Rebecca Smith is External Engagement Manager for Kent Business School, starting her working life as Project Officer for ASPIRE – which has helped launch dozens of student start-up businesses.
To celebrate International Women’s Day we caught up with Rebecca to find out more about her career with with ASPIRE and what ‘embracing equity’ means to her.
‘I am proud to have supported women from a huge range of backgrounds in launching their businesses,’ beams Rebecca.
‘Sometimes, though not always, women need more support in building their confidence, in believing in themselves and their ideas. That said, we have worked with some women who have absolutely no problem with owning a room, or taking to the stage in front of hundreds of people. I’ve always been about understanding the individual, not the stereotype!’
ASPIRE, which stands for the ‘Accelerator Space for Innovation and Responsible Enterprise began its life in 2017. Its aim was to provide an ‘innovation ecosystem’ to all students and to help breed business ideas that offer solutions to pressing societal issues. The role of Project Officer for ASPIRE was Rebecca’s first experience in higher education.
She explains: ‘My first proper job was as an actress, working for a touring theatre company, taking improvisation-based plays to schools and youth clubs and running workshops with young people. It was an absolutely fantastic job. I loved the people I worked with. I think this is where I learned the art of working with young people.’
The long gaps between tours meant Rebecca had time to travel – working abroad in Zante, Greece in bars. It was there she fell in love with hearing people’s stories. Her second career unfolded.
Rebecca says: ‘I sort of fell into work on my local paper in Kent after meeting another journalist at a party. I completed my NCTJ training and then spent the next 15 years working in local news as a reporter, news editor and editor. It was an amazing time, although very hard work with long, often unsociable, hours. I loved meeting different people and finding out about their lives. I guess both my careers, although they were very different, were about working with people, which is what I think I enjoy most.’
She started life at KBS after heading up events as her children’s school and seeing an advertisement for the ASPIRE role in 2018.
She says: ‘I never thought that I would love this job as much as did journalism – but I absolutely do. Working with students and graduates is so inspiring. Their energy and enthusiasm is a joy to be around.’
To date ASPIRE have helped launched a large number of small businesses, many that have gone on to international success and a great deal led by females– such as Nadia Simpson (also known as Ewura-esi )with haircare brand Nu-Efla who has been featured in Forbes magazine and Artificial Intelligence student Simona Paraskevopoulou who, alongside Computer Science student Lorenzo Chinole won last year’s Start Up journey finals with their plant-self watering device and app.
‘I always wanted it to be a fun, exciting place for any student to come and get help and support in starting a business. A place that can inspire students to unlock their own potential and realise their dreams. It’s about a mix of giving people knowledge of ‘how to’ do something such as finance, or registering a business and encouraging them to develop their ideas and skills.’
When it comes to championing women – and other marginalised groups – Rebecca sees ASPIRE as a preconception-free zone where diversity is woven into the fabric. Gender Equality is one of the 17 Global Development Goals, the backdrop of all business ideas developed within ASPIRE.
She says: ‘Sadly, I do think it’s harder for women to succeed in business. It is better than it was, but when you look at the statistics around start-up, and particularly access to finance, we still have a long way to go. But we’ll get there. There are too many amazing women in business for it not to change.’
This International Women’s Day, Rebecca feels confident she is part of the movement ‘embracing equity’ regardless of race, gender and other differences.
‘If we don’t have everyone succeed equally, then we all fail. We need to have everyone at the table, to have their views and outlooks respected and to enable them to reach their potential.’
Rebecca now works on the Growing Kent and Medway project within the university as well as overseeing ASPIRE with colleague Artur Slowinski.
Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.