Dr Hinnah Rafique, founder of Generation Medics

Dr Hinnah Rafique photo

Dr Hinnah Rafique is the founder of Generation Medics, an organisation dedicated to widening access to medical schools. Hinnah and her team inspire and empower students to apply to study medicine through in-person events and their online platform, before helping them to succeed through mentoring, 1:1 support, and practical help with CV and personal statement advice. 

After the resounding success and evidence of impact from the programmes for aspiring medics, Generation Medics expanded its remit to include support for young people interested in other careers in healthcare, such as nursing, midwifery, dentistry and paramedic roles, with the aim of both broadening the options available to students and helping the NHS (and wider health and social care sector) find a larger talent pool in these areas. 

During the pandemic, Generation Medics enabled undergraduate and postgraduate students, former healthcare staff and community members to support the NHS’s emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Through their volunteer-led project called  ‘Volunteers for the NHS’ which connected the local NHS staff coordinating resources with people who had skills and time to support them. This project bridged the gap before the Royal Voluntary Service had mobilised the NHS Volunteer Responder campaign and led to being requested to support recruitment of staff and volunteers for the UK-wide NHS Nightingale Hospital sites.

Generation Medics further expanded with the support of grants and contracts to begin formally supporting adult job seekers and those seeking to retrain and enter roles in health, social care and life-science during the pandemic.

Hinnah has secured government, public-sector and private contracts and investment funding and has used her experience and insights to coach and mentor other pioneering entrepreneurs, particularly those tackling health and educational inequalities or from underrepresented backgrounds.

Hinnah is also a staff member and lecturer at Oxford University, an NHS Innovation Fellow and board member for the NHS England Clinical Entrepreneur Programme. Through Generation Medics she seeks to create a health, social care and life-science workforce that better represent our society.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Generation Medics logo, a green doctor's shirt with a stethoscope encircled by the company name

I was driven by the fact that if you’re from a state school, you’re less likely to have access to unbiased advice or a wider social network that could help you strive, apply, and succeed. While I was still studying, a group of friends and I would travel the country to speak to students and try to widen access. Schools then started contacting us directly, and we grew from there until 30 to 40 of us were travelling the country and sharing our journeys with students about how we found getting into medical school and what it was like. 

After we’d been doing this for a while, I was at a coffee shop with some friends and we realised there wasn’t any other formalised, professional organisation that offered this service which was shocking to us because we all believe in equity of opportunity in order to help improve social mobility and health outcomes. I already had background experience in business, events, and outreach and I could visualise how the organisation could flourish and support more people. So it was then that we made the step from having a great idea to taking it forward by dealing with all the practical, nitty-gritty stuff, formalising Generation Medics as an organisation.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

Being brave enough to take an idea, explore the opportunities available, and then take a step forward towards making it happen. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, there are always lessons to be learned.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

I looked at what else was available for the people we were supporting. The only other option at the time was an organisation set up by motivational speakers with no lived experience. It was selling the dream to young people, but it was expensive and people who went on it said it was useless. So there was a clear need for actual professional advice from people who had been there and done it. From seeing that what was already available was not fit for purpose, I became even more passionate about the need to formalise processes to support more people.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience! You’ll get knockbacks, no matter what you do. As an entrepreneur, they’re also more likely to be face-to-face and you have to be able to pick yourself back up and try again.

Finding something you’re passionate and enthusiastic about is important. Sometimes I see students interested in entrepreneurship, and they’re looking to make a million pounds – that’s their goal. That’s fine, but there will be challenges, and if you’re not passionate you’re not going to put in the time and effort. It’s easier to get up in the mornings if you’re working on something you’re passionate about.

I think that the amount of experience students are exposed to and the number of opportunities available at Oxford is remarkable. I’d encourage students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to get involved – the more experience you can get, whether in small start-ups or multinational conglomerates, the better. It builds up who you are and what your baseline is.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

I really like seeing the impact we make, we’re helping to transform people’s lives and in turn the positive impact on their families, neighbourhoods and the wider community. Whether you’re selling a product or a service, seeing people enjoy what you’ve made or provided them with is very inspiring.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

Innocent. They manage to both be such a large brand and to create a friendly vibe for customers and staff. They’re also hugely invested in giving back and are transparent about the way they do that.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?

I’d ask them how they manage to simultaneously maintain product quality, their core values, staff and customer satisfaction whilst still creatively communicating to their audiences.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

There have been many mistakes – if an entrepreneur tells you they haven’t made a mistake, they’re lying! The majority of our team members are truly passionate about what they do, but in the past we have sometimes recruited the wrong person. Their motivation might be different to ours. When you’re in a small start-up, all jobs interrelate intimately, so if one person doesn’t believe in the core mission it can derail what you’re doing and push back productivity for the whole team. So it’s a matter of being brave and saying they’re not a good fit for the company, and we need to part ways.

