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Virgin Money is expanding its innovative Levelling Upstarts programme which gives SMEs the opportunity to partner directly with MBA and master’s students from leading universities through digital workshops.

The programme aims to both empower regional SMEs to level up and to foster the next generation of business leaders by providing invaluable insights from the business leaders of tomorrow to the business leaders of today.

In 2022 the Levelling Upstarts programme brought together 40 business owners with over 200 MBA and masters students from the University of Leeds and Aston University in a series of workshops to address barriers to productivity. This year the programme will also be available to students at the University of Strathclyde and Newcastle University.

Every business has its own unique obstacles, whether that’s building brand awareness, honing a competitive advantage or selling into new markets. By facilitating access to MBA and master’s students, Virgin Money wants to provide SMEs with the latest business advice and recommendations – something they may not otherwise have access to.

My Leadership Strengths a Leeds based leadership development business took part in the Levelling Upstarts programme last year. The business was set up four years ago with the aim to make leadership development more accessible particularly at the early stages of your career. The business originally focused on working with the healthcare, not for profit and local government sectors however has since expanded to support SME’s more broadly.

Andy Jenkins, Co-Founder of My Leadership Strengths said: “The Levelling Upstarts programme has given me access to high calibre management consulting and academic advice which I could not access otherwise, while my business is still young and growing. Having access to programs like this is hugely valuable to my business and to many other growing SME’s in the region”

Kash Ahmad, Head of Business Banking at Virgin Money said: “SMEs are the lifeblood of our local economies and are key to helping our communities to level up. However, we know that small business owners are time poor, and this impacts their ability to plan effectively for the future.

“The Levelling Upstarts programme allows businesses to get focused, comprehensive and tangible support, by pooling the resources of talented business students, to help them think outside of the box, while simultaneously giving students valuable and transferable skills.”

Dr Richard Tunstall from the University of Leeds said: “Both our students and the participating businesses can gain immensely from the Levelling Upstarts Programme: sharing ideas, putting thoughts into practice, offering alternative perspectives, challenging the perceived norm, creating bold solutions and ultimately working in partnership to enable the SMEs to move forward.”

Any small business with less than 250 employees can apply to take part in the programme – they don’t need to be a Virgin Money customer. All the workshops are online so there are no location barriers for the businesses.

Applications for the programme opens on 10 January and will run until June. Businesses that wish to express an interest can email for further information on how to apply.