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Educating the entrepreneurs

Published on Friday, 02 Nov 2012
As entrepreneurs are often the most passionate learners, MBA classes, such as this one at HKUST, can help refine their ideas.
Photo: SCMP
Wu Po-chi
Kuldeep Kumar

Can entrepreneurship be taught? Or is it something that some people are simply fortunate enough to be born with?

“Entrepreneurship is not an academic discipline,” says Dr Wu Po-chi, adjunct professor at the School of Business and Management and the School of Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). “We can study entrepreneurship, we can teach students about entrepreneurship, but we can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur.”

While going into business for themselves might seem like a dream to many people, Wu believes that choosing to be an entrepreneur is actually what he terms “an irrational act”.

“This is why Chinese parents actively discourage their children from this path,” Wu says. “Why would any intelligent person, who has other choices, undertake an activity where the probability of success is so low, and the personal price – such as hard work, loneliness, financial burden – is so high? How can I, as a teacher, encourage someone to make a choice like that? Wouldn’t that be irresponsible?”

Wu believes entrepreneurs and artists have something important in common. “Even the most gifted artists are advised to choose to be an artist only if they truly believe they can’t bear to live any other way. If your art is more important to you than anything – family, friends, fame, fortune – and if being an artist is the only way you’ll be happy – even if the lifestyle makes you miserable – then you have no other choice. The art chooses you. Entrepreneurship is like that. Entrepreneurs are who they are because they will accept no other choice.”

One of the factors that distinguishes entrepreneurs from other people is their passion for learning.

“Entrepreneurs are among the most passionate learners I have ever met,” Wu says. “They may not be the best students in school and their learning styles may not work well in a highly structured academic environment. What they are passionate about, though, is learning about life first-hand, about participating and interacting with lots of different people.”

Entrepreneurs are not only highly practical, but also know that they must learn from their mistakes.

“They want to learn by doing,” Wu says. “They celebrate ‘failure’ because they understand that learning means overcoming ignorance. Failures are often the result of ignorance, as people push the limits of their knowledge. When you’ve done your best, and the outcome is not what you expected, what do you learn from that failure?

“The more enlightened interpretation of ‘failure’ is that you are about to learn some really important new lessons, because you’ve stretched yourself beyond your original comfort zone. Isn’t that what learning is really about? To succeed in life, we need practical lessons. Intellectual understanding isn’t enough.”

Many business schools teach using the case-study method, which helps students develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

“After studying hundreds of cases, MBA students develop the ability to recognise patterns of behaviour and make decisions quickly,” Wu says. “The principles they learn can then be applied in different situations and contexts. The challenge of managing people hasn’t fundamentally changed in hundreds of years.”

Jack Lau, CEO of listed company Perception Digital, is one of the School of Business’ most prominent examples of entrepreneurship among its alumni.

“Lau developed the technology for his company while a faculty member at HKUST,” Wu says. “He continues to be involved as an adjunct professor and teaches a course on entrepreneurship.

Another former faculty member, Dr Steve Lee, has also recently returned to HKUST to help out in the Entrepreneurship Center, after working as an entrepreneur for over 10 years.

“There have been other MBA students who went on to develop their own start-ups, but none have been big successes – yet,” Wu says. “For those who are totally committed, I can only admire and support them.”

According to a spokesman for the College of Business at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), entrepreneurs – and aspiring entrepreneurs – are more likely to pursue a DBA than an MBA or EMBA. This is because the focus at the DBA level is on the creation of new knowledge rather than the honing of skills.

“While both DBA and MBA programmes are designed for executives, the focus of the CityU DBA programme is to create and disseminate new knowledge useful to industry and academe,” says Kuldeep Kumar, DBA programme co-director at CityU.

“MBA programmes are designed to educate managers in existing management knowledge. Our DBA programme, on the other hand, is designed to help managers learn how to create rigorous knowledge that can help them find answers to real-world management problems and to contribute back to society and the economy.”

After obtaining their DBA, many graduates of the programme go on to set up their own consultancies.

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