Business school is supposed to be a time when it’s acceptable to start over. Being at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of my fellow classmates were from abroad. Among the Brazilians, Chileans, Bulgarians, Israelis and Russians, I found a fair share of Asian students too—hailing from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and mainland China. However, the conversations with my fellow Asian classmates reflected slightly more than just the desire for a good education. Particularly those who were looking to business school with a more entrepreneurial eye, Booth meant more than just a degree—it was an opportunity to break out of the mold, take some risks and grab those opportunities that simply didn’t exist back in Asia.
However, this sentiment struck me as slightly odd. How could Asia be considered as stifling?! It’s growing at an unprecedented pace, making leaps forward in terms of infrastructure and is home to some of the biggest brand names in technology (as well as some very similar companies that mirror the likes of eBay, Google and YouTube here in the states). To get to the bottom of the disparity between culture perception and reality, I interviewed a classmate of mine on his thoughts of the potential cultural shift that is occurring. Although he did not wish to divulge his name, I can say that AC grew up in Taiwan and came to the states for his undergraduate degree. Since graduating, he has worked in consulting until starting at Booth as a member of the class of 2014. He currently hopes to begin a retail startup in Chicago while simultaneously recruiting for opportunities in investment management.
I believe that this conversation is indicative. It is simultaneously a call to arms and a narrated dialogue that encapsulates the coming-of-age of a country by an example of the type of person that is contributing to its development. More than anything, this conversation inspired me, scared me and made me anxious to see what will happen next.
TS: So, help me out here. Asia in general, but Taiwan and China in particular, is growing at an unprecedented pace. I assume that this growth results in many new opportunities, however, I simultaneously see a lot of our classmates saying almost the opposite thing is happening. What are your reactions to this?
AC: I really believe that it starts with education. The education system there is good when you’re young. You learn a lot of things and you do well, especially when it comes to math. But why do people decide to come here? I really believe that the education [there] doesn’t really prepare you for a career… it just allows you to do well in school.
TS: Can you expand on that?
AC: The system currently requires an entrance exam. After which, you are allowed to put your rank and your desired majors per each school for our version of college. If you don’t do well on these entrance exams, you have very little control over where you go and what you end up studying…sometimes just because your parents say so.
TS: Why do you think there is this disconnect between what students want to study and what they end up studying? Beyond just the limitations of testing, is there something else that would make students want to come to the U.S.?
AC: I believe that a lot of people put a lot of emphasis on education. [Parents] would save money for their kids to study abroad because they strongly believe in the idea of “after college, going to the US is the best thing to do”. I believe the flight though is two-fold—American education does give you a lot of opportunity, and it allows you to expand your horizons in terms of career choices. But another part is that you want to have the choice of “I want to do something that I want to do”.
TS: How do you think that affects the job market and career opportunities for youths in Asia?
AC: Here, if you tell people about consulting or i-banking or something you don’t really need to explain what you do. But there, people don’t understand what you do. It’s a very weird thing, all the information is online but no one knows it. They really don’t see these types of jobs there, and don’t understand that it’s a viable option, even though it pays very well and it’s an interesting job to do. It’s just that no one knows what it is. The industries are very limited. Personally, I don’t think I would ever go back to Taiwan because there are so many things that, if you want to do really well, you can’t. There are only a few things you can do that would be considered “really good”. There’s not much there for example, in automotive, space or energy, so it really limits the people who want to think outside of the box and take a risk.
TS: Can you tell me a little bit more about the start-up opportunities there? How do you think this approach to education and careers affects the “start-up culture”?
AC: I will speak for Taiwan, since that’s where I have the most experience. Kids in Taiwan are good at coming up with good ideas and going to competitions and getting into national newspapers for winning. However, there isn’t that many cool “innovative” ideas when you graduate and go to work. There is a serious lack of [an] entrepreneurial environment. The stories that you hear, of where people drop out of college (like Bill Gates) and make a big company, that wouldn’t happen, because they are so focused on education that they forsake the abilities for their kids to be entrepreneurial. In Taiwan if you want to do well in semiconductor-related stuff, that’s pretty much all you can do if you want to do well. It’s not about innovation… or design work, it’s about doing work for Apple and other big companies…following a spec. Success isn’t measured on how well you do in terms of independent thinking, it’s measured on whether you have a good degree, if you have a good-paying job.
TS: Do you see this changing?
AC: I think our generation is going to be very interesting since we have so much information [like the internet] that we didn’t have before…I think it’ll really push what people think is opportunity, and make them realize what they want to pursue. I’m interested to see how our generation educates the next education as they deal (sometimes) with the regret that they have about being forced into certain occupations or life paths.
TS: How do you think these changes will impact the future?
AC: I feel like our generation has the opportunity to [change the “typical” expectations of youth]. I feel like we’ll be more willing to let our kids take risks. You can’t always hold the kids’ hands. Sometimes it’s the best way, but it doesn’t work always. I’m very curious to see what will happen in the next few years. I strongly believe that people who see China as an opportunity, people who come to the states, they might get educated and go back. It will be interesting.
TS: And what about you? Any plans?
AC: I think that our generation will start something new. I am interested in potentially pursuing a startup, and if it makes it big or no matter what success I find… I hope that I can bring that home. It’s important that we do that—to show the younger kids that these things are possible—that’s just something that they’re not getting right now. I think it’s changing though.
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