My transition, from academic to entrepreneur

My transition, from academic to entrepreneur


It’s a year since I left academia and I would like to share with you a few lessons learned during the transition.

While I was still at the University, I was led to believe that life outside the Ivory Tower was different – not in a good way. I was led to believe that I would never find anyone smart enough to talk to. I was led to believe that jobs were boring. I was led to believe that I would be caught in a 9-5 cycle of labour, 365 days a year (minus two weeks of holidays). I was led to believe that I would not be able to keep up with my research. I was led to believe that I would not be able to travel to interesting places and immerse myself into exciting cultures. I was led to believe that I would be ostracised from the academic community. I was led to believe that my life would be devoid of meaning and full of unwanted surprises. 

As you very well understand some academics tend to hide behind the walls of academia in order to protect themselves from the unknown. They tread on safe ground, they swim in safe waters, they do what they have always known to do: read, write, research, teach, administer. On the whole, they continue the life they have been taught, since they were young pupils. Anything else would be terribly terrible in a terrifying way. 

Of course, you need to be certain type of person to become (and remain) an academic. There are deep psychological reasons (which I do not claim to understand fully) to hide within the Ivory Tower for the rest of your life. By the time someone decides or is forced to leave, s/he is deeply entrenched into academic processes and heavily institutionalised. By that time, his core identity is defined by university life, e.g. I still think that the year starts in September (not January). It takes an extraordinarily long time to become de-institutionalised and to find a new identity that is not weaved into your profession.

As expected, I went through a long process of transformation and redefinition of my core values and purpose in life. Really heavy stuff! This process may have started years before I exited the university but it intensified afterwards. I spent countless night contemplating my future and how I would fit in a life outside the classroom. The logistical problems seemed insurmountable and, at times, I was not certain I would cope. It took a lot of inner strength and outside support from family and friends to take the leap.

Once I was out, all the dilemmas, concerns, fears, and doubts disappeared. What remained was a new reality I needed to tackle.

This reality had a lot of similar characteristics with my previous life as well as radicall differences. I will start with the differences, which I deem more important.

First of all, as an entrepreneur I have no schedule set in stone. I still have to go to meetings (even dreaded committee meetings), keep appointments and get up in the morning. However, most of the time is my own. I started arranging the day around lunch times and tea times, so that there are some elements of structure.

As an entrepreneur I have no boss to listen too! Actually this is the absolutely best bit! No professor will come and tell me how to speak to the students, how to approach the central administrators, whom to butter up to get a promotion, in which journals I should publish, which book I should write. No administrator will ask me to comply to regulations (unless I decide to apply for European Funding). In fact, it took a bit of time to get used to this new freedom. Initially, I felt lost. Now, I feel empowered! It is all a matter of perspective.

As an academic-mother, my first priority used to be my work. As an entrepreneur-mother my first priority is my kids. I used to feel continuously guilty for spending time with my precious babies. I used to feel continuously guilty for not researching, teaching or answering mundane emails. It took me some time to realise that the university system fosters and maintains this ‘guilt’ as a way to control its subjects. Not any more. My kids are my world and my work is build around their needs, successfully.

I also used to be very lonely within the academic universe. I was running from one class to the other, from one article to the next, from one email to the following one. I had no meaningful time for friends and family. My colleagues were equally busy, so the chances of direct interaction were limited. Now things are different. I always have someone to chat to over lunch, I arrange meetings with friends and family over the weekends and I occasionally go out in the evenings (babysitter permitting). People tend to be very helpful in a non-rushed, caring way. I do not have to make appointments weeks or months in advance to see my business partner. I am just checking out to see, if he is on skype… and I call. Or I drop by our offices at Incubate, the startup accelerator I set up in Leicester, for a good brainstorming session.

There are, of course, negative aspects to the process of leaving academia. And, if you are wondering… yes I am ostracised from the academic community. I kept no contact with my ex-colleagues from my ex-university. Admittedly, I have not tried to contact them and they have not bothered to find out whether I was dead or alive. Instead, I kept in touch with a few academics from other universities, long standing friends and mentors who supported me through the years. I cannot claim that I miss the rest.

