An edited version of this commentary was first published in NVPC’s SALT, “Three Reasons Entrepreneurship Remains A Road Less Travelled“.
If one were to summarise Laurence Lien’s commentary (ST, Mar. 1) on the reasons for the perennial dearth of entrepreneurs in Singapore, it would be fear. Fear of the young to emerge from the comfortable status quo. And this fear might appear peculiar to outsiders, who have seen the government do its utmost in recent years to develop a constructive infrastructure and environment for entrepreneurship. Yet individuals are simply not taking the bait.
I should be well-acquainted with these feelings of fear. How many times have I thought about striking out on my own, only to be overwhelmed by pragmatism and insecurity?
Mr. Lien made three related recommendations which I identified with. First, entrepreneurial motivation cannot be premised upon monetary and extrinsic gains per se. The proclamation that “[growth entrepreneurs] ought to study philosophy rather than business management” is not entirely accurate, and might rankle some, though the broader point is that one has to be driven to challenge convention. Speaking from experience not all the modules in the business school are going to be useful, but most do come in handy for different undertakings.
Although this process of independent innovation is not for everyone, it should be actively promoted as a viable option amidst the glitzy bank internships and management associate programmes that promise high returns and rapid career progression. It is about shifting from the antiquated mind-set that undergraduates are destined to be precise cogs in economic machineries, to one that encourages them to question the very construct of those machineries.
In other words, more must be willing to break the mould.
Second, I am motivated to do something different – to get clients for Model United Nations programmes and conferences, to potentially monetise an online news website (beyond the existing reliance on advertisements and dwindling user subscriptions) – but am I prepared to trek upon these unpopular paths? The pragmatist in me, emboldened by years of adherence to a designated route of advancement, screams no. Most of my peers in the university know that sticking to the script would earn them a stable life and career in the future, so why risk this luxury and certainty for something that may never materialise?
I suppose the compromise I have reached is to see entrepreneurial endeavours as a potential learning journey, to put what I have learnt thus far into practice. One step closer then, for what is youth good for it is not spent on exploration and discovery?
Third, and most importantly, it is that nagging fear of failure. Dealing with failures is a huge shortcoming for me, because I am my greatest critic. In Finland some observers have proclaimed that Nokia’s decline is “the best thing that ever happened to this country”, and the country is now home to Angry Birds-maker Rovio Entertainment and a comparatively large number of start-ups. It has been argued that the present boom in entrepreneurship has historical roots – with the establishment of Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation in 1983 – but as in Singapore failure is often stigmatised.
In response the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society organised a National Day for Failure in 2010, and the movement “envision[s] a new culture where people not only embrace and openly discuss failures, but also reward bravery despite failure and actively share lessons”.
Thinking about the aforementioned is tough, especially when one is always caught up in races: to complete the degree as soon as possible, to ace the next examination or assignment, and to outperform one’s counterparts consistently. Of course it is convenient – and I have been guilty too – to fault the rigid education system for stymieing creative and independent expression, and the government for not doing more for start-ups, yet individuals must be prepared to step up. I am still contemplating, though when it is time I know it is me who has to make the decision, and me who will shoulder the responsibilities for years to come.
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.