Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise

Starting your own business, social enterprise or charity is a career option open to all academic backgrounds. Don’t be put off if you think you don’t have all the skills (e.g. financial accounting, building a website etc). There’s lots of help available with any and all aspects of starting an organisation, both while you’re here at Oxford, and after you complete your course. Another way to access those skills is to join up with others and “co-found” your new business, social enterprise, or charity.

Big shout-out here for EnSpire Oxford – THE go-to website to start your investigation of this exciting world.

Many University of Oxford graduates have turned innovative business ideas into successful and disruptive start-ups. Dr Kyle Grant, founder of environmentally-friendly laundry and wet cleaning business, Oxwash, is a great example. Oxford University spinout Quantum Dice uses an innovative approach to IP and helping Oxford students commercialise next-gen encryption technology. Another Oxford spinout, Perspectum, has developed the first mainstream applications of artificial intelligence using MRI to help treat metabolic disease. 

Entrepreneurship might suit you if you like being in charge, influencing other people, taking risks, making things happen and are adventurous, assertive, ambitious, and motivated.


  • Independence to follow ideas and ambitions
  • Geographical flexibility to suit your life
  • Control over the environment in which you work
  • The successes and rewards are all yours
  • Choice in the work that you do
  • Satisfaction in making the impact you want
  • Opportunities for significant growth


  • Often low/no income early-on
  • No guaranteed salary, sick pay, paid leave
  • Set-up costs: rent, equipment, insurance etc.
  • Inherent risks of failure
  • Can be hard to separate work from home life
  • Initially, lack of interaction with a big team
  • Accountability – it’s all on you and your co-founders

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The different types of self-employment can be broadly summarised as sole-trading, freelancing, and starting your own company, charity or social enterprise. Entrepreneurship comes in different sizes too – from a side-hustle to another job, to a smaller ‘lifestyle’ business or ‘cottage industry’, to a ‘scalable’ business with big plans for growth.


  • No organisation to set up, just register with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) as self-employed
  • No need for formal accounts, just keep your own records for a quarterly and/or annual HMRC self-assessment form.
  • You keep all the profits, but if you lose money, it comes directly out of your pocket.
  • Usually used for informal or sporadic work with low liabilities.


See our guide to Freelancing if you’re planning to win contracts from clients to deliver work as an individual. Many freelancers are sole-traders, or have set up a company, but some choose other ways of working (such as through an Umbrella Company).

Starting a company

  • Need to choose a legal business structure (usually as a limited company)
  • Register with Companies House, file accounts, send an annual return (often involves using an accountant), register for VAT (only over a certain level of takings)
  • The general benefit of starting a company is that it protects your assets as an individual: if the company loses money your assets are safe as a director
  • Company accounts published through Companies House

Starting a charity or social enterprise

  • Different structures to decide upon: a cooperative, a community interest company (a special type of limited company), a charity or charitable incorporated organisation, an unincorporated association or an industrial and provident society.
  • Some require registering at Companies House, some through the Charities Commission.
  • Requires same diligence and detail as starting a company, but in the case of a charity you look to fundraise for your costs, and for a social enterprise you look to use your profits for a social good.

Core skills required

Essentially, any start-up needs to deliver on three essential areas: you need people to:

  1. Build it
  2. Sell it
  3. Count it

If you are doing this alone, then you will need all the skills in broadly equal measure – to build the product or service, to sell and market the service, and then to ‘do the books’ (to run the accounts). If you’re co-founding an organisation, you might choose to work with people with complementary skills – not just your mates.

The following are the kind of core skills that are seen in many successful people who work for themselves. Everyone is likely to be stronger in some areas than others.

  • Willingness to take risks and revise your vision
  • Ability to work without direction and confidence to make decisions
  • Acceptance of a degree of uncertainty
  • Natural networker
  • Energy and resilience
  • Creativity and adaptability
  • Ability to solve problems and learn from mistakes
  • Self-discipline and self-motivation
  • Passion and belief in your project


In addition to these core skills, most entrepreneurs will also start to acquire the following:

  • Role models or mentors
  • Partners and collaborators to bring skills or resources you don’t have, or training to gain them yourself
  • A personal support network
  • Understanding of your market and any competitors
  • A ‘business plan’ for the project
  • Some money to fund the initial stages of the project
  • Financial estimates for the money you will need and potential funding sources
  • Build credibility and knowledge in your field (to encourage investors and supporters)
  • Physical resources needed – desk space/workshop space/equipment

Key resource:

EnSpire Oxford


Building your skills at Oxford

Many students who become entrepreneurs follow one of the following routes to get there:

  1. Use the support services here in Oxford to prepare to launch their idea as they finish their course. See the skills and experience section below for more about this.
  2. Use external support services, such as other organisations, incubators, national charities, or regional support groups after they graduate and prepare to launch their idea in their first year or two after they finish their course. See the external resources section below for more about this.
  3. Take a paid role in a related area of work to gain knowledge, money, contacts and experience before launching their own idea in the future.
  4. Take a job in an area which isn’t directly related, but using their free time to develop their idea as a sideline, which may develop into full-time entrepreneurship in the future.