As for the intellectual stimulation, there are instances when I feel frustrated with the people I talk to. I may not have to dumb down the way I speak but I certainly have to do a lot of explaining. As a former academic, I have a wealth of ‘odd’ ideas in my head that are not considered acceptable in the outside world. For example, how do you explain that paedophilia was an acceptable norm as part of the educational process in archaic Greece, without been misunderstood and condemned from the outset? Of course, I do not keep these radical notions to myself but it takes long explanations before I am fully understood. Similarly, I cannot enter a theoretical debate at the drop of a hat and I cannot anticipate my audience to participate with equal rigor. I found out that the problem can be solved either by going to academic conferences or participating in blogs with comments.

The worst part is the lack of online library resources. I have access to physical libraries but I cannot use online articles from home. I am trying to resolve this problem without paying a fortune in fees. If you have any ideas on how to go about the issue, please, let me know. I will need substantial resources in order to continue my research. Which brings us to the similarities.

Yes, I continue researching. I am writing on weekends, evenings, and holidays (I took 9 weeks off work over the summer). It took me, though, several months to decide on the topic I would like to deal with. One of the reasons I left academia was that my work became, essentially, a series of long and specialised letters (otherwise called monographs and articles) to other academics. We kept answering each other’s questions with elaborate and almost incomprehensible theoretical models. I was not planning to continue the same futile path but, initially, I was not certain which direction I should follow. Now I have a clearer idea of the direction but I am still trying to establish the means to arrive at my destination. I am still trying to figure out how to write a book for the public, without comprising the level of research.

Also, once I decided to leave the university, I entered the deepest learning curve I have ever experienced in my life. I know that a statement like that, coming from an academic, is nothing short of extraordinary. I love learning. I have been learning all my life. Nothing compares, though, with the new learning that comes from trying to tackle a new profession and a new life at the same time. Sometimes I caught myself speed-reading one book-a-day for several days on the roll. I still do! And enjoy it to the full!

One of the reasons I followed the entrepreneurship path was the flexibility of time. I have the advantage of deciding when and for how long I will work. I can take whole weekends or mid-week days off. I can work from home or from the office or from another country. I recently spent 9 weeks in Greece, reading, writing and enjoying life. Living by the Mediterranean Sea (literally 40 meters away) is invigorating and does wonders for your creativity.

I still go to conferences and I will soon organise one relevant to my ‘new’ activities. Business conferences are different and certainly lack the theoretical rigor you would find in the ones I participated in the past. Saying that, I cannot think of many disciplines, in which you can experience the same intellectual depth as with history (apart from philosophy). Conferences are still a fun way to meet new people and visit new places. Nothing changed on that front!

Another similarity is the amount of time I spend on writing bids for grants. Yes, you have heard well! If you want to set up your own business in Europe, you will also have to apply for governmental or EU funding. EU applications outside academia are every bit as complicated as the University ones. And the bureaucracy that follows is equally daunting!

Last but not least, I have not had to suffer financially. I was well prepared for a bumpy ride outside academia and made certain that I had some savings in the bank. Until now, I did not have to change my lifestyle. I found out soon after I left the university that my skills were in great demand. My long stint in academia did not work against me. On the contrary, the fact that I was a university professor is appreciated to the full and helps me find new opportunities.

Today, I have several projects going on. In the entrepreneurial world we do not speak about businesses. We speak about projects that help people and add value to society. First we help, then we get paid for our efforts. I feel that I adjusted very well to my new life and I am very successful in my new endeavours. I found the meaning I was seeking and a way to thrive. What else should I ask for?

Ever since I left, many academics who want to make an exit contacted me for advice. I would be very happy to talk to any one of you, who think of leaving but may not be read yet to take a decisive step. Just send me an email at for a chat. I would love to help, if I can.

***The photo is from our premises, Incubate Leicester ( When we moved in, we hired street artists to decorate the place. This is the mural in the co-working space we built.


Economic historian and numismatic consultant

Leave a Reply