My name is Savannah Dodd, I’ve studied for my PhD in Anthropology, that’s in the School of HAPP and I am the founder and director of the Photography Ethics Centre.
Tell us a bit more about your business idea.
I’m passionate about photography ethics because photographs are immensely powerful. They shape how we think about the world and this means that when we take and share photographs, we are shaping how others think about the world. So this is, like, a huge amount of power that we have as image makers and this power comes with a lot of responsibility, so I think it’s really important to think about ‘how can we use that power of image making responsibly?’ and I think a really good way of doing so is to think about it through the lens of ethics.
How did you get the initial business idea?
I founded the Photography Ethics Centre because I realised that my background in anthropology and the things that I’d learned through doing a Masters, and now a PhD in Anthropology has really prepared me with an important set of skills and these skills have helped me be more effective in my photography and more ethical about how I approach my photographic practice. So, I realised that anthropology has helped me a lot with my photography with building skills, but these skills that I’ve built are not universal. So, what I’m really trying to do is to sort of translate these skills that I gained from anthropology and make it applicable and useful for photographers who might not have the same background.
How has the business developed since your initial idea?
In some ways, not a lot has changed with the organisation since I started and in some ways, it’s changed a lot. I think the biggest change has been, really, in terms of my expectations. I think I needed to temper some of my expectations, but that’s not always easy when we’re participating in a culture of startup pitching because you really have to think in terms of best-case scenarios. So, I think tempering my expectations and maybe being happy with smaller, more marginal successes was really important. I think, on the other hand, things haven’t changed a lot because I, sort of, have come full circle back into my original idea which, I think, the lesson there is just that I need to trust my gut a little bit more.
What activities at Queen’s helped you get to where you are?
I was really fortunate that when I first had the idea for the Photography Ethics Centre, I was able to participate as part of a cohort of students to do a Kickstarter Accelerator programme through the Graduate School at Queen’s and that was just a really great opportunity to, sort of, spend time on business development with some support. I was also accepted into Dragon’s Den one year and that was a brilliant opportunity, really great practice at building my confidence and pitching and it’s just always been really beneficial to know that there’s somewhere that I can go for advice because, inevitably, I’ve run into hurdles or questions that I haven’t known how to answer so it’s been great to have the resource at Queen’s.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I think the most important piece of advice that I wish I’d had when I was first starting out is that, you know, blocking out time for other things in your life or taking breaks or relaxing on the weekends or in the evenings is that’s not a reward but that’s an important part of how you divide your time. I think by not taking time for myself to really recharge, to relax to, sort of, put the laptop away really lead me to a bit of a burnout so I think that really the biggest, biggest lesson I learned there is that, you know, breaks are not treats, you deserve them, inherently, you don’t have to earn them.
Francesca Morelli, International Business with French graduate on pursuing her start-up dream.
Business in the blood
I loved my degree. I was one of those people that was just so interested in what I was studying. I come from a family business background, my family owned an ice cream business on the north coast of Northern Ireland. I’ve worked in my family business most of my life, so I already I always had an interest in business. But as well as with my Italian background, I kind of loved thinking about business in a more international context. So really, this was the perfect degree.
For me, I love travelling, I love languages. But then, as well, I was really keen to enter into the business world like, like my family have done since 1911. What I really loved about the degree was the placement aspect in the third year. So that was a compulsory element to my degree, we had to go to a foreign country to a French speaking country, to undertake a placement. So in 2017-18, I find myself in Paris working in a startup studio. So a startup studio is a fairly new model. It’s essentially where there’s kind of one founder or funder, really, he partnered up with some early stage entrepreneurs, to develop their businesses from the ground up.
First taste of the start-up scene
[In the start-up studio] they pull resources, which is great. So it meant that not only did I have the chance to work in one start-up, but I had the chance to work in a few start-ups, and that we were in the one office together, we shared knowledge. We all worked together nearly as part of the one company even though we were all working on little separate companies. I just loved the whole start-up aspect I was started working on one of the start-ups when their platform had just under 2000 followers. And by the time I left at the end of that year, the platform had grown to over 10,000 followers, I was starting to generate some revenue. So for me in the very kind of traditional sense of business, I was very used to you know, you give me £1.50 for a scone, and it cost me 50p to make it and I make my profit. And this is very different model where a lot of them were building for acquisition. So I got very used to ‘Okay, we’re working every day towards an end goal, we might not make money straight away.’ But that’s kind of start-up life. And I really fell in love with the whole thing. The fact that these people around me were so passionate, they were so dedicated to a common goal, knowing that maybe years down the line, they would sell out to a big platform or a big company and make loads of money. It might have taken them years to see that. But it was in everybody’s minds. I think I just really fell in love with it, with the passion of everyone I was working with.
