Last night I went to a meeting of the Shanghai Entrepreneurs Group (SEG), so thought today I’d write my first post about Entrepreneurship. But first let me comment on that group. It is a rather eclectic group of both entrepreneurs and people interested in entrepreneurship. Although the majority of the fields were something related to the internet there were some diverse industries as well, from agriculture to coffin export. As I predicted, there were only 5 women there (out of ~35people), including myself. And one was there simply for ‘entertainment’ as she put it, so clearly not an entrepreneur. Which makes it less than 5 women attending for the actual entrepreneur group. Not surprising. Fairly good mix of locals and expats, though.
Anyway, on to today’s topic:
My Encounters with Entrepreneurship
Prior to college, I had never even thought of entrepreneurship, didn’t know what an entrepreneur was, wasn’t even aware of the concept. This is a bit strange, though, since my mom had co-founded a construction company when I was in high school and my newly acquired step-father is a serial entrepreneur. But I apparently didn’t put their efforts in beginning those companies together with the term ‘entrepreneur’ and had never really thought of that as an option for myself.
Freshman year at USC I dated a guy who had a concentration in entrepreneurship through the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurship. During this relationship I started to understand the concept. As he struggled to write a business plan and come up with as accurate as possible financials, I thought this is not for me. (I wasn’t even a business major at this time.) I thought, I definitely won’t take that class, I’m meant to be in the corporate world, not starting my own business, let him have that and deal with the seemingly overwhelming task of writing projected financials.
Then freshman year was over, he graduated, and I moved on to my interests in promoting women’s advancement in business, conducting business in cross-cultural settings, etc. So sophomore passed and I never again thought about it. After my summer in Europe or sometime during my junior year, my mom contemplated retiring from the law firm and questioned whether to start another business. I gave her advice on the aspects of her proposed business that I was familiar with. And we kind of joked well after I graduate we can start a business together. But I still felt so removed from the actual concept of being an entrepreneur that I thought, yea funny, it’ll never happen.
After junior year and my internship in Hong Kong, I returned to USC for my last year. Partly because of my excitement in returning from my exchange program and due to my ever-lasting interest in cross-cultural interaction, I volunteered to be a host for exchange students. And I asked them why they chose to come to USC and many said for the entrepreneurship program. I was surprised. We have an entrepreneurship department? Is it any good? (Well, yes, actually it is. That was the main reason my boyfriend freshman year attended USC). Ok, whatever, still not interested. And they asked me, â€˜can you recommend any entrepreneurs I can interview for my class?â€™ No, I thought, I donâ€™t know any entrepreneurs.
Spring break of senior year I had the choice of 2 different business trips: one to Tokyo or one to Rio de Janeiro. It was a difficult decision, but I chose Rio and that seemingly fun decision could prove to be one of the most pivotal decisions of my life.
The unique thing about the trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is that is was co-sponsored by the USC Entrepreneur Club. I never would have had any interest or any reason to join this club. But since they did much of the planning for the trip and had a professor of entrepreneurship as a chaperone, much of the trip was focused on entrepreneurship. We listened to social entrepreneurs and very successful heads of now some of the worldâ€™s largest corporations that started out as mere entrepreneurship ventures a few decades ago. And especially beneficial for me is that I learned about entrepreneurship in a cross-cultural setting. I also found out many of the students in the group had their own (successful) businesses and they were younger than I! Wow! Suddenly entrepreneurship didn’t seem so remote anymore. Finally, it was a concept I understood, and a name attached to a specific concept. And there were people my age doing it successfully. From that standpoint, it was truly an eye-opening experience.
After that trip, I started to look back over my family and my life and wonder why I hadnâ€™t been exposed to this before. Well, actually I have. My uncle is an entrepreneur, my step-father is a serial entrepreneur, and now my mom is a two-time entrepreneur. Some how I just didn’t put their businesses together with the name and the concept and definitely never thought I’d be in their shoes.
About this time I also started exploring the option of moving to Shanghai after graduation, so I started talking to my friend Ian, who had recently moved to Beijing, asking him for advice and whatnot on moving to such a foreign country. And besides giving me great advice he told me he and a partner started their own business in Beijing. I was shocked! Here was another person my age that had started his own business, and in the country I was moving to! Amazing! Slowly, I started to put the pieces together. I could be an entrepreneur and start my own business in Shanghai.
When I look back now, I wonder why I never put all the pieces together. I apparently have a family history of it and therefore have been exposed to it for years. In fact, my mom has become my most important personal and business mentor. Despite all the signs, it was definitely Brazil trip that put it all together for me and made it all clear. So, now when USC business majors ask me for advice, I tell them to take an entrepreneurship class. You just never know how close you may actually be to becoming an entrepreneur and even if you donâ€™t ever become one, youâ€™ll still learn valuable business lessons in that class. Not taking such a class is now my biggest regret from college. I donâ€™t have any formal training in entrepreneurship and I missed the opportunity to be taught by some of the best entrepreneurship professors in the country.
So my advice, look around you. My bet is that you know far more entrepreneurs than you ever imagined. Entrepreneurship is a global reality, without it the world would be a far less efficient place. You, too, just may be destined to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.