Initiative helps Hong Kong students get mainland business experience
NorthernA fresh initiative is offering students the chance to get real business experience on the mainland, writes Shirley Lau
For years, it has been the exception rather than the norm for local university graduates with a degree in China business studies to carve out a business career on the mainland. Opportunities for them to head north have always seemed less than abundant. But things may be starting to change, thanks to a Hong Kong businessman who is keen to equip local young people with the skills to build a career up north.
Andy Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Brand for China Market Association, has undertaken various initiatives in recent years to help Hong Kong students majoring in China business studies to embark on careers on the mainland. These initiatives include a summer internship programme for Baptist and City universities' students to work in different provinces, and hosting workshops that bring together local students and Hong Kong small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with operations on the mainland.
In a few weeks, his efforts are set to culminate in the opening of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Zone in Shanghai, where a small cluster of Hong Kong SMEs and young entrepreneurs will launch their own retail businesses on a site provided by Fudan University, with students from Hong Kong volunteering to help these companies grow their brands.
"This is going to be an exciting project that will allow Hong Kong students to gain practical experience in China by helping the Hong Kong SMEs with brand development and research, whereas the SMEs can tap the mainland market and open their own shops, with help from the students and without having to pay exorbitant rent," Lee says.
Part of Lee's motivation to nurture the students and connect them with mainland-based Hong Kong SMEs stems from what he sees as a lack of practical working knowledge on both sides.
"In Hong Kong, more than 90 per cent of students doing China business studies at university end up working in finance, banking or similar fields, but rarely in the business world on the mainland," says Lee, who is one of the first wave of Hong Kong entrepreneurs to make use of Cepa (the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) to establish a retail business on the mainland.
"By and large, this has to do with the students' lack of practical experience. To forge a career on the mainland, real-life experience is all-important, but what these students have is often just classroom knowledge acquired miles away in Hong Kong," he says.
"Meanwhile, Hong Kong's SMEs are just as clueless on the mainland. Over the years, many Hong Kong OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] attempted to become OBMs [original brand manufacturers] and build their own brands in China. But there have been many failures due to a lack of local knowledge."
In an ideal world, Lee believes, local youngsters with a university degree in China business studies, and Hong Kong companies that want to create brands on the mainland, would make a perfect match, in that the graduates can assist the SMEs to tap the mainland market. But in reality, he says, few SMEs are willing to give young people a chance, seeing them as "[people] who lack practical experience and are therefore deemed useless".
The solution, says Lee, whose womenswear retail business has 40 outlets on the mainland, is to give the students more exposure to the mainland and equip them with practical knowledge, so that mainland-based Hong Kong entrepreneurs will start to have confidence in them.
The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Zone is an idea he came up with about six months ago. The parties that implement it are Fudan University and the Shanghai and Hong Kong Student Opportunity Association, the latter being formed by a group of Hong Kong students who have taken part in Lee's internship programme.
The zone, located near the Fudan campus, houses seven shops set up by young Hong Kong entrepreneurs or SMEs that pay a subsidised rent significantly lower than the market rate. The products and services offered range from swimwear to private tutoring.
Karen Huang, a business graduate from Baptist University and a co-founder of Shanghai and Hong Kong Student Opportunity Association, says: "This is an ideal platform for young entrepreneurs and SMEs from Hong Kong to launch their own business in the mainland. The rent is relatively low and there is a steady flow of clients since the site is close to the university campus. Besides, our association plans to arrange for Hong Kong students with an interest in China business to visit the zone and help the SMEs with brand promotion and research."
The plan is still at a preliminary stage, but Kurt Leung, 30, who will open a private tutoring business in the zone in mid-April, says he is already impressed by the potential of the university students. "They have a genuine interest in the business sector in China and a will to improve themselves in order to achieve something. I can imagine they are heading for something good on the mainland," he says.
Miki Wong, a final-year major in China Business Studies at City University, is one of the students volunteering for the programme. In recent months, she has been travelling between Hong Kong and Shanghai to help with preparation work, making use of knowledge gained in the classroom, and from extra-curricular activities initiated by Lee.
"The internship experience on the mainland has been particularly useful. We travelled to five provinces in two months, during which we followed Mr Lee to business meetings with company CEOs, observed the local culture and wrote a report every night on what we had seen and done. Afterwards, we wrote comprehensive business proposals for Hong Kong SMEs," she says.
Lee says the students' performance has come as a surprise to many Hong Kong business owners on the mainland. "They used to think Hong Kong students were of no use to their business. But the business proposals they did changed their view. Some of them came back to us asking them to do further marketing research. This means a lot to them," he says.
After graduating, Wong intends to work full time for the Shanghai programme to help with research and marketing as her first step to start a career in China. "I used to think highly of myself as a university student. It was not until I got out there to meet SMEs and work on the mainland that I realised my inadequacy. I believe Hong Kong students can help Hong Kong companies to grow on the mainland, on the condition that we have a positive attitude and that there are opportunities out there," she says.