Entrepreneurship at Queen’s
I came back to Queens in the middle of 2018 to finish off my degree. I was contacted by a start-up founder in Belfast to come on board his team after he had seen what I’d done in France.I had been on his LinkedIn network for a while. We started working together on a tech start-up in Belfast. And my final year ended up being completely crazy. I was a director in this start-up. I was doing pitching competitions. I was going for funding. I was starting to ask business people to you know, become involved in what we were doing. And that really gave me amazing experience. And in my final year of uni, I also got involved with everything.
There are so many amazing opportunities out there that disappear once you’ve graduated. So really do try and get involved in stuff. The things that I was interested in were the likes of QUB Dragon, Innovate Her, these are run by Enterprise SU and the Students Union. If you’re interested in business, if you’re interested in start-ups, do go on to Enterprise SU’s website and see what all they’re up to where they’re on social media as well on Instagram and Twitter, and they’re always running great things. So do go and have a look. But I got involved in those programmes, which, you know, come out of it with Degree Plus as well which was fab.
Giving back to the start-up community
Enterprise SU gave me amazing support. After final year, I’d spent so much time with the Enterprise SU team that helped me so much. And I’ve done some so many of their programmes that I actually then applied for a job in their department. And I, this was really good timing for me, because while I was working on the start-up, while I was trying to build this early stage business, I was able to work with a team at Queen’s and kind of advise those students coming behind me so they can learn from my mistakes.
So two years later, I’m actually still at Enterprise SU. And I continue to support and advise students, start-ups and entrepreneurs.
Spotting a gap in the market
I now own completely my own business called VAVA Influence. We are Northern Ireland’s first dedicated influencer marketing agency. I decided that there was a great opportunity there for the event marketing agency, and I took a step back from the tech start-up. It means that it’s okay to try new things. And there was an opportunity there a gap in the market and myself and my business partner, Chloe really jumped at the chance. So I mean, it’s working okay, for me right now, our influencer marketing agency is doing really well.
It’s doing well we’ve built a client base. And we’re still growing. We’re still learning every day. But I wouldn’t had that had I not just throw myself in. I took advice and support from everybody. I got all the free advice go in. I talked to everybody that would talk to me. And it really is working out for me now. And we’re hoping that it will grow and grow into the future. So if you do want to start your own business, if it’s something you are thinking about if you want to get further support, advice, do get in touch with us at enterprise SU and we will be able to signpost you
Leveraging your network
Since graduating in 2019, I’ve had some amazing experiences. I would not have the network I have no I had it not been for LinkedIn. Some people cringe at the very idea.
But if you can at try and work up the courage to get on LinkedIn, to start posting, you don’t have to pretend to be this whole other persona. Be yourself on LinkedIn post about what interests you. Post about what you might like to explore, do some reading, connect with people that you think are relevant in the industry, you might want to go in to connect with people you admire, read and learn, LinkedIn is brilliant. And I really would encourage anyone studying at the minute or anyone who has just graduated to get on it and start building up that network. It can be a scary thing to do. But it doesn’t have to be you know, just try and take it in your stride and, and start putting yourself out there.
Don’t be scared to reach out and talk to people ask for help. Even more so now I think after COVID people are really willing to support graduates to support students and give advice, you know, you’re not being cheeky asking for it. And if there’s somebody you admire, or somebody you’d like to ask for advice, do send that message, you will find it really worth it.
Keeping the faith
There is a lot of pressure [on graduates]. It can be difficult that I’m no stranger to that. So what I would say is that if you do find yourself in that position, don’t lose heart, everybody is in the same situation right now. And what I were trying to say is, you know, look online at stuff you can do to improve your skills, there are so many free courses and things you can take online at the minute that will improve your CV at the will improve your skillset. There’s, you know, Google digital garage, there are so many courses online now that you can take for free, that are going to improve your skill set and your CV as you go out and look for opportunities.
The more you do and the more you get involved with the more appealing you’re going to look to an employer.
Are you a recent graduate with a big idea that you want to make happen? To encourage and support innovation, entrepreneurship and enterprise, we’ve collated a list of useful resources for budding entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland.
Advantage work with students, young graduates and young business owners providing a creative, innovative, cost-effective resources. The Business Planner tool is a useful resource for young people who want to start their own business.
Through this government portal, you can access heaps of useful information covering everything from writing a business plan to applying for a loan and registering your business.
Invest NI is the regional business development agenc. They help new and existing businesses to grow with financial support, advice and guidance.
NI Business Info
A free service offered by Invest NI, NI Business Info has essential information, support and services for start ups. Access guidance on regulations, funding options and more.
