Entrepreneurship: Be brave and take chances

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 10, 2020 - February 16, 2020.
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Having a growth mindset can set an entrepreneur on the path to success. Gigi Wang, an expert in entrepreneurship and innovation, can testify to this.

A person with a growth mindset is someone who is willing to experiment and learn new things while someone with a fixed mindset prefers to remain in their comfort zone and not take chances.

Wang was an internet pioneer in the 1990s, having worked for and started companies in the US and Asia. In 1995, she was part of the team that started Pacific Internet in Singapore, which was the second internet provider in the country. In 1999, the company went public on the Nasdaq.

Wang was not trained as an entrepreneur or even in telecommunications technology. Instead, she was an engineer who started her career in the oil and gas industry. But she had courage and an insatiable curiosity. She pivoted into the food industry, learnt about sales and marketing, got a Master of Business Administration and joined the telecommunications industry.

“I joined AT&T when the internet was starting. A lot of my customers were pioneers of the internet. Then I quit my job at the telco and went to a start-up, where I only got half my pay and stock options. My jobs included sales, business development and taking out the garbage,” says Wang at a Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre sharing session on women and entrepreneurship.

She persevered and in two years, the start-up was acquired by a larger company. “I got a chunk of money. The biggest value in the entrepreneurship world is not your salary, but in building your company. You have to do what you love and make it grow. Then, money comes with it,” she says.

Wang did not stop challenging herself. In 1995, she moved to Singapore and joined Pacific Internet as head of marketing and business development. From a team of two, she expanded the company to 100 employees. “In six months, we had more customers than SingTel [the incumbent]. My goal was never to beat SingTel, but to do a good job, create a good product and bring the internet to the people,” she says.

Having a growth mindset also meant learning from failures. Wang has several of those under her belt. Once, she invested US$200,000 in a company whose CEO eventually ran away.

“Every time you fail, you have to admit it and stop to think, ‘What have I learnt?’ I learnt that I should not give money away so quickly. There was another start-up where I was vice-president of marketing. The company raised US$34 million, but never made more than US$2 million because the founders were always fighting. Now, I will never work in a group where the founders are fighting,” says Wang.

Another failed investment was in a China-based company called TCM Online, which dealt in traditional Chinese medicine. “Some Hong Kong tycoons, who were my friends, invested millions in this company. I invested US$25,000 in it. The company had US$2 million in the bank in China and it disappeared. What did I learn here? Do not invest in China-based companies unless there is a Chinese on your team,” she says.

How to have a growth mindset

People with growth mindsets are willing to start new things and apply for jobs beyond their qualifications as they believe they can learn and grow on the job. They have a wide comfort zone, observes Wang.

It is an unfortunate reality that women oftentimes find this harder to achieve. “It is a tough act to figure out how to succeed in a new world while still maintaining our values. Women are often brought up conditioned to stay safe and be pretty while the boys are told to go out there, be brave and take chances,” she says.

Wang cites a study by Hewlett-Packard. The company realised that of the hundreds of job applications it received, women only applied for positions where they met 100% of the requirements. But men applied for positions even if they only met 50% to 60% of the requirements. “Men were always applying for jobs that were harder and above their [qualifications]. If they got it, they moved up faster,” she says.

“When I was at Pacific Internet, eight women who reported to me were always working in the office at 10pm, but the two guys were out by then. After six months, guess who asked me for a promotion? The guys. We were taught not to ask, be a good girl and not be greedy.”

Other characteristics of people with growth mindsets are the ability to trust others, share information and practise inductive learning. They must be willing to experiment and dare to fail.

Those with growth mindsets must also have self-awareness. “Know what you are good at and what you are not good at. Know that if you do not know how to do it yourself, then you should hire someone,” says Wang.

She tells the story of a CEO she once worked with. “He was a micromanager and wanted to review everything. As a result, our products got to market after those of our competitors. The good news was that the investors fired him.

“But two years later, he started a new company and sold it for US$130 million. I asked him, ‘What did you do differently this time?’ He said when he got fired, he realised he had no one to blame but himself. He realised he was a micromanager and he was not good at products or sales.”

So, at his new venture, the CEO hired the best salesperson and product manager. He gave them the freedom to do their jobs. “That self-awareness meant the difference between failure and US$130 million,” says Wang.

With these characteristics, people with growth mindsets will look at adversity as an advantage. Wang shares a story from Pacific Internet. Once, the server it used to host all of its information crashed. The company lost its billing information for the month, which meant it could not charge its customers.

“How would I tell my chairman that we were not going to make money for the month? My team and I sat in the dark in the office. Then, one of my teammates came up with an idea. ‘Our chairman wants us to spend more money on marketing. So, why don’t we send an email to every customer saying: Because you were one of our very first customers, we are going to give you one month for free!’” says Wang.

Their customers loved it and praised Pacific Internet for being a company that cared about its customers. “So, when you feel like crying, just remember, this is a chance to innovate!” she says.

To succeed, entrepreneurs must start with having the right mindset, she emphasises. This includes being open, being willing to try new things, valuing other people and believing in yourself.

“You have to put yourself out there, try new things and your mindset becomes more growth-oriented. People will want to work with you and you will get results,” says Wang.

How to teach entrepreneurship

Wang is now an industry fellow and on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, where she runs the start-up boot camp. It has developed an approach for teaching entrepreneurship called the Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship. There are five pillars: Inductive learning, mindset and behaviour, framework and cases, networks and connections, and journey-based teaching.

Through inductive learning, students are given a result and expected to figure out how it was achieved. “It teaches you the skill of thinking by yourself because you are going to create a new product or service. No one can tell you how to do it because it has not been done before,” says Wang.

Don’t ask for approval, but have the courage to experiment and ask for feedback, she adds. “As a mentor, I do not like it when people ask me to tell them what to do. I like it when entrepreneurs go off and do something by themselves, create something and come to me for feedback. If you do the thinking, I will collaborate with you to solve the problem.”

Keeping your Asian values

An area that Wang is cautious about is teaching students to have growth mindsets while maintaining their Asian values. Growing up, her father always told her what to do. But when she started working, her father told her that she was a leader and not to blindly follow commands.

“I said, ‘But Dad, all my life you have told me to follow orders. How do you expect me to be a leader?’ There are cultural challenges and it is difficult to maintain these values,” she says.

Some of those clashing values can be found in the Hokkien terms “kia si”, which means afraid to die, and “kia su”, which means afraid to lose. Parents teach their children these concepts and consequently, young people are afraid to try new things.

“Maybe these were good things when you were young because it kept you safe. But when you grow up, it is time for you to spread your wings. You have to figure out when it is time to let go. Trust me, I have had to let go. I was very scared as a little kid,” says Wang.

There is also the Asian emphasis to stay humble and obey your elders. She shares how she once wrote a letter to her grandfather, telling him that she got straight As. “The response I got was that I need to learn to be humble. But does that teach me confidence? I think humility is good, but overdoing it can hurt your children,” she says.

In this era where the youth are well-versed in digital tools, the older generation should realise that they can learn from the younger generation. For instance, there are now reverse mentoring sessions, where a young person is assigned to advise an older employee. There is value to be gained by both sides. “It is a two-way street,” says Wang.