Strategy

"Serial Entrepreneur" Jason Ma Writes About Future Business Leaders At Elite Universities

Jason Ma, ThreeEQ, Founder, 18 July 2013

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Jason Ma, who has written before for WealthBriefingAsia, writes about the issue of student entrepreneurship at top universities. Such people are the likely wealth management clients of the future, so getting a handle on what makes such people tick is well worth studying.

Jason Ma, who has
written before for WealthBriefingAsia, writes about the issue of student
entrepreneurship at top universities. Such people are the likely wealth
management clients of the future, so getting a handle on what makes such people
tick is well worth studying. While there is a strong US
slant to the piece, sharp-eyed readers will note the involvement of people from
Asia. Ma’s article originally appeared in
Forbes, and is reprinted by this publication with Ma’s permission. Ma is founder,
chief executive and chief mentor at ThreeEQ. He calls himself a “serial
entrepreneur and global education leader” with a passion for mentoring and
transforming young leaders (from ages 10 to 39) worldwide.

To view a previous guest article by Ma, click here.

Student Entrepreneurship Is Humming At Elite Universities

“I am young, have time and am willing to take the risk. We
want to innovate and deliver awesome engineering products.” This is Timothy
Lee, a mechanical engineering major at UC Berkeley, singing the gospel of Silicon Valley. He’s an engineering project manager at
VIRES Engineering, a thriving tech start-up with a novel engine transmission
founded by Cal
students. Tim is unpaid, but doesn’t mind the lack of a salary. “I’ve got no
kids, no mortgage and no family responsibility. I’m not interested in being
just a dot in a large workforce, a huge bureaucratic structure. I want to apply
what I’ve learned directly from classes to something I’m passionate about,” he
said.

UC Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology
recently brought together a bunch of start-ups, including VIRES, for a pitch
contest before a panel of judges comprised of venture capitalists,
entrepreneurs (myself included) and university faculty. Also in the mix were
Chinese teams from the Tsinghua-Berkeley Global Technology Entrepreneurship
Program. Tsinghua alums include a range of top Chinese government officials and
industry captains.

After seeing all of the pitches, the one thing that shook me
was the passion these young entrepreneurs have. Only a small fraction of
working folks tend to be this missionary, a bit bull-headed but open-minded. Silicon Valley is culturally unlike many parts of the
world in that we tolerate failure, accept calculated risks and acknowledge
mistakes as long as we learn from them and become stronger. “Fail often and
fail fast (and hopefully cheaply)” is the motto–just don’t make the same
mistake three or more times.

What if university-age entrepreneurs are psychologically
more scalable or flexible than mid-aged counterparts? On average, I think so. A
general partner at an elite venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road noted: “I need to
(virtually) use a two-by-four to whack these 40-year-old CEOs on the head a
couple of dozen times until they get it.” Having invested in a range of start-up
companies and sitting on their boards, this VC blurted that out of perhaps some
frustration. Being permeable or effective in listening in the right contexts is
a critical success factor, especially during times of need or pivot.

I am enchanted by Kairos Society‘s driven fellows and
leaders, one of whom is its regional president of Northern California, Jeremy
Fiance. A UC Berkeley junior majoring in entrepreneurship and technology
innovation, Jeremy is co-founder at Givair (a social micro-gifting platform
being incubated at Cal), co-founder at Dropsense (developing a low blood sugar
alert system being incubated at The Foundry @ CITRIS, a UC institution that
creates IT solutions for pressing social, environmental and health care
problems) and a partner at VC firm First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund. Along
with schoolwork, Jeremy is busy but manages.

Jeremy comments: “Students at Cal have traditionally been risk-averse
because of academic rigour and a feeling of being silo’ed in their majors. The
missing link was alumni engagement and Cal
has had no epicentre for entrepreneurs thus far. The entrepreneurial ecosystem
has begun forming and is at the tipping point. Both Berkeley Engineering and
B-School have been supportive. SkyDeck is becoming more mature and useful (to
qualified startups at Cal).
Examples are Kloudless and VIRES. The campus has the most untapped talent pool
in elite universities.”

Jeremy was inspired by the Innovation and Entrepreneurship
curriculum at the Haas School of Business’ Lester Center
for Entrepreneurship, highly successful serial entrepreneur-turned-professor
and author Steve Blank, other professors and industry execs, as well as fellow
high-achieving students. He adds: “Here at Cal, we tend to ask what is the real-world
problem that we are trying to solve. We aren’t interested in just an app or
another Instagram. ‘What’s the high impact?’ Start-ups that will become successful
will give back to Cal.”

Cal is fostering more start-ups
on campus with its SkyDeck, which occupies the penthouse at the city of Berkeley’s tallest
building right by the university campus. It’s a relatively new accelerator
jointly created by UC Berkeley’s College
of Engineering, Haas
School of Business and Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. Run by
executive director Jeff Burton, SkyDeck aims to combine and leverage on the
vast resources of this elite public university.

SkyDeck plus contests such as the UC Berkeley Startup Competition,
Big Ideas and Peter Haas Public Service Leaders Program are helping students
turn their ideas into real companies. “Opportunities my own venture, ServFund,
is grateful to have,” says Ngan Pham, a senior at UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science, its sizeable
liberal arts school. Passionate about social causes, Ngan reflects: “We may not
get as much limelight as Stanford, but the entrepreneurial scene at Cal is alive and well.”
Her friend, Sabrina Atienza, compared UC Berkeley’s and Stanford’s start-up
scene in this Women 2.0 article from April 2012.

Ngan adds: “Cal’s
infrastructure to support the students is still fragmented, which can be good
or bad. The good is that it forces students to take action on their own, which
is very much like the real world. The bad is that we lose out on talent and
good ideas if students don’t have the emotional support. Many aspiring social
entrepreneurs’ talent goes untapped because they don’t even know how to begin.”
Her ideal entrepreneurship scene at Cal
would be a co-working space that is inviting to all majors and students. Ngan
went on to start a Facebook group, “Cal’s Aspiring Entrepreneurs and Friends,”
as a collaborative community of UC Berkeley students and alumni.

Ken Singer, managing director of the Center for Entrepreneurship
and Technology, offers his perspective: “Unique among university programmes,
CET is part of the engineering school and not the business school. Business
schools tend to be oriented towards the study of ‘making money.’ The discipline
of engineering is oriented towards ‘building’ or ‘creating’ something tangible.
This informs the way CET educates its students–practical, experiential,
applied. The result: a proven pedagogy called ‘The Berkeley Method’ that has
attracted students from around the world and has been successfully syndicated
to China.”

Ken adds: “Signature elements of the CET program: (1) All
instructors are practitioners (not just academics). (2) Classes are open to
students of ALL academic backgrounds. CET believes entrepreneurship is a
multi-disciplinary sport. (3) We are competition-driven: All advanced courses
require students to form teams to compete for highly coveted rewards–trips to Barcelona, office space,
investment money.”

Berkeley has both tremendous
opportunities and challenges as it is the flagship of the venerable, colossal
but public University
of California system. It
is advantaged for having a tremendous student and faculty talent pool and more
top graduate programs than Harvard or Stanford (according to the National
Research Council) and being right by the San Francisco
side of Silicon Valley. It is disadvantaged
for being weighed down by large public university bureaucracy and having to
deal with the financially challenged State of California.

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