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Entrepreneurs are the original disruptors

03/11/21. By Karen Green. 10 min read.

Curtin graduates and students mingle on the Curtin Perth campus.

Entrepreneurs are easy to admire. They’re explorers and creators – they create new products, services, jobs, and perhaps even new industries. But what is an entrepreneur, and how are they created?

Or are they born? It’s a long-time debate. Most definitions agree that an entrepreneur is someone who creates a new business enterprise, and that the process involves considerable risk. It’s also accepted that entrepreneurs have a high level of ‘fluid intelligence’, which is characterised by mental agility and problem-solving ability.

While those traits, together with a measure of gumption, will see new ideas push past the thought-bubble phase, it takes knowledge and resources to transform a good idea into a new product or service. So the notion of natural-born entrepreneurs, who arrive wielding genetic chutzpah that slays every obstruction, is a bit of a myth.

Take a brainwave …

Dr Vanessa Rauland is smart, spirited and on a mission. But she admits that as an aspiring entrepreneur she often felt out of her depth.

Throughout her school years Vanessa was passionate about protecting the environment. Then, as a PhD student in Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, she had the idea that helping schools to reduce their carbon footprint would also promote environmental sustainability to the next generation of workers.

Vanessa Rauland discusses her app ClimateClever and helping students to learn about sustainability.

She completed Curtin’s Ignition and Accelerate programs while continuing her teaching and research at Curtin, and won not one but two Curtinnovation Awards – an event which has been a focal point of the innovation calendar in Western Australia for 14 years. Vanessa’s top piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to sign up to entrepreneurship programs.

Vanessa (third from left) holding one of her Curtinnovation Awards.

“They teach you to think strategically about your idea, your customers and how you are different. It’s easy to be daunted by others who seem more experienced, qualified or further down the track than you. Having the support of a university that embraces innovation and entrepreneurship is exceptional.”

Her innovation is now a popular education resource called ClimateClever, which helps schools, homes and businesses reduce their carbon footprint – and save on utility costs in the process. As CEO of the company, Vanessa has many and varied tasks.

“My role flits between business development and investor pitching, product development and user testing, marketing and sales, project management, finance and customer service. But what I love most about my job is waking up every day knowing I’m doing something I’m passionate about that’s having a positive impact on the world.”

Vanessa explaining how ClimateClever works.

Diversify and thrive

The effects of climate change and unexpected global issues – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – are causing new disruptions in international markets that will compel some economies to innovate to survive.

Associate Professor Subra Ananthram leads the academic area of innovation and entrepreneurship in Curtin Business School. He explains that entrepreneurship is critical to diversification.

“Western Australia, for example, has relied on the mining sector for a long time. It’s time to invest in innovation programs, to encourage and support entrepreneurs across a variety of industries, and diversify WA’s economy for future prosperity,” he says.

“Not all entrepreneurs will change the world, but their business skills, creative thinking and resilience offer enormous value to the many and varied industries that are undergoing rapid change.”

Inside Curtin Business School.

Breaking into the innovation set

Subra stresses that support structures are important enablers of successful commercialisation and that universities are key players. In fact, universities have had a historic role – and perhaps even the societal responsibility – in fostering innovation.

“They are such fertile ground for new ideas, and they have the R&D facilities and the knowledge that supports innovation. Aspiring entrepreneurs are highly motivated individuals and if they don’t get support in their home town, they move somewhere else.

“Curtin takes very seriously its role in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in WA. We have a systematic pipeline of industry-connected entrepreneurship and innovation courses, as well as masterclass and credential short courses.”

Learn more about Curtin Ignition.

Innovate and conquer

It’s been suggested that, like an inherited character trait, Curtin’s history as the Western Australian Institute of Technology has instilled a mindset of innovation throughout the University.

One of the most publicised entrepreneurial successes in WA in recent years is that of Curtin graduates Sam and Ryan Kroonenburg.

With a Curtin degree in software engineering, Sam Kroonenburg identified a gap in the online education market for cloud computing courses, and, together with his brother Ryan (who has a Curtin degree in finance and accounting) created A Cloud Guru.

Meet Sam Kroonenburg.

In June, the Financial Review reported that after five years of increasing success with A Cloud Guru, the Kroonenburgs had sold their home-grown startup for $2 billion. Other recent successes include Jawn Looi’s AMLab and Kevin Forcier’s Storekat.

Director of Curtin’s IP and Commercialisation area, Rohan McDougall, explains why entrepreneurship programs are effective.

“They help people with great ideas develop entrepreneurial mindsets and skills, as well as the networks needed to access markets,” he says.

“The programs are also helping to develop an entrepreneur ecosystem in WA. But we’re not doing it alone – we have staunch supporters within industry and the community who are determined to see WA thrive. Those major donors are the enablers of our entrepreneurial programs, which in turn help develop new businesses, products and services.”

One of these donors is the Malka Foundation. The Foundation is deeply committed to supporting a diverse economy in Western Australia by creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovation that results in future wealth generation for the State.

In addition to the programs Ignition, Kickstart, Accelerate and Curtinnovation, Curtin has also established an entrepreneurs-in-residence program, one of whom is Perth tech entrepreneur Olivia Humphrey, who sold her company Kanopy for a significant undisclosed sum.

Another Curtin initiative is an annual innovation festival called West Tech Fest. The five-day event attracts a global line-up of keynote speakers and offers aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their ideas to visiting venture capitalists.

As of 2021, here are the outcomes of Curtinnovation’s ecosystem.

Entrepreneurship bonds with social responsibility

Entrepreneurship takes many forms. Vanessa Rauland’s ClimateClever is a great example of an innovation arising from a sense of social responsibility. Another example, but of a very different texture, is Amanda Healy’s company Kirrikin, which produces luxury clothing and accessories featuring contemporary designs by Indigenous artists.

Amanda, who has an MBA from Curtin’s Graduate School of Business, explains that an important motivation for establishing Kirrikin was to improve Indigenous commercial opportunities and outcomes.

“Our sales provide a sustainable income for Aboriginal artists in remote communities, but the business also supports programs that help improve Aboriginal health, education and employment initiatives,” she says.

Meet Curtin graduate Amanda Healy.

Kirrikin isn’t Amanda’s first commercial success. After a long career in human resources and industrial relations in global mining companies, she established her own business, Maxx Engineering, in WA’s Pilbara. After selling Maxx to an international buyer, she then founded Warrikal, a similar business but one that is committed to employing local Aboriginal workers.

But luxury clothing is something different again.

“I was looking for a scarf that had an authentic Indigenous design to wear to an event, but could find nothing,” she explains. “So I linked up with someone in the clothing industry and we sought out some amazing artists who had interesting and beautiful stories to tell through their artwork.”

Amanda says they deliberately positioned Kirrikin as a luxury brand to honour the profound, ancient beauty of Indigenous culture and art.

It’s a challenging market but the company has garnered useful praise, including success at the Indigenous fashion presentation of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, which is raising their brand awareness. Kirrikin has also attracted the attention of a buyer from David Jones, and the retailer will soon be featuring Kirrikin designs online and in several stores.

A model wears the ‘Wildflowers’ design by Kirrikin.

Entrepreneurial type or hype?

So, is there an entrepreneurial ‘type’?

Clearly, in Western Australia, entrepreneurship is embraced by diverse people and develops from diverse motivations. And the hype appears to be entirely justified, with Perth becoming increasingly more entrepreneurial.

“We have a wonderful entrepreneurship ecosystem that has taken years to build,” Subra says.

“Perth might be geographically remote, but it is a very well-connected city entrepreneurially. I expect the key US market will become increasingly accessible to our local startups.”

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