breadcrumbs: a series of connected events

Startup Stories Part 5: Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

Here’s the 5th part of my bi-weekly column with The Star Metrobiz. Read the original post here. Hope this helps.



University faculty from UMK, UTM and UiTM, with Syazwani from MaGIC and Rebecca Edwards from STVP

University faculty from UMK, UTM and UiTM, with Syazwani from MaGIC and Rebecca Edwards from STVP

This week’s article is written all the way from Palo Alto, home to Stanford University that anchors much of the talent in Silicon Valley, one of the most vibrant and innovative entrepreneurship hubs in the world.  Stanford University has been known for churning  out entrepreneurial graduates, whose alumni network are founders that span giants like Google and Yahoo!, to recent successes like Instagram and Snapchat. It continues to be the country’s innovation pipeline and its steady  stream of startups have contributed significantly to the  – creating US$3 trillion in economic impact every year and over 5.4 million jobs so far.

I am currently here with senior faculty members from technical departments of three selected Malaysian public universities to participate in a 3-year partnership with Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), as part of MaGIC’s Faculty-Train-Faculty (FTF) program. STVP-FTF aims to expose local faculty to how entrepreneurship is taught at Stanford, and to explore how their universities can improve existing entrepreneurship curriculum or develop new programs that encourage entrepreneurial thinking in Malaysia.

On our first day, we asked the Stanford faculty how they measured success of their entrepreneurship programs. To our pleasant surprise, STVP’s KPI wasn’t the number of startups created, as that would lead to a somewhat artificial creation of companies for the sake of meeting numbers. Rather, STVP tracks: a) an oversubscription of their entrepreneurship classes; b) whether the courses received stellar evaluation ratings at the end. These were considered to be better indicators of how valuable the courses were to their students, that will ultimately achieve the goal of piquing student interest in entrepreneurship and inculcate an entrepreneurial mindset.

Cheryl, CEO of MaGIC brainstorming on local entrepreneurship syllabus with the local university faculty in Palo Alto

Cheryl, CEO of MaGIC brainstorming on local entrepreneurship syllabus with the local university faculty in Palo Alto

As I was brainstorming with the local faculty on this topic, I reflected on my secondary school days, where I participated in the Young Enterprise Program (YE) in Form 3 for 20 selected students. YE was introduced by the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce in 1989 and driven by sponsor companies. Motorola was my school’s sponsor and we had the company’s product manager as our board advisor. Even though we primarily sold custom-made canvas bags, do-it-yourself science kits, and baked goods, this program gave us all an invaluable year-long experience and insight into the end-to-end process of starting a company and creating sellable products.

We incorporated our company, set up charter, selected a CEO and assigned team roles. I chose to be the R&D Director because I wanted to be the mastermind behind our products. We sold shares to teachers, parents, and peers, and by the end of the year, gave our happy investors an ROI of 800%! It was a memorable experience, looking back when I turned my house into a production warehouse and paid ourselves RM0.10/hour in labor cost. We learnt the importance of ‘unit cost’ economics and how to market and sell products to targeted customers. It was exciting because it was a real and tangible venture. YE left a big imprint on me and certainly fuelled my desire to be an entrepreneur. I hope more schools and even colleges would implement such a program. An internship program to expose college students to local or regional high-growth startups would be very helpful too.

Such practical experiences should take precedence over theory, because entrepreneurship is not about memorising company structures or best practices, but rather the application of innovation within a business. In fact, subjects that teach problem solving and critical thinking skills, finance & accounting, negotiations, excel modelling, digital marketing, psychology, English writing, presentation etc are more useful to an eventual entrepreneur. On the other hand, dry or non-engaging courses may provide students with the wrong idea of entrepreneurship or may even turn them off.

Mentorship is another important part of entrepreneurship education. During YE, we were under the guidance of corporate advisors. When I was studying at Cornell University, I wish I had more opportunity to hear from real entrepreneurs. It wasn’t until I was working in NYC and attended a lot of startup events that I mingled with entrepreneurs and was inspired by them. The entrepreneurial bug rubs on as we’re influenced by the people around us. I was compelled by my environment, which brings me to my next point.

Our environment plays a crucial role in framing our mindset, beliefs and aspirations. For example, a child raised by entrepreneur parents are exposed to a different set of core values and practice. While my peers were pressured to stay home to study and earn good grades, my mom supported my initiatives to sell products door-to-door, or when I decided to sell antiques and junk at the basement flea market of Amcorp Mall. She highly encouraged my entrepreneurial tendencies so that I would learn the value of money and the importance of financial independence.

So can entrepreneurship be taught? I believe it can, to a certain extent. It’s a combination of being in a conducive environment, being taught a set of entrepreneurial skills, and having the right attitude. Apart from being street smart and intelligent, drive and resourcefulness are also essential entrepreneurial qualities. Entrepreneurs are problem-solvers who challenge the status quo and believe that things can be done faster, cheaper, more efficiently and with higher quality. Entrepreneurs are change-makers who believe that they can solve social and environmental problems in our society.

What does our future hold for the generations to come? My challenge to Malaysian universities is to cultivate the spirit of entrepreneurship among students through its culture and course design for active learning, and for parents to instill and encourage entrepreneurial thinking at a young age. It’s a collective effort to grow the Malaysian startup ecosystem, and subsequently yield tangible results to our nation’s economy.

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