This successful Australian founder explains why university is more important than ever for the modern entrepreneur

Getty Images

  • Naomi Simson, founder of RedBalloon, says formal education “help us understand what we really want to do to in life”.
  • According to a recent report, future jobs will require individuals who can “interact with and co-ordinate people, plan and manage the solving of complex problems”.
  • Simson says university is the best place to be exposed to these skills.

The most successful entrepreneurial stories of our time (think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg) have all focused on the founders’ lack of formal education. In fact, it is commonly thought that all of these men would have been prevented from achieving greatness if they’d stuck it out at university, their creativity and brilliance dimmed by the never-ending rigour of university culture.

However, we can’t all just drop out, begin tinkering with a computer or code, and invent the next Facebook. Or perhaps even if we can, we don’t want to, because we rather like university, but think that in order to be a great entrepreneur, we must be ready to take flight, sit in our parents’ garage and experiment until we hit on that unicorn-worthy idea.

It’s not sexy, but sometimes it takes formal education to help us understand what we really want to do to in life.

Take me, for example. I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. I graduated from the University of Melbourne thinking I would be a lifelong corporate worker in big companies such as IBM, KPMG and Ansett. These were the natural successions to my higher education experience, a path that many take successfully and continue to take for the rest of their working lives.

However, it was while working in these corporate environments that I realised my thinking patterns and what inspired me were misaligned to the culture I was in. I felt hemmed in by the formal structures of these great big companies, and, looking back, I know it’s what not I was meant to do.

I was a pain in the neck as an employee. I was deeply curious about the work I was doing, and I probably asked one too many questions. “Why are we doing this?” or “Can we do it a different way?” were words I would utter on a daily basis. I was an agitator, so it made sense for me to me to eventually strike out on my own: RedBalloon was born in 2001, and since then, I’ve been on one heck of a wild journey.

SuppliedNaomi Simson

Over the years I was able to pivot, and pivot again, because I could think creatively about the problems I was facing. I was also able to move forward because of my understanding of business and my wide circle of friends and connections, who were helpful enough to share their wisdom with me along the way.

I can attribute much of this to my time at university, which was fundamental in shaping my ideas, my understanding of the world, and my views on important economic and political issues such as migration. It was at the University of Melbourne that I developed the so-called “soft skills” which have yet to fail me as each year takes my career in directions I never imagined it would take.

Only this week, PwC and The Australian Technology Network released a report looking at the importance of equipping Australians with life-long skills that assess practical competency over purely theoretical knowledge. The report states that as machines take over routine cognitive tasks, “demand will increase for stimulating and satisfying tasks that are difficult to automate”.

“A growing proportion of jobs will require individuals who can interact with and co-ordinate people, plan and manage the solving of complex problems, and select and use technological tools,” the report said.

This is a timely reminder about the essential role more nuanced skills, such as the ability to build networks, think creatively and communicate effectively, have in the business world.

Relationship building

Sometimes, I think all the talk of living in a STEM-rich economy undervalues that we are still living in a human economy. None of us can achieve greatness without the support of extensive and reliable networks, and there is no better place to form these than at university, where passions run high and ideas are not yet tempered by the brick wall of reality.

I am still friends with the people I met at university, and over the years, they have proven invaluable in many ways. At the end of the day, it’s the relationships that make the entrepreneur; it is also relationships and the ability to interact with others that make for well-rounded employees.

University also exposes you to a host of other cultures, an integral part of the increasingly globalised economy. Never has it been more important to understand the unique cultural customs of other nations, which are practiced by business and community leaders alike. Australian tertiary students are uniquely placed to benefit from this cultural integration, as our higher education sector is one of the best performing industries nationally. In Victoria, for instance, international education has been largest service export industry for the last decade, and in 2016-2017 generated more than $9.1 billion in export revenue, with a national market share of 31.7 per cent.

Effective communication

The ability to communicate well with staff, supervisors, colleagues, teachers and anyone, really, is integral to every relationship in life.

However, being able to communicate via different modes, be it in person, over social networks, email or phone is just the beginning. Good communication extends beyond the practical and into the charming. Before interviews, do you research what your potential employer likes to do in their spare time? Do you try and establish commonality between yourself and a potential business partner? Do you look people in the eye when speaking to them? Are you respectful and fair when providing criticism?

University (and a person’s first job) is often the starting point for learning how to debate, and present, ideas respectfully, talk to lecturers, peers and tutors. Postgraduate courses offer an enhanced level of communication, where being able to defend a thesis in a succinct and logical manner is also an important requirement.

Ability to think creatively and adapt

Creative thinking goes hand-in-hand with critical thinking, and is the cornerstone of evolution and entrepreneurialism. And while creativity can be in-born, it can also be taught – provided that people are exposed to the right stimuli.

Creativity stems from knowledge and an awareness of the world around you. The only way to come up with new and unorthodox solutions is having a clear understanding of the existing problems and solutions, and being able to analyse why they are not working. This includes being able to detect patterns across seemingly unrelated topic matters.

The role of universities in traditional knowledge production is clear. What future and current entrepreneurs need to know is that universities should be considered part of life-long learning, a place that people can call on when they need to upskill or simply be stimulated creatively.

So even if you don’t love structure or have a disdain for formal learning, don’t diss it. It may sound clichéd, but in order to break the rules you need to learn them first.

Naomi Simson is the first speaker in the new University of Melbourne podcast series, Expert Hack, launching this week. She is best known as founder of RedBalloon, one of Australia’s major tech success stories, and has just released her new book, Ready To Soar.

NOW WATCH: Ideas videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.