Entrepreneurship and innovation were not historically an integral part of China-based MBA program curricula. In the early days of economic reform, domestic business programs focused on teaching students the international standards of finance, accounting, economics and operations modeling needed to make China’s state sector more efficient. They also helped the country’s rising business leaders make connections inevitably needed over the course of a career.
However, as business becomes more competitive and even state-owned collossi are forced to battle for market share, top China MBA programs have turned their focus away from hard-number skill sets toward teaching students how to start companies (or new ventures within existing firms) and how to think out of the box.
Of the two subjects, the first is far easier to teach. China is full of successful entrepreneurs, but most of them did not get rich on product or service innovation; they relied on connections and an ability to squeeze the last drop of revenue out of shriveling margins. "Currently in China the cost/benefit ratio is much more favorable for an imitative approach to entrepreneurship," said Teng Bingsheng, associate dean at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) in Beijing.
As a result, the entrepreneurial programs are both better defined and further advanced. At Shanghai’s Fudan University School of Management, for example, the MBA and EMBA programs both offer classes in entrepreneurship and venture capital.
Execution, not inspiration
Unlike "creativity," entrepreneurship is more about execution than inspiration. "Entrepreneurship is a general management field where you should coordinate elements of marketing, operations, human resources, financing, and strategy," said Pedro Nueno, president of China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).
He particularly preaches the value of case studies inspired by Chinese entrepreneurs. "With case studies, you learn through participation and interaction. Using cases of Chinese entrepreneurs helps a lot to come to the right combination of management knowledge in different fields."
CEIBS has developed direct offerings for students interested in entrepreneurship. In the third term of the MBA program, students can take an "Entrepreneurial Management" course, while the EMBA program offers courses in general entrepreneurship, venture capital and entrepreneurial management.
Outside the classroom, students can join an entrepreneurship club and take part in the school’s Social Entrepreneurship Business Competition, which tasks students with creating socially and environmentally friendly business models.
The CKGSB MBA program also offers a course in entrepreneurship. The syllabus includes classes on the personality traits of an entrepreneur, writing a credible business plan, and even how to value a company when looking for venture capital.
The focus is more on the practical management of a business – for the most part, EMBA students are already running going concerns.
"We have almost 500 EMBA students passing through the class every year, and roughly half are CEOs of their own companies. These EMBAs study at Cheung Kong for the network as well as the learning experience they didn’t have time to acquire when growing their businesses," said Heather Mowbray, global communications officer at CKGSB.
She pointed out that for the majority of these business leaders, the need to be entrepreneurial is understood, so teachers instead try to show them the importance of being innovative.
Although nearly all of the top China-based MBA and EMBA programs now offer specific courses in entrepreneurship, professors and deans say that they are also incorporating the intangibles of innovation into their other classes.
In addition, the very nature of Chinese pedagogy is changing at the graduate business school level. Whereas in grade school, high school, and even in undergraduate programs, students are traditionally lectured to and expected to recall the exact words of their professors on exams, some MBA programs are breaking away from the rote teaching model. Through case studies, which require analysis and debate, mandatory class discussion, and through open-ended projects like business plan competitions, Chinese students are for the first time learning to think critically and creatively, a necessary skill for the innovative entrepreneur.
"From Western business schools, we learned many good teaching methodologies. If we just had one-way lecturing, the students would be angry," said Yin Zhiwen, associate dean of Fudan University’s School of Management.
"We have been inviting Western professors to teach the entrepreneurship course to our students," said Cathy Du, assistant dean and director of academic affairs at Beijing International MBA at Peking University (BiMBA). Temporary imports include the director of the Entrepreneurship Center of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School Business who teaches the skills required in starting a business. "But since we are an MBA program run in China, we have been emphasizing the adaption of the Western entrepreneurship experience into the Chinese context," Du added.
Still, the "Chinese context" is – as always – a significant caveat. Practically speaking, it can mean teaching students how to adapt Western products and services to the Chinese market, which is not, perhaps, what many Westerners think of as innovation.
"Innovation is not just about a novel business idea itself, but is also about localizing an existing idea into the Chinese market. Chinese consumer behavior is very different from Western countries. So, if you want to develop your own business in China, you have to understand the local market," argued Yin of Fudan.
However, while teaching entrepreneurship is helpful (although it’s worth pointing out that many famous entrepreneurs never took a course in entrepreneurship) teaching Western-style innovation may be premature. The market realities of China still hold graduates back from starting novel and risky companies, particularly those producing hard-to-protect intellectual property.
One business educator who wished to remain anonymous said the majority of Chinese MBA school entrepreneurs get their start by pirating processes, IP or products from their first or second employer.
None of the business education programs interviewed for this article said that many of their Chinese students were particularly interested in attaining skills in entrepreneurship or learning to be more innovative through their MBA education. Instead, students largely hope to attain the general business skills needed to get better jobs within corporations and to network with peers – much like most of their foreign counterparts.
Even so, the skills and attitudes these students do learn in their MBA programs are changing the way China’s future business leaders think. In the long run, educators and policy-makers alike hope improving creative thinking skills will produce a new generation of dynamic, innovative Chinese companies.
"An MBA education opens up students’ minds and makes them better thinkers," said Teng of CKGSB. "The presence of MBAs has already begun to make China’s business environment more innovative."