The highest common denominator

PHOTO: The highest common denominator

SINGAPORE - They may come from all corners of the globe and work in vastly different industries, but the challenges faced by the four successful entrepreneurs in our roundtable discussion are remarkably similar.

Whether it's running a clean energy start-up in Mexico, or an environmental non-profit in China, they all face issues such as access to funding or attracting and developing talent.

What these four individuals also share is a vision of entrepreneurship that transcends the bottom line to become a platform for giving back to society.

The Business Times: Can you describe your entrepreneurship journey from the time you started to now?

Nanxi Liu: In high school, I started a non-profit programme that helped teach young students about writing and passing laws, but it was in college where my entrepreneurial endeavours really went wild. I did not actually think of what I was doing as entrepreneurship.

Rather, I just enjoyed building things with people. These included a dating advice site; a device that you could connect to outdoor lamps to make them turn on and off based on light; a custom spam blocker; an advanced eye-spray for glaucoma patients; and a video game platform.

The successes and the many failures of my entrepreneurial endeavours early on in college prepared me for what would become the two companies I am building up now. I started Nanoly Bioscience to help bring vaccines to hard-to-reach areas of the world.

I grew up in a rural village in China with no running water and very little access to electricity. Most do not have access to vaccines. At Nanoly, we are developing a chemical that can be combined with vaccines so they do not need refrigeration. After Nanoly was in good management hands, I started Enplug.

Enplug is a new media channel for the physical world. Since we started the company one year ago, we have already built the most advanced network of digital billboards inside venues. We are in over 25 cities and have 30 full-time employees.

Xin Hao: My entrepreneurship journey began in 2000 when I organised a cycling event in Zhejiang Province with my schoolmates. We then decided to start the non-profit organisation Green Zhejiang, which involved my college professor Ruan Junhua.

Green Zhejiang was registered as an environmental protection professional branch at Zhejiang Youth Volunteers Association in 2002. In 2010, Green Zhejiang was registered as an independent NGO at Hangzhou municipal level. Most recently, Green Zhejiang was registered as an independent NGO at Zhejiang provincial level.

Daniel Gomez Iniguez: I started my business not because I was inspired to be an entrepreneur but because I was inspired to be creative. I got involved in a project that I had a passion for and enjoyed doing it. It was only later that this thing I was doing was what people call entrepreneurship.

My family members had always worked for other people. When I was young, I was always told that I should get good grades, get a college degree and some day a big corporation will hire me. But why should I work for someone who has the same education as me, or maybe even dropped out of school because he wanted to start his own business?

I was 16 when I started this business with my partners. We did not have mentors, no money and no business plan. But we had a very clear idea of the technology to produce biodiesel.

Michael Ma: I remember sitting at home with mum and dad and grandmother, and they were all business people, always talking about how to make a buck. So I grew up in an environment where entrepreneurship was always discussed, so it was easy for me to ease into that.

I started IndoChine when I was 29, although I had wanted to start my own business when I was 15. But my mother forced me to go to university first, and I think that was the right decision.

BT: What are some of the key challenges for new entrepreneurs in your part of the world?

Liu: The challenges of new entrepreneurs in the United States are getting capital, finding talent, and building a profitable business model. These challenges are pretty similar for any entrepreneur in the world. In the US, we have the benefit of being in a place where there are a lot of places to get money as an entrepreneur.

There are plenty of angel investors and venture capital firms. The challenge is standing out and making a case for your business. Whatever your business idea is, somebody else has probably already thought of it, is building it, or has already built it.

That does not matter though because you can make your business just 5 per cent better than the competitor and that's enough to succeed. The key challenge is figuring out how to capture the attention of your customers or potential investors who have already heard something like your product before.

Xin: There are certain things you must be prepared for before you become an entrepreneur. For instance, are you prepared to accept different ideas from the people who are around you? Or are you prepared to insist on your choice when your partners do not agree with you?

You must also be prepared to think about how to raise funds everyday, and have the strength to motivate your colleagues when the business is not doing so well. If you can do all these things you are possibly ready to be an entrepreneur. If not, learn to be prepared, or else any of these challenges will beat you.

Gomez: I have been to 35 countries in the last four years, and the challenges faced in Mexico are the same everywhere else.

To me, the challenge for companies to be successful is the ability for their leaders to empower their employees.

A great leader is not someone who has a bunch of followers behind him, but it is someone who can create more leaders around him. It is not about growing yourself but growing the environment around you.

Ma: I feel that the new entrepreneurs these days are not as passionate. They want to make a quick buck but they do not have the patience to learn how to do business.

I do not believe you should start a business if you are too young.

There is a lot of stress in starting a business and if you fail you might not be able to bounce back. Once your arm is broken it will never be as strong again. I know of someone who is still paying off his debts years after he had to shut down his business.

Young people should get some experience working in the industry they are interested in before starting their own business.

BT: What more do you think can be done to help foster entrepreneurship in your country?

