Juliana Istifanus: the founder of Kauna Natural Product updates the panel on her business’s progress a year after she was awarded the graduate visa
Juliana Istifanus: the founder of Kauna Natural Product updates the panel on her business’s progress a year after she was awarded the graduate visa © FT

An ability to present clearly and confidently to a panel of senior professors is a requirement of the MSc qualification in food science that Mauritian-born Disha Chauhan recently completed at London’s University of Greenwich.

But on a sunny Monday morning the stakes are considerably higher for the gluten-free bakery business she is pitching to Chris Birch, director of enterprise and innovation at the university’s business school.

A nod from Mr Birch and his colleagues in the university’s immigration services department will ensure Ms Chauhan can remain in London when her Tier 4 student visa lapses in a few weeks. If not, her future in the UK is less certain.

Ms Chauhan seems relaxed as she rattles through 21 PowerPoint slides in the conference room of the business school’s grand Georgian campus building on the edge of Greenwich Park.

She has clearly put a lot of effort into her pitch, detailing her suitability as a founder, the proposed company’s market potential, start-up costs and projected earnings for the first three years of trading.

But Ms Chauhan stresses that she has other options. “If this doesn’t work out then I would work in the food industry,” she says, adding that her course has a good record of finding graduates corporate jobs and her Mauritian roots mean she could potentially work in France.

The pressure appears to be on Mr Birch, who decided a pitching contest was the fairest way to allocate the 20 Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visas Greenwich has been approved to distribute by the UK’s immigration department at the Home Office.

“We have all these international students who disappear after going through our very highly valued education system,” he says. “We should be doing more with them.”

Mr Birch is generous in his comments after Ms Chauhan concludes, but explains she will have to wait to find out whether she has secured a place on the start-up support programme, which is a requirement of the visa approval.

“Students need to know that life is about pressures like these, and they have to manage it,” Mr Birch says, refusing to apologise for his bluntness.

Greenwich Business School’s pitching allocation system is unique, according to the Home Office, which has approved 100 higher education institutions to endorse Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) candidates.

The visa exists following a political compromise during the UK’s 2010-15 coalition government, which included a home secretary determined to clamp down on immigration and a business secretary concerned about losing talented foreign students. With each university allowed to submit up to 20 visa applications a year, including half from MBA programmes, the scheme has created the potential for thousands of foreign nationals to set up businesses in the UK — although indications are that more could take up the offer.

One of the biggest student sponsors is Oxford university, which has allocated about 55 visas to its students since they were introduced in April 2012, but unlike Greenwich does not require applicants to pitch their ideas to a panel.

Jonathan Black, director of Oxford’s careers service, describes the scheme as a “really clever” way of wooing talented students with an entrepreneurial gift, which can then be nurtured by the incubator programme at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “We do recognise that we are endorsing the person not the idea,” Mr Black notes, adding that several of those awarded visas will shift away from their original business plan after launching their venture.

The biggest problem is retaining talent after two years, when the visa expires and foreign students must find another way to remain in the UK. This is particularly true for social enterprises, something Saïd specialises in supporting, Mr Black laments. This has already happened with Broken Spoke, a bicycle workshop co-operative, whose founder, US-born history of art masters graduate Cassiope Sydoriak, was forced to return home after failing to find follow-on visa support. “It is a weakness with the system,” Mr Black says.

Hiram Samel sits on Oxford’s visa selection panel with Mr Black and taught at MIT’s Sloan School of Management before being hired as an associate professor at Saïd. He claims the UK student visa system compares favourably with its US counterpart, the H-1B visa, for which applicants need a corporate sponsor.

Back at Greenwich, Mr Price moves on from those pitching for a visa to those already on the programme and coming to the end of the first year of setting up their business.

It is a Home Office requirement that the sponsor university check the progress of an alumnus’s business at the end of each year the visa runs. Mr Birch admits he has had to terminate two visas in the three years Greenwich has been a sponsor. Fortunately this is not the case for Juliana Istifanus, who is updating the panel on Kauna Natural Product, a “superfood” brand she set up last year after completing a masters in strategic marketing communication.

Kauna is about to launch its first product range based on the moringa tree, which Ms Istifanus grew up eating in her native Nigeria. The moringa is a natural source of vitamins and minerals. Some believe it has various health benefits, such as reducing cholesterol. Much of her first year has been spent ensuring the product range complies with UK food regulations and developing its packaging.

Mr Birch quizzes Ms Istifanus on her sales targets for the current financial year and how she intends to manufacture enough samples to meet expected demand. He is firm, but encourages her rather than rebuking her for a lack of progress. “Next year we are really going to have to focus on sales,” he says.

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