The Making of the Entrepreneur Employee

Photo credit: iStockphoto/scyther5

Entrepreneurship has always been bandied about as a key trait for employees that companies want. 

Yet, entrepreneurs still feel claustrophobic within corporate organizations. Employers on the other hand feel they have done enough to provide the right environment to nurture entrepreneurism within the talent pool, and it is up to them to take the initiative. 

A recent panel discussion titled “Developing entrepreneurship talent” during the Ecosystem Summit by The Mills Fabrica (part of the StartmeupHK Festival 2020)tried to shed more light on this topic. 

The discussion saw entrepreneur organizations, corporates, statutory boards and education institutions discuss how best to create innovative minds within corporate organizations. 

Talent has no boundaries

The discussion opened with Marina Chan, director of Education MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, who was the moderator, asking what we need to ignite the entrepreneurial mindset in Hong Kong. 

Rachel Chan, co-founder at Esperanza, highlighted three requirements: the right education system, diversity and collaboration between local and international talent. 

In terms of education, Chan noted that current systems need to nurture entrepreneurial talent. “They should not be afraid of taking risks and collaborating for innovative solutions.” However, she admitted changing the education system is “for the long haul.”

Diversity requires companies to actively build teams with different backgrounds and who can offer fresh perspectives. This inclusion of differences can help to create new solutions and find creative ways to solve old problems. 

Chan also noted that getting talent from overseas is important. “Today there are no boundaries. It is about building connections and relationships.” She encouraged companies to drive collaboration between local and international talent. 

Collaborating with startups

One popular way for companies to encourage the entrepreneurial mindset with their employees is by working together with startups. 

Just ask Kosby Fu, vice president for innovation & ecosystems at DBS Bank. “We understood that we are not going to deliver [fintech innovation] internally on our own. So, we need to learn from [fintechs].” 

He pointed out that the DBS Accelerator program and the DBS Startup Xchange are programs where entrepreneurs are invited to work with the bank to solve real-world problems. For DBS, their staff can learn how entrepreneurs work. 

The exchange seemed to have worked. “I already see some changes in internal behaviors. Right now, we are generating ideas and actively looking for fintechs to solve problems. It is how we are growing the entrepreneurial spirit inside of DBS,” said Fu.  

DBS is also helping its own staff to become entrepreneurs by offering funding for creating proof-of-concept (PoC). “We encourage them to learn from failures,” Fu commented. 

Entrepreneurship is not a classroom subject

Raymond Chu, assistant director at the Institute for Entrepreneurship, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University argued that entrepreneurship is a subject that cannot be taught in a classroom. 

“It needs to be experiential and takes a lot of practice,” said Chu. He added that PolyU has its own micro funds to grow the entrepreneurial spirit and provides funds for PoCs. 

Echoing Chan’s earlier observation, Chu felt that placing employees or students within multicultural settings can help to drive entrepreneurism and creativity. 

For example, PolyU has immersion programs and others to help its students to learn through collaboration and internship for the Greater Bay Area. “By going through the whole process, they can learn and grow a lot,” said Chu. 

Entrepreneurship is a journey

Anvil Ng, head of LEAP Acceleration at Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) noted that becoming entrepreneurial is not a one-stop formula. Neither is it about getting funds. 

Ng highlighted the misconception that supporting startups is about giving access to funds. Instead, HKSTP has mapped an entire journey from ideation and incubation to collaboration with the business community and working with venture capitalists. 

“The most critical part is whether the startup has the right talent who can move through the different stages of growth,” said Ng.

This is loosely referred to as the growth mindset. And it is one of the main characteristics companies are looking to instill within the talent pool. 

Having their employees to nurture ideas and create their own startups is one way for them to build this mindset.  

Pandemic underscores the importance of entrepreneurship

Having this growth mindset and entrepreneurial spirit is becoming more important as companies face COVID-19 challenges. 

As old business models, market models and assumptions become irrelevant, companies will need their employees to creatively solve problems. 

But Chan argued more needs to be done, especially closer collaboration with educators, government and businesses. She noted that entrepreneurs need problems to solve. 

Here, there is a chance for the government to take the lead. Chan pointed to the government procurement system as an example where there have been calls for better support for local innovation. 

“I know the government is trying but more needs to be done. The government can be more receptive and encourage innovative suggestions,” said Chan. 

Businesses need to get out of their comfort zones

The real truth is that many Hong Kong corporations are not ready for entrepreneurial talent. 

Although they do support innovation and startups with funding and programs, many still resist using homegrown ideas to run their global operations.

“Traditionally, we really strive on pragmatism and efficiency. And innovation and entrepreneurship will need a different culture,” said Chan.

Participants noted that it is also a matter of risk. For many Hong Kong companies, the risk of betting on their employees to change their way of doing business is too high a risk. There is also the cultural conflict that many local employees would rather not face. 

“But the pandemic gives a good scenario for corporations to change the way they think,” said Ng.  

Fu noted that it may be time for corporates to provide a safe space to create the innovation mindset. “We need to give more exposure to our employees and more tolerance for them to experiment more. As a corporate, we can run more programs.”

“Yes, we need to maintain our efficiency. But we also need more tolerance for ambiguity and experimentation, and a lot more patience for trying new things,” added Chan.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/scyther5