Propel offers you workshops, tutorials, networking opportunities, mentoring, financial support and access to investment to help you turn your business idea into a world class company.
Shell Livewire supports young entrepreneurs with sustainable business ideas that address the UK’s future transport, energy, natural resource or urban development needs.
“Nothing can stop you if you, if you accept challenge and adapt.”
ALUMNUS AZHAR MURTAZA IS THE DIRECTOR OF VEGAN DRINKS COMPANY BORN MAVERICK. HE INITIALLY PRESENTED HIS BUSINESS CONCEPT TO ENTERPRISE SU AT QUEEN’S, WHERE HE RECEIVED MENTORSHIP AND GUIDANCE TO LAUNCH HIS BRAND.
As the director of Born Maverick, Queen’s alum Azhar Murtaza, from India, has faced his fair share of challenges. Food technologists questioned whether a vegan brand had sustainability in Northern Ireland, then there was the issue of how to package a vegan drink when your brand values are based around ecofriendliness. Shunning plastic bottles in favour of compostable and biodegradable sachets, Azhar has proved the doubters wrong, building a successful, ethical beverage brand and scooping accolades including Student Invent Finalist; Queen’s Dragons’ Den Finalist and a Belfast Business Idea Awards 2019 Top 5 finalist.
Accept and adapt to challenges
He urges graduates of 2020 to lean into change in order to cope with challenges. “Change is the only constant and being able to adapt to those changes is what defines us,” he says. “That principle has got me through all the challenges that were thrown at me, right from the moment I landed in Belfast to study a Master’s at Queen’s. Nothing can stop you if you are willing to accept and adapt.” Like many graduates, Azhar wasn’t sure where his career path would take him, but hoped a Master’s from Queen’s would help him pursue his passions. “I chose a university which would allow me to explore different aspects of my interests in science, business and art. I wasn’t sure where I was headed, but all I knew was that I would accept the challenges and give it my best.” He adds, “We are all in the same boat right now, plans and dreams on hold, as a result of the pandemic. But we are all in this together and we will prevail if we are willing to accept the challenge and adapt accordingly.”
Develop networking confidence
While at Queen’s, Azhar blended his love of biotechnology and business to begin to shape his career path. “I was helped a lot by Enterprise SU in defining my own career growth. As an introvert, I would usually have taken a step back from presenting myself and my ideas but through mentoring sessions and workshops, I was able to develop my confidence to put myself out there and present on various platforms.” Rather than being solely purely goal-orientated, Azhar developed softer skills that he has carried with him into his career. “I learned that winning is a by-product: being able to express yourself and to utilise your network is what matters. I was reaching finals of various business competitions but never able to cross the line into first place. However, those competitions were putting me in front of the right bunch of people. Ultimately, I gained contacts and experience worth more than any prize money.” It was while he was competing in the Queen’s Dragons’ Den final that he was offered an opportunity with Invest NI. “I lost the competition, but Invest NI offered me a place on their programme and Born Maverick Vegan Beverages Ltd was born.”
Innovation in action
The company owns the Púr brand of vegan drinks made with whole grain and finger millet, and are developing vegan non-alcoholic popsicles, fortified with vitamin D, and in flavours including Gin & Tonic, Prosecco, Irish Whiskey and Coffee. “Both these product lines have been formulated with the help of food scientists at CAFRE using Innovation Vouchers from Invest NI,” says Azhar, whose ideas keep on coming. “I am also working on a R&D project developing vegan eggs from mung beans along with Campden BRI and I am in an ideation phase of developing vegan prawns from seaweeds. In the coming years, we aim to represent Northern Ireland in food innovation on a global platform and lead consumers here towards living an ethically healthy life,” he adds.
Advice for new graduates
While Azhar acknowledges that this year is particularly challenging for graduates, there is still space for innovation, creativity and strategy. “These are challenging times and quite different to when I was about to graduate myself, but there is still scope for constant innovation.” He urges graduates to seek support from Queen’s, Invest NI. Catalyst Inc and Belfast City Council who are at the heart of innovation in the region. “Patience and perseverance pay off eventually,” he adds. “As a student, I made sacrifices to help me achieve my dream, like working nights at KFC and Tesco’s to free me up to attend workshops and business meetings during the day. I found out that there is so much support available within Northern Ireland for innovative small businesses. Reach out to Enterprise SU, The Graduate School and Queen’s Careers, Employability and Skills team.” He adds, “I wish you all the best as you graduate this year. I am sure this phase is going to help many to reflect. Now is the time to rebuild, restructure and plan according to your goals. As they say, when going gets tough, the tough gets going. There is a world of opportunity if you are willing to explore beyond your immediate circle.”