We also saw people in Oxford taking on too much money too fast. That wasn’t right for us – we didn’t need to take on investment, and we bootstrapped the whole way. An investor relationship is like a marriage: you need to ask yourself, do I need it? Do I inherently like this person? We were approached by Oxford University Innovation (OUI), but we didn’t go through with it. A lesson learned would be to be brave and make the right decision for your organisation or business.

How have you funded your ideas?

We used our contacts and connections within the community we had in Oxford to secure grants. We’ve also been building up our trading income from day 1, so that we could grow the project organically without having to rely on grants. It was a tough process!
A lot of my friends who took up investment could get offices and teams really quickly, but when that happens you don’t necessarily know what you need. Moving through the motions in the first few months or years can help you recognise what your weaknesses are, which can help identify the skills you need to bring into the team to be successful.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

The Oxford Launchpad. The Skoll Academy and Oxlep have been enormously helpful.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

The community is fantastic in Oxford – but it can be quite insular. That can be dangerous. A few years ago, we took a step outside of Oxford and started working 2 days a week there, and 3 days a week in London. When you come outside of the Oxford bubble, you realise it’s just a bubble – it can artificially make you feel like you’re getting somewhere, and you might not realise that you could be getting there a bit quicker. Liverpool Street is the heart of UK tech start-ups, so when we moved there having different people around us really helped to push our ambition and our team to see what’s possible.

Oxford also has great networking and cross-community support available. It incubated our organisation and allowed it to grow. When the launchpad closed we were in a bind, but it’s true that problems breed innovation – there’s no way we would have ended up where we are if we hadn’t moved on at that point.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

The Oxford Social Enterprise Partnership put on lots of really helpful events as do both universities. There are also a lot of online communities now including a local peer networking group. 

I would advise researching these groups yourself and consider your personality and what type of event/group will be the best for you. Where you might not feel you’re getting that much out of being part of a group/event, if something doesn’t work, don’t be put off: just try something else.

I also read a lot of books on other entrepreneurs’ stories – I liked reading about the Dragons on Dragons’ Den, or the stories of massive tech billionaires. There are lessons to be learned from them – we all have the same issues at the end of the day, like trying to recruit a team, keeping a team motivated, or managing the wider stakeholder environment. It all boils down to very similar issues.

Any last words of advice?

Now is a really difficult time because of the cost-of-living crisis. People are thinking, ‘is now the right time to go out there and do something risky?’ You know your own situation and responsibilities. But the last recession brought out some massive, innovative organisations. There’s no reason why this crisis won’t spur on some really innovative entrepreneurs. Why can’t that be you?

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur?  If so, how have you overcome them?

Yes! There were 15 women working in the all-female tech incubator we won a place on in London, and they all faced similar issues. Society tells us that we should strive for education, despite this, we don’t always get the same pay or are not taken as seriously by potential clients or investors. 

If I take a junior male colleague, perhaps an Oxford student, into a meeting, all of the questions will be directed to him. The only way we can change this is by talking about it, and proactively promoting and empowering women so they feel able to call out discrepancies between the ways that women are treated in a professional environment in contrast to men.

There have also been a lot of times where I’m the only person from a non-white background in the room, especially in Oxford. I think it’s important to empower, promote and champion home-grown talent. Yes we need representation, but we also need to think about the types of representation. Having women on boards is a great thing to strive towards – but we need to think about diversity in the wider sense too, in terms of background and class. We should look at how many people who sit on boards didn’t go to college, or who have parents who didn’t go to university. We need a society that is better at representation so that everyone feels valued, heard and that they belong.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?

Reaching out to female-led communities is powerful. Having a wider support system outside of your business advisors, family, and friends is useful, whether it be women founders supporting each other or social enterprises supporting each other. Everyone can feel like they’re on the outside at some points, and it’s important to feel like you’re not alone.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that female entrepreneurs are more risk-averse and slower to grow organisations or take on team members. It’s also harder for us to get investment. So the all-female tech incubator I won a place on was really empowering, because it was the first time I’d had a group of women positively supporting each other. Congregating around a shared mission, vision, or just the fact that we were all female founders was great to tap into.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
For social entrepreneurs:

●    OSEP: https://www.osep.org.uk/
●    Skoll: https://skoll.org/
●    Women in Social Tech: https://www.weinsocialtech.co.uk/
●    Unltd: https://www.unltd.org.uk/
Business Support:
●    OXLEP: https://www.oxfordshirelep.com/
●    Oxford Entrepreneurs: https://www.oxfordentrepreneurs.co.uk/
For students: 
●    OxFoundry: https://www.oxfordfoundry.ox.ac.uk/