Can entrepreneurship be taught?

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  • Tuesday, 03 Mar 2015

THIS WEEK’S column comes all the way from Palo Alto, home to Stanford University which anchors much of the talent in Silicon Valley.

The university has churned out entrepreneurial graduates, whose alumni network include founders of such giants as Google and Yahoo!, and more recent successes like Instagram and Snapchat.

Stanford continues to be a innovation pipeline, and its stream of startups have contributed significantly to the American economy, creating US$3tril (RM10.8tril) in economic impact every year and over 5.4 million jobs so far.

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

We asked the Stanford faculty how they measured the success of their entrepreneurship programmes.

To our surprise, STVP’s KPI wasn’t the number of startups created, as that would lead to the creation of companies for the sake of meeting numbers. Rather, STVP tracks the oversubscription of their entrepreneurship classes, and whether the courses received stellar ratings.

These are considered better indicators of how valuable the courses are to students, and whether ultimately they achieve the goal of raising student interest and inculcating an entrepreneurial mindset.

As I was brainstorming with the local faculty on this, I reflected on my secondary school days when I participated in the Young Enterprise Programme (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 adviser. Even though we primarily sold custom-made canvas bags, do-it-yourself science kits, and baked goods, this programme gave us an invaluable year-long experience into the end-to-end process of starting a company and creating products.

We incorporated our company, 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 a return on their investment of 800%!

Looking back, I must say it was a memorable experience to turn my house into a production facility and pay ourselves 10 sen an hour in labour cost. We learnt the importance of unit-cost economics and how to market and sell products to customers.

YE fuelled my desire to be an entrepreneur. I hope more schools and colleges implement such a programme. An internship programme to expose 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 and accounting, negotiations, spreadsheet modelling, digital marketing, psychology, English writing, presentation skills, and so on, are more useful to an eventual entrepreneur.

Mentorship is another important part of entrepreneurship education. 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 New York 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 entrepreneurial parents is 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 mum supported my initiatives to sell products door-to-door, and my decision to sell antiques and junk in a flea market. She encouraged my entrepreneurial tendencies so I would learn the value of money and 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 skills and having the right attitude. Apart from being street-smart and intelligent, other essential qualities include drive and resourcefulness. Entrepreneurs are problem solvers who challenge the status quo and believe that things can be done better. They are change-makers who believe they can solve social and environmental problems.

My challenge to Malaysian universities is to cultivate the spirit of entrepreneurship among students through culture and course design, 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 yield results for our nation’s economy.

Cheryl Yeoh is chief executive officer of MaGIC, the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre.

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