work.” He described the most rewarding thing about entrepreneurship as looking around the room at a group of emancipated, motivated people with autonomy, using their skills and energy to make vital decisions without worrying about reviews, bonuses or rocking the boat: “Self-employment is not a walk in the park, but it rewards people with the dexterity and the ideas.”

Tom rounded off the session with heartfelt thanks to those in the audience for their personal drive to change their lives through education. “I usually tell people to be resourceful, resilient and hard working. I’m not sure the last point there is really necessary for Birkbeck students; you already know all about the hustle and dedication to work and study at the same time!”

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