Generation why

A lack of drive and ambition among youngsters is threatening the city's entrepreneurial spirit. But educators are fighting back, writes Nazvi Careem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 9:52am

Kent Tong Ting-hung has one year left for his business administration degree at Hong Kong Shue Yan University and he is already an entrepreneur.

Joining forces with another student, from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Tong launched Buzz Code, an online marketing and media production company, last year.

"We believe we have the ability but only lack experience, so we started the business while still in university," says Tong, 22.

Tong's daring venture into the perilous world of start-ups should be another glowing example of entrepreneurial spirit among Hong Kong's youth. But according to some academics, Tong and his business partner rarities in a city known for its enterprise. The reality, they say, is that the latest generation of youngsters lack drive and ambition when it comes to starting their own businesses. Most are happy to trudge through life working for others.

The issue was initially raised by Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, vice-chancellor of Chinese University, who lamented in a blog post in February that the young entrepreneurs who helped build Hong Kong's thriving economy over the decades were fast disappearing.

Sung wrote: "We are losing our entrepreneurial spirit in Hong Kong. I don't know when and how it happened. I have talked to our final-year students about their plan after graduation and heard: 'We want to have a good job with stable income and a steadily ascending path'.

"I might be wrong, but somehow I feel that our next generation has lost the vigour to venture into uncharted waters, to explore new ideas and opportunities, and to take a calculated risk for a bigger success. Where is the 'can-do' spirit of Hong Kong?"

Sung related how he visited the Hong Kong Productivity Council, which has a department to support start-up businesses. He was told that "very few people know how to utilise the start-up scheme from the government and not many bother to ask".

There is a lack of official data on how many graduates or other students - like Tong and his partner - go on to start their own companies. But even Tong says Sung has pretty much got it right.

"My fellow students only think about getting a job and don't really want to go into business," says Tong. "I also know of students in other universities who feel the same way. Most of them just think of making safe money. They don't think Hong Kong is a good place to start a business.

"When they found out that I wanted to start a business, they were sceptical and didn't think it would work. There is definitely a lack of entrepreneurial ambition in Hong Kong and I don't think it is good for the city's development."

Jessica Chan, from the Hong Kong Federation of Business Students, says the body encourages its members to look beyond the workforce and consider starting their own companies.

"We believe that having an entrepreneurial mind is important," says Chan. "To become a successful entrepreneur, students should develop a positive attitude and build confidence while facing many challenges. One has to take risks and make wise decisions at the same time."

Professor Po Chi-wu, who teaches entrepreneurship and social enterprise at HKUST, says the education system should be conducive to producing all types of students. The problem, he says, is that entrepreneurship cannot be taught; it is a passion derived from the learning environment.

"They either have the drive or they don't. Whether or not they have the right skills is much less important," he says, adding that it is hardly appropriate for educators to insist that students give up their job ambitions and start an enterprise instead.

"In good conscience, I cannot tell a young person: 'You should become an entrepreneur.' This is because the choice to be an entrepreneur must be made by the person, and it is fundamentally not a rational choice.

"Looking at the career decision-making process from a completely logical, practical and rational perspective, no one would choose to be an entrepreneur.

"Why pick such a risky, uncertain and costly path, especially when there are very rational alternatives which have much higher probabilities of material success? It would be irresponsible of me to point someone in this direction."

But Po says the education system can help plant the seeds of ambition in the hearts of students by creating the optimum atmosphere for learning.

"Entrepreneurship is a contact sport. It has to be experienced," he explains. "Course offerings in entrepreneurship … have to emphasise practical experience, dealing with real-world challenges where no single, correct solution exists."

Po suggests the encouragement of three philosophical ideals that, although may not initiate an assembly line of Hong Kong entrepreneurs overnight, may at least inspire the kind of ambitions and hopes that were previously missing.

"First, let's champion the idea of excellence. 'Good enough' just isn't enough. Excellence implies exceeding expectations," says Po. "Excellence drives people to learn continuously, to be highly competitive in a race that never ends and that doesn't declare winners.

"Second, let's celebrate the idea of learning from failure; purposeful experimentation.

"Third, let's push for deeper, more long-term perspectives on what society needs. What is safe in the short term may be risky in the long-term context. If we are training students to master skills that will become obsolete in five years, what good is that - for the students or for society?"

For Tong, who has an office in Kwai Ching, the future is frightening but full of hope. Should his business fail, he would have the paper qualification to find a job - but he hopes it never comes to that.

"So far, the business is OK and hopefully it will stay that way," he says. "We hate the thought of working for others."