Growing Innovators and Entrepreneurs at the University of Auckland

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In the last three years, the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) has been transformed. Individual participants in our initiatives have grown by 272% since 2015.

This growth has been driven in the same way a start up goes from a scribble on the back of a napkin to a fully funded venture. It’s been driven with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, passionate entrepreneurial minded staff, a single minded vision, quick wins and funding.

Essentially the CIE was run like a start-up for the first two years of its transformation. Those of you working in a university may be wondering, ‘how is that possible within the confines of a largebureaucratic organisation like a university?”

Every start up founder has to have a dream, and a big reason why. To make a dent in the NZ economy, to assist it in moving from being based on primary industries, to one built on innovation and enterprise was ours. And with this motivation, our team then dreamt even bigger, and envisioned being the leader in innovation and entrepreneurship in the Southern Hemisphere. Great stuff for vision statements, but we knew our generous donors would want to be able to measure this. So we set a lofty target; that by 2020 we would have engaged with 10% of the university’s students. The University of Auckland has a student roll of 42,000, so we had to increase from 800 participants to 4,200 in five years.

Here’s the thing about Big Hairy Audacious Goals – when people first hear them, they look at you as if you are crazy, then they start to wonder, ‘imagine if’, their thinking then shifts to what could we do to get there, and the blue touch paper has been lit! Anything is possible, and a movement is born!

The target of 10% was chosen purposefully. Research[1] and practice in Organisational Development shows that when 10% of the staff of an organisation start to change their attitudes and behaviours this becomes the tipping point for culture change. Aiming for 10% is designed to catalyse a culture change at the university.

10% of the student population engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship activities by 2020 is a also great sound bite. With such ambitious targets, we needed support from across the university. To gain this we socialised our new strategy and programmes widely across campus, faculties and disciplines. We also promoted our new approach to the entrepreneurial ecosystem, government and sponsors. It was easy for people to recite and remember, and as such the awareness of our bold objectives grew.

Culture was key. We grew our team from four to 14, and all new members were recruited for their entrepreneurial mind-set – being able to solve problems creatively, work in teams, deal with ambiguity, being tenacious, taking risks and persevering. As the majority of the team was new we invested time and energy in creating values to exemplify our approach, and also to support one another as we launched our new programmes and experienced high growth. And the inevitable stresses and strains of such rapid growth.

At the heart of the ambitious strategy to increase involvement is a comprehensive new programme offering. This is based on spanning the spectrum of ‘no awareness of innovation and entrepreneurship’ to ‘moving a successful venture off campus’.

The diagrams below show the growth of the programme offering. Diagram 1, show the programmes up to 2015, focussed mainly on the middle stage of the journey.

Diagram 1:

Diagram 2 shows the significant growth in programmes 2016 – 2017. We focused on creating early stage programmes to appeal to a broad range of students. We anticipated that by offering workshops and initiatives that focused on problem solving, innovation, design led thinking etc, instead of ‘starting a business’ as we had previously done, this would appeal to a wider range of students and thus be effective at increasing our numbers.

Diagram 2:


In late 2017, we opened a 900 square meter iconic innovation and entrepreneurship hub with a state of the art maker space in the heart of the university campus. The additional funding, space and resources allowed us to expand our range of programmes and we built out the latter stages of the journey.

These new programmes are in diagram 3.

Diagram 3:

Our 2018 targets have been reached, and 2019 promises to be just as successful.

Like a start-up, it’s not just the product or service that creates the success, it’s the team that brings the strategy to life. We have been very fortunate at the Centre to have a passionate team prepared to take risks and drive towards our ambitious 2020 vision.

Student Testimonials – the impact of our programmes

“The Get Good Done programme unleashed my dormant potential in public speaking, team collaboration and project management, which has helped me gain confidence and developed skills that will last a lifetime.”  Kyla Klintworth – Get Good Done 2018

“I’m now way more keen to get involved in business, which is something I never saw myself doing until now.” Katrina Dickins – Get Good Done 2018 and the Velocity Innovation Challenge

“My future is looking very promising and I am excited! Thank you CIE, and Idea Bootcamp 2017. You have transformed my life to be a game changer! I now believe I have the qualities to change my community and the world through entrepreneurship, impacting the lives of thousands, and become a game changer.”

Lindy Maizambu Anthon – 2017 Ideate! Validate! Participant

About the Author:

Wendy Kerr is Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland, where she aims to grow business savvy, entrepreneurially minded students.  In her tenure there she has transformed the Centre, developing programmes and initiatives which have increased participation by 272% since 2015. Now, 6% of the University of Auckland student body are involved in the Centre’s innovation and entrepreneurship programmes, including the recently launched incubator and the iconic innovation hub which was opened by the Prime Minister.

[1] Xie, J & Sreenivasan, Sameet & Korniss, Gyorgy & Zhang, Weituo & Lim, Chjan & Szymanski, Boleslaw. (2011). Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities. Physical Review E. 84. 011130. 10.1103/PhysRevE.84.011130.