An exciting initiative by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in youth has arrived on our shores. Introduced by the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center (IEC) of the Asia School of Business (ASB), we had a chat with Rajesh Nair, director of the center.
1. Would you like to share how you started and what inspired you to dedicate your time to incubating entrepreneurs?
Growing up in a lower middle class family in India, I always believed that entrepreneurship was something only a gifted few could do and not for everyone. So I did not venture into that realm for years.
After working for an entrepreneur for a long while, I noticed that I could have made the same decisions he was making, and I wondered what was so special about starting up a company that others could not do it.
I tried my first start-up and it failed miserably. But I learned what worked and where I needed help. For the second start-up I joined an experienced entrepreneur as a cofounder. This experience gave me a ringside view of the start-up process and I later decided to launch a third start-up company.
I had to gather a lot of courage to face a high probability of failure, but I took the plunge. What changed over time was that I was more comfortable with what I could do, and found people who could help me with my weak areas.
Through this series of experiences, a few things became clear to me:
- Anyone can learn to be an entrepreneur. Confidence is a key ingredient, and that can be built.
- Failures are common and that is how one learns.
- If youngsters can be exposed to this process early, more of them will take on an entrepreneurship path.
If I was able to start-up a company late in life, with little kids and family responsibilities, I believe younger people should be able to launch a start-up when they don’t have such responsibilities.
My thesis research at MIT suggests that the ideal time to expose people to entrepreneurship is when they are still students, because at that age, people can afford to fail and learn with little penalty. They are also more adventurous and live in a student community that is daring and nurturing.
Most entrepreneurs are innovators first. They find a new solution for an existing problem and that leads them to entrepreneurship. So, my hypothesis was that if college students are trained to be innovators and exposed to entrepreneurship at the same time, they would drift that way over time. My experiments have shown that it happens faster than I initially thought.
2. Is it possible to teach creativity, the ability and desire to innovate – be it a technological advancement or an innovation in business practices?
Absolutely. Creativity comes from exhausting the first round of ideas we are familiar with and then digging deeper into new uncertain models. Most of us avoid going into the unknown realm. But training to explore develops creative thinking.
This kind of exploration builds self-confidence and that is the key factor that triggers the entrepreneurial attitude. This process of building creativity was developed and tested as part of my research in India – in rural areas and small colleges.
3. From your work in India – reaching out to communities to identify a problem and developing a sustainable solution – there appears to be a parallel with what social enterprises try to achieve. What are your thoughts on that?
My work in India was focused on incubating entrepreneurs rather than companies. An inspired entrepreneur will find worthwhile problems to solve and create companies in different fields.
Social enterprise is a bit of misnomer. All applications need to solve a social or individual problem in the end. So every start-up solves some social problem, even if it is a technology or non-tech company.
I believe that the methods that worked in India will work in Malaysia just as well. But the process starts with inspiring young minds, helping them realise their potential to innovate and start up companies, and developing a supportive ecosystem that promotes them.
The ASB is planning a series of programmes to catalyse innovation & entrepreneurship (I&E) initiatives in Malaysia and the greater ASEAN region.
The IEC at ASB has two major goals:
- To give ASB MBA students a place and platform to learn to develop products and solutions, and launch companies.
- To offer multiple non-degree programmes to student communities as well as executives in Malaysia and other ASEAN countries to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
We believe that grassroots initiatives like the ASB 48-Hour MakerFest, the ASB Innovation & Entrepreneurship Bootcamp and the ASB 100K Entrepreneurship competition would bring catalysing events to the region to nurture and promote future innovators and entrepreneurs.
Message to young Malaysians
The amount of talent for creativity is spread uniformly across the world. So, any of you can do whatever anyone else in the world can do. The big opportunity is to nurture your skills locally, so more innovators will emerge and many of them could pursue entrepreneurship.
The path to entrepreneurship is often hard. Failures are common, but that is the learning process. The earlier you learn to handle failure and get past it, the faster you will mature.
We hope to help you to maximise your capabilities.
To read more about the characteristics of a world class VET system, click here.
For the OECD policy recommendations, check it out here.
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First appeared on Leaderonomics.com. Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 27 June 2015