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In Profile: Jennifer O'Brien

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

In Profile: Jennifer O'Brien

Venture Out and Venture Further Winner

Name: Jennifer O'Brien
Degree programme:
PhD Human Geography
Venture Out (2008 Winner) and Venture Further (2009 Winner)
Graduated: 2010


What are your current job titles?

Travel Director and co-founder at Venture Uganda, Lecturer in Human Geography at The University of Manchester, and School Champion for Employability (School of Environment and Development).


Tell us about the business.

Venture Uganda offers bespoke, sustainable holidays and fieldwork in Uganda.  We offer tailor made trips where the client can design their own holiday – or fieldwork - to really capture their personal interests.  Uganda is an amazing country that can offer all sorts of exploring opportunities from safari to white water rafting via tea plantations and eco-projects.  That means we can design fantastic holidays and really intriguing fieldwork. 


Our fieldwork services extend from groups of students from Universities or schools, to individual researchers.  We will help to design fieldwork that is tailored to the learning outcomes of the trip.  We also take care of all of the logistics in Uganda from hotels, to transport, visits to ministeries or volunteering experiences in schools – whatever is the most appropriate to the fieldwork. 


Venture Uganda also operates under the ‘triple bottom line’ of social enterprise.  We endeavour to be as socially and environmentally sound was possible, whist making a profit through the business.  The long term goal is to use the profits of Venture Uganda to establish an Institute of Social Enterprise in a district of Uganda called Rukungiri.  The Rukungiri Institue of Social Enterprise (RISE) aims to use the principals of social enterprise to offer an education, in the broadest sense, to equip Ugandan people to earn a sustainable living.


Venture Uganda was founded by Lesley Harris, Byaruhanga Michael and myself, Jen O’Brien in 2007.  Together, the three business partners have a unique set of skills, and a strong vision to make Venture Uganda a success.


How did your involvement in the competitions help you to reach your current position?

In 2008 we won the Venture Out competition with a poster about RISE, the Rukungiri Institute of Social Enterprise.  Staff at Manchester Enterprise Centre then encouraged us to enter the Venture Further competition, which we won in 2009. 


It cannot be denied that there were tangible benefits to the competition.  As a social enterprise, we set the business up with no loans and the cash injection from Venture Further meant that we could invest in a website and some proper branding.  Moreover, we benefitted from the time and expertise of Manchester Enterprise Centre. 


When you are a start-up business, any support in terms of financial advice, marketing, even somebody just telling you are along the right lines, is unquantifiable.  Manchester Enterprise Centre were on hand to help our fledgling business grow.


Winning the competition was a huge confidence boost to take Venture Uganda futher.  But winning aside, perhaps the most useful thing about the competition was actually sitting down and formulating our ideas on paper – or at least trying to.  A business is a bit like your baby - you become very protective of it - and without forced analysis it can be difficult to see its strengths and the areas that need a bit more work. 


We were all novices when it came to business so writing a business plan was a steep learning curve that highlighted the gaps in our planning.  ‘Pitching’ to the panel and answering their questions, really forced us to challenge our ideas.  That process alone – writing the business plan, ‘exposing’ it to a panel of experts, defending the idea and receiving feedback – was invaluable.  As it turned out, it was real validation that we should give Venture Uganda ‘a go’.


What has been your biggest achievement since graduating?

When you run a business together, the highs and lows are all shared, so I need to talk about Venture Uganda’s biggest achievement – which is perhaps that we are still in operation!


We have a reputable name as a travel operator in Uganda where we now have an office and our own vehicles.  We have a strong client base and much repeat custom with different research institutions and universities. 


At Easter I went to visit Lesley and Byaruhanga in Uganda and the three of us carried out some ‘market research’ in a rainforest on a birding trip.  I found myself in the early morning mist watching butterflies flitter around a lagoon, stood shoulder to shoulder with two people that I admire, and am so proud to work with – it was a real moment of achievement.


What is your vision for the future?

The business is going from strength to strength, and hopefully that will continue.  As a socially and environmentally aware business, our vision is to make a profit in a respectful manner which in turn can be used to benefit local communities. Eventually we would like to establish our own fieldcentre to host visitors who can engage directly with the local community and aid the establishment of RISE.


What advice would you give to those considering entering an enterprise competition?

Go for it! It isn’t easy, and takes a lot of thought and effort, but that process alone is invaluable – even if it is to decide that you need to go back to the drawing board.  Seek help with your competition entry, MEC run a whole host of workshops to help you put together your submission. 


Most of all, believe in yourself and your idea.  It is a rocky road establishing a business and there are lots of highs and lows which can test your resolve.  Our business plan was far from perfect, but all of the judges commented on our passion, drive and vision.  We identified a USP and sold the dream – the rest we learnt as we went along!


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