Will tough times create young entrepreneurs?

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

Image caption, Suriyah Bi is wondering whether she can run her business and study for a degree

"They say build something in a time of destruction" - words of advice from Suriyah Bi, who is just 18 years old and her own boss.

She travels the country working as a henna artist going to weddings and religious festivals.

But she is also a student taking the equivalent of three A-levels in biology, chemistry and physics.

"I wanted a brand out there, I wanted security and independence, I also wanted to enjoy myself," she said.

Poor job prospects, university tuition fees going up - it is a tough time to be leaving school.

But is there a flip side to the gloom? Is the recession actually forcing young people to think about going into business by themselves? Suriyah thinks so.

During the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha she sets up a stall in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham and expects 3,000 customers.

She can make as much as £1,000 a day. Most of her work happens in the evenings after her studies.

She has a website and distributes flyers and business cards around the local area.

Student CEO?

Suriyah explained that she started the business first of all because of her love of Mehndi, the art of henna.

She also wanted to to take control of her own financial future and possibly pay her way through university.

Image caption, Mybnk helps students set up their own micro-bank offering start-up loans

"I'd want to recruit people, train people up before university. I can do it in my spare time, around my uni schedule and send my employees out," she said.

She imagines becoming a student and CEO all at the same time.

Though she may go onto to a pharmacy degree, she says she is tempted to invest the time and money expanding the brand instead.

Suriyah is the oldest of eight children, and the sitting room of the small family home in the West Midlands doubles up as study and factory floor.

Here she mixes the brown henna powder into a smooth paste before spooning it into small plastic cones which she uses to paint her intricate designs.

She can charge anything from £1 for a simple design up to £35 for the most elaborate.

She says her customers come from all backgrounds and cultures and she varies the designs according to taste.

Harsh realities

Hers is a story that might well impress businessman Peter Jones, one of the "Dragons" on the entrepreneurial TV programme Dragon's Den.

He is also founder of the National Enterprise Academy, which aims to give young people a firm grounding in the practicalities of business.

Mr Jones believes the current harsh economic realities and changes to student finance may actually be inspiring some young people.

"They have to ask, do they start their business while at college, while they're doing their A-levels," he says.

"That makes them think, maybe I'll think about something unique, about the next invention, the next business - those are all good stimuli for getting our brains rewired for success in the future."

Image caption, Peter Jones warns that only one in 20 hopefuls manage to set up a successful business

But he sounds a note of warning.

The statistics are stark, showing that only one in every 20 people who wants to become their own boss manages to set up a successful business.

"We have an education issue, we have a cultural issue, [and] without those two things changing in a dramatic way in this country we will continue to tread water," he says.

"There has to be a cultural shift in the way the whole nation sees entrepreneurship and also an education system... that will give young people the real tools to go out and become entrepreneurs."

In some classrooms those kinds of practical lessons are already well under way.

Education charity Mybnk specialises in teaching pupils about personal and business finance from a very practical point of view.

One of the projects is helping young people set up their own micro bank, which they can then use to hand out small start-up loans.

Armani, 14 and Nimer, 16, are both pupils at Ilford Ursuline High School on the outskirts of London.

They have just started one of the Mybnk projects and are already both set on a career in business.

Armani believes she has spotted a gap in the market

"It's really expensive to get food and drink in this school. If other people have the same of views, I could start a good business and make a good turnover and profit from it," she says.

Nima is looking further ahead.

"It's very hard for my parents to pay for my university fees and because there's not a lot of jobs out there obviously if I start my own business I provide jobs for other people."

School worries

Their teacher Kiran Sandhu believes that attitudes have really changed over the last two years.

"Before, the girls were focused on the theory. Now they want to acquire the skills to be their own bosses," she says.

But she is fearful that the emphasis on paid work could affect their studies.

"A lot of the stories about young entrepreneurs are about those who dropped out of school, so it would be quite nice to have somebody who can manage both."

Suriyah is one of the examples she may be looking for.

"I think people can learn from what I'm doing. I've had a few people say how do you do this, how do I set up this thing?"

The business is doing so well that Suriyah has a difficult choice to make: go to university or invest those five years in expanding the brand. She imagines setting up an entire Asian bridal service.

When I ask her how far she can take the idea she smiles.

"I can imagine taking this business to absolutely amazing heights," she says.

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