Do we need a new model to teach entrepreneurs? — Raymond Madden and Geoffrey Williams

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APRIL 2 — It might seem rather brave to propose to set up a new university in this very challenging environment for higher education in Malaysia but the proposal from Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar that the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives (MEDAC) aims to establish a university of co-operatives and entrepreneurship deserves serious attention.

The vision is to create a new cohort of professionals and entrepreneurs with leadership and management expertise for the next generation of co-operatives and enterprises among more than 6.1 million members of the Malaysian co-operatives movement.

Many will be small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which already account for 98.5 per cent of all business in Malaysia and employ around two out of every three people. Around 76.5 per cent are micro-enterprises often in the MEDAC universe. SME contribution to GDP increased to 38.9 per cent in 2020 from 38.3 per cent in 2019.

By contrast, SMEs account for 99.8 per cent of all businesses in the European Union (EU) and again account for around two-thirds of employment. Around 93.1 per cent are micro-enterprises. They contribute 55 per cent of GDP, fully 15 per cent more than here in Malaysia.

This shows the massive value-added that can be gained from investment in entrepreneurship and is a clear motivation in itself to create a new model to teach, develop and nurture entrepreneurs in Malaysia, especially in the micro-enterprise and co-operative community.

So what do we need to do to create this new approach to entrepreneur development?

You will probably recall hearing a successful entrepreneur speak. They are passionate, engaging and enthusiastic. Their ideas are infectious and you come away with a real buzz. For them, their business idea becomes all consuming.

No wonder that 80 per cent of 18-year-olds now aspire to run their own business. Many have already started. Harsha Ravindran began her journey at the age of 11 and now has over 400 clients across four continents. She was 17 when she launched StartMyName.

Can such enthusiasm be somehow bottled? Can entrepreneurship be taught? There is no shortage of universities and business schools teaching entrepreneurship in Malaysia and abroad.

Some of their students dream of being the next Richard Branson but many aspire to have a better future for themselves and their families and freedom to do what they want.

Social aims are also a key driver of a new generation of entrepreneurs hoping to create social enterprises, leveraging impact investment and sustainable finance, creating decent work in inclusive workspaces and measuring success with social return on investment as well as financial profit and loss.

Where do most entrepreneurs learn their skills? The answer is probably not in the classroom but from the world of hard knocks. Malaysia has some great examples of entrepreneurs.

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes owns one of the world’s best low-cost airlines. Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah built the Sunway conglomerate, from used tin mining estates, successfully in Malaysia and transported his sustainable business model more recently to China and Australia.

There is a gap between what we teach and what entrepreneurs do. Some argue that you cannot learn how to run a business, let alone start one from scratch, from academics who have not run an organisation themselves.

Others argue that it is exactly the objectivity of the ivory tower and evidence-based research that helps us understand why some things fail and why others work, free from the bias of personal disappointments or bragging rights from success.

Does attending a course make you a better entrepreneur? Perhaps the jury is still out on this but what does help and what we have learned from world-leading organisations like the London Business School (LBS), is that networking and exchanging ideas with other entrepreneurs sets apart world-class schools from the rest.

It’s not just sharing the experiences of the big names that students can learn from but sharing among their own peer-group and classmates.

The networking offered in world-class business schools helps nurture a habit of inclusive management, brainstorming and innovation and creates bonds that last beyond the classroom when students graduate into the world of business.

We need to encourage the entrepreneurial mindset and facilitate this in the classroom or better still in business incubators. LBS was one of the first business schools to set up an incubator on its campus in Regent’s Park with one student creating one of the first online hotel booking sites focussed on ski resorts in Europe. It also encourages entrepreneurs to study ethics as start-ups are often a race to win contracts at all costs.

Some years ago, one of us shared a platform with Amar Latif from the UK who runs TravelEyes, a company that links blind people with sighted travel companions. Amar himself is blind but loves to travel. He became an entrepreneur by necessity but drew on his experiences to build a business that opens opportunities to many others with similar needs.

Tony Fernandes helped launch the business school at the International University of Malaya Wales. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Tony Fernandes helped launch the business school at the International University of Malaya Wales. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Universities are starting to change albeit slowly. Air Asia adopted the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) due to its proximity to KLIA. Tony Fernandes helped launch the business school at the International University of Malaya Wales, a private university established by the University of Malaya. Heriot Watt Malaysia recently appointed Datuk Yasmin Mahmood as chair of the universities board. She is well recognised as the nation’s digital ambassador.

Just as Universiti Teknologi Petronas has been a leader in producing talent for the oil and gas sector, we need a university to focus on entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs too. The best leaders teach so let’s encourage them to get in the classrooms, laboratories and incubators to help breed a nation of entrepreneurs.

Babson College in the US has a successful programme for innovators and entrepreneurs. With the help of funding from Goldman Sachs, they aim to establish 10,000 successful businesses.

We have such entrepreneurs in Malaysia too and we need to make sure they succeed. Universities have a huge part to play in this dialogue but they need to change and develop a new mindset.

Imagine if the number of business start-ups was the metric universities were measured by, rather than student numbers or research publications. Imagine if the growth of these start-ups in terms of revenue, employment and social value-added was also a key performance indicator leveraging the MEDAC universe.

That would be a huge resource that would benefit budding entrepreneurs and the communities and co-operatives in which they work. It would also add greatly to the nation at large and should be the mission and vision of the new MEDAC University.

* Raymond Madden PhD is a Fellow of the Seven Pillars Institute USA and resides in Kuala Lumpur. Geoffrey Williams is a professor at Malaysia University of Science and Technology based in Kuala Lumpur. Both previously worked at the London Business School and have held higher education leadership positions.


** This is the personal opinion of the writers and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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