Liu: I would love to see elementary, middle, and high schools in the US have entrepreneurship programmes and classes. Building a business requires us to use all our skills. If we encourage young kids to build a business, it teaches them problem-solving, communication, math, and more.

This kind of training at an early age can be an extraordinary supplement to the traditional classroom curriculum. The one class that made the biggest difference in my academic career was my entrepreneurship courses at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Had I been exposed to entrepreneurship earlier I would have definitely started companies even before going to college.

Xin: Entrepreneurs need to deliver positive energy to the society. It needs entrepreneurs themselves to be very bright and positive. They could help educate the younger generation to have the right values, worldviews as well as how to be innovative. They need to tell the society that entrepreneurs are persons who experience a lot of difficult times but are still able to stand strong.

Gomez: The best way to do this is for entrepreneurs to share their experiences globally. The World Entrepreneurship Forum in Singapore is a great opportunity to not only transmit what I have learnt but also to exchange information.

When I speak to a group of young people, my principal objective is to demonstrate to them that social companies can be really profitable. They don't depend just on sponsors or donations but they can be highly profitable on their own.

Ma: At this time, a lot of entrepreneurs cannot get the right people because Singapore has a manpower crunch because of certain policies that are beyond anyone else's control. But it is limiting the ability to get the best people for the job, and we are not getting fresh energy into the country.

BT: How can social and corporate entrepreneurs be change agents in their local communities, and beyond?

Liu: No matter how busy being an entrepreneur is, we can always find time to give back to our local communities. Entrepreneurs can find ways to use their business to help the community directly. In addition, it is the responsibility of the entrepreneurs to set a culture of community service in their companies by being involved in local organisations.

For example, at Enplug, we dedicate portions of advertising time on our digital billboards to non-profit organisations and promote their content for free. We also partner with a non-profit to do team volunteer days. Recently, we went and picked up trash at the beach. When we print materials or purchase team T-shirts, we use locally owned businesses. These are easy and impactful things we do at Enplug to support our location community.

Xin: Entrepreneurs need to act more instead of complaining, need to solve problems instead of criticising. We need to know that the society is not perfect, but we are still willing to contribute our souls. We need to know that problems mean opportunities. As entrepreneurs, we become problem-solvers.

Gomez: When we work with technology, we are helping to improve the quality of people's lives. It helps them get access to better education and higher incomes, as well as creates jobs. So instead of looking for opportunities in the US, they will look for opportunities in Mexico. Our business also creates a consciousness about climate change.

Ma: Most entrepreneurs get so busy that they want to support themselves first. But we think it is important to give back to society. I was a refugee, so I have been supporting the Red Cross for many years. No refugee wants to leave his or her home and family and friends. I think Singapore can do more to help its neighbours. It helps to give a better perception of Singapore.

BT: How would you like to see entrepreneurship evolve over the next decade?

Liu: I would like to see more women entrepreneurs, particularly in the tech sector. I volunteer for several programmes that support women entrepreneurs and I encourage others to do the same. Enplug is very proud of the women leaders in our company including Justyna Wojcik, who is our chief software architect, and Brenna Harwell, who is my chief of staff.

I would like to see companies promote more women to leading traditionally male-dominated divisions like engineering. I look forward to attending future tech events where more women are in attendance.

Xin: Entrepreneurs are surely leaders of society. They should take more responsibility for promoting a more equal, peaceful and green society. However, I am just worried about the Chinese education system.

Teachers today hold very different values compared with our teachers when I was a child. If so, how can students learn the right values? The key thing education should do is to let people know what is really rich, both materially and spiritually. I would like to see more entrepreneurs in the future, not only businessmen.

Gomez: There is a big concern I have about the use of the word entrepreneurship.

It is the hot trending topic now, but a lot of people are prostituting the word. Many people believe that entrepreneurship is just a new career, that just by starting something you will become an entrepreneur.

But if you are not careful with that and how they use these words, it will make many people become frustrated when they do become entrepreneurs. They will realise that only very few people have started their own business and built it into a big corporation. You have to do it for passion.

Ma: I hope to see more entrepreneurs from around the world coming to set up businesses in Singapore. Then our youngsters can see what they are doing and learn from them and eventually start their own businesses.

PARTICIPANTS

Nanxi Liu is the CEO of Enplug, Inc, a Los Angeles company that has built the first real-time, interactive advertising platform for the physical world.

Daniel Gomez Iniguez is still working on his undergraduate degree, but the clean energy company he co-founded in Mexico had US$3 million in sales last year. Solben was founded in 2009, with a technology that allowed for automated, small-scale and modular production of high-quality fuel.

Michael Ma is the entrepreneur behind the Singapore-based IndoChine Group of Bars, Restaurants, Clubs, Villas and Resorts.

Xin Hao established the non-governmental organisation Green Zhejiang, which was the first environmental protection NGO in Zhejiang.

MODERATOR

Kan Kwok Leong


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