Information for international students

Many international students will find that the terms of their student visa prohibit self-employment or starting a business. If you do work on a self employed basis you will be committing an immigration offence.  This could lead to a refusal of future visa applications or removal from the UK.

This also means that you cannot take freelance work where you would have to invoice the company or client for the work that you do.  If you get offered freelance work you should ask the company if they can offer you a contract as an employee for the time you’re working for them. See further guidance from UKCISA on what kind of work you can do during your studies.


Key resource:

Start-up Visa at Oxford.


Graduate Visa

A Graduate visa gives you permission to stay in the UK for at least 2 years after successfully completing a course in the UK.  If you have a PhD or other doctoral qualification, it will last for 3 years. The terms of the Graduate Visa allow you to stay in the UK to look for work, and to work in most jobs: you can also work for yourself. See the Government's pages on the Graduate Visa for full details.

Startup visa

International (ie, non-EEA) students who have completed a degree in the last 12 months are currently able to apply for a Tier 1 Innovator Visa.

At Oxford, these applications are coordinated by The Careers Service. You can read more online about how to apply for the Start-up Visa at Oxford.

The Start-up Visa is different to the standard Tier 1 Innovator visa (you don’t need £50,000 in investment).

Entrepreneurs tend to be innovators and may not want to follow the well trodden paths taken by other graduates, so there are many routes to starting your own venture. There are, however, a few 'entry-level schemes' that new and recent graduates can apply to. The most prominent is Entrepreneur First: a 3 month programme that brings together individuals with the potential to found a new company. EF participants do not need a concrete business idea to join as the programme helps to build ideas, support ideation and to build collaborations and meet your co-founder to build start-ups from scratch.

If you’ve gained the skills, researched the concept, gathered any needed collaborators, and honed your business plan, you might be ready to take that last step from ‘someone with an idea’ to ‘self-employed entrepreneur’.


An incubator usually is a free or low-rent office space which gives you (and your team if you have one) a place to work alongside other entrepreneurs. They might offer training, mentoring or networking alongside just the office space. There are business incubators in lots of cities and towns, but sometimes you have to fit certain criteria to be accepted by one. There are also ‘pre-incubators’, which aim to support budding entrepreneurs before they’ve really decided on their business. You don’t need to start your business in an incubator (plenty of people don’t), but it might be worth looking into if some of the benefits seem useful to you.

Accelerator programmes

An accelerator programme’s main aim is to help start-ups get bigger quicker. Usually they involve ‘seed funding’ – the accelerator programme makes a small investment for a small stake in the company. This money helps to fund you while you get set up. The accelerator is invested (literally!) in helping you get big and to grow their investment. They’re much more common with tech companies, and with ideas which have the idea of getting big in their DNA. You don’t need to use an accelerator (plenty of people don’t) but it might be worth looking into if it seems to fit what you want to do. There are fewer accelerators than incubators, but they’re still found worldwide.

Check out our summary of accelerators and incubators, funding and more in our ‘External Resources’ section. Funding, incubation and other opportunities changes all the time. To keep up to date, remember to sign up for email newsletters or similar from any useful external websites.

Starting your business

Fundamentally, you just follow the steps for the country you’re starting up in. In the UK, there’s a walkthrough on the government website, or use the following links:

Finding jobs & internships

Getting a job or internship in a startup is a good way to learn about how businesses work, and whether a startup environment might be right for you. They can vary widely, from paid roles, to volunteering, from high glamour to hard graft. Check out our external links below to find some useful job hunting websites to get you started.

Information for international students

Remember, if you’re on a student visa, you may find you are prohibited from self-employment or starting a business. Read more on visas. 

    Programmes and services


    The following books are available to browse at The Careers Service, 56 Banbury Road:

    • Start your own coaching business, Entrepreneur Press and Monroe Mann
    • Start it up, Luke Johnson
    • How to write a Business Plan, Brian Finch
    • The one page business plan, Jim Horan
    • Brilliant Business Plan, Kevan Williams
    • Brilliant Employability Skills, Frances Trought
    • Velocity, Ajaz Ahmed & Stefan Olander

    Guides to setting up

    Incubators, accelerators & support

    More Oxford support


    Unemployed / underemployed

    • Princes Trust offers support for young people starting a business

    Jobs & internships

    Magazines, Interviews and Articles

    Social enterprise

    • Social Enterprise UK – Social Enterprise UK has lots of advice on starting up, articles and a great job vacancy site too for jobs in social enterprise
    • B Lab UK - B Lab is an organisation leading the charge to make all business better in order to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. They work closely with Said Business School to develop policy and good practice in this area. They certify companies—known as B Corps—who are balancing purpose with profit. Well worth checking out companies who are certified as B Corps if this idea appeals to you.

    Sector specific initiatives

    • JLAB – Incubator from John Lewis to encourage retail startups
    • Distill Ventures – An accelerator programme for startups in the alcoholic drinks industry
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