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Birthing Entrepreneurs In A Groupthink
As the days of lifelong employment fade
away, an entrepreneurial generation emerges -- entrepreneur diplomas
by John Sorenson
Robert Tobin is excited. Three years ago, the professor of business
and commerce at Keio University founded the Change and Creativity
program. At the time, universities were still churning out salarymen
for the big companies and entrepreneurship was a little known
-- and somewhat threatening -- foreign concept. Things have changed.
"There's so much going on now," he says. "I get
thrilled every day."
Tobin, a giant of a man who seems to have spent a considerable
amount of time lifting heavy things, talks about his recent forays
into the Hokkaido hinterlands, where he found entrepreneurs engaged
in computers, software development, and winemaking, and to Kumamoto,
where entrepreneurs are "springing up in the farmland."
VCs call him weekly to help them find "good kids with new
Tobin started the program at Keio to help students understand
change and learn about their creativity. The major goal was to
encourage them to look at different career opportunities, including
entrepreneurship. With Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not
Taken" as inspiration, he designed exercises to help students
think differently, and arranged for them to meet some of Japan's
most successful entrepreneurs, including Softbank's Masayoshi
Son and Rakuten's Hiroshi Mikitani (who, he says, gave freely
of themselves and stayed as long as students wanted them to).
There's debate, of course, about whether entrepreneurship is
something that can, or should, be taught. "The best education
for entrepreneurs is the school of hard knocks," says Peter
Fuchs, director of the Risk Management Center, at SAS Institute
Japan. "It's not a subject that needs to be taught, it's
a job that needs to be done."
Perhaps, but more than 30 universities and colleges in Japan --
including Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka universities -- now have their
own venture-business laboratories, according to Kazue Muroi, recently
departed from the Pacific Rim Initiative of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science. Kyoto University, for example,
has a Venture Business Laboratory that, besides working as a liaison
between academia, industry, and government, offers seminars on
patents, entrepreneurship, and venture capital.
Students in these programs are encouraged to work as interns
at small venture firms, not just big companies. And some engineering
departments have begun offering classes on the patent system and
Graduates from these programs tend to be more open to information
sharing, says May Leong, director of Webgrrls International. "They're
more open, sharing," she says. "It's more like, 'Hey,
here's what I'm doing -- what are you doing? Or what can you do
that will fit into a plan that we can do together?' In today's
world, if you have a reputation for giving information, that's
"The kids use the club system," Tobin agrees. "There's
a whole network of entrepreneurs helping each other."
One thing that concerns Tobin is the traditional Japanese attitude
toward failure, an essential part of the entrepreneurial experience.
"We have to get people to look at failure in a different
way," he says. "And we have to encourage students and
help them deal with that issue of risk."
Leong thinks that Japanese society is changing its attitude toward
risk and entrepreneurship. "With more entrepreneurs striking
out and being successful, and the media covering this, people
are starting to be aware that this is a possibility for a career."
Big companies, in fact, are finding it increasingly difficult
to attract the best young minds, who are going to work for Silicon
Valley-type startups. Jun Saeki, a twenty-something who founded
d-plug, says he's heard that small-company salaries have now surpassed
those of large companies. "The word entrepreneurship is no
longer a minor one," he says. "Everybody knows it."
The overwhelming feeling in Japan today is one of positive expectation.
The country has endured 10 years of recession, and there's a feeling
of emergence, even blossoming. "VCs look at Japan as untapped
virgin territory," Tobin says. "I'm very optimistic
about the future.