Can Asians Innovate in Business?

place-setting-comp1I’ve written a few posts here on the lack of Asian executives in American businesses. It’s been argued by some that Asians are just too reserved to be an executive. Others claim it’s because Asians don’t have an entrepreneurial or innovative spirit, and instead they only know how to copy good ideas, rather than come up with them. Randy Pollock, a former USC lecturer, just published a piece describing his experience with Chinese MBA students. Pollock challenged his students to come up with an innovative idea for a business. It could be any type of business and the most innovative would win a prize. He gave as an example a restaurant business. Six teams worked on this project and had two hours. 5 teams came back with restaurant proposals, and the sixth, a catering business proposal. None had wandered from the basic example Pollock gave, none had found their creative voice.

Pollock wrote in his piece as the final punch line:

Ultimately for China, becoming a major world innovator — and by extension, a robust economic power — is not just about setting up partnerships with top Western universities or roping off elites and telling them to think creatively. It’s about establishing an intellectually rich learning environment for young minds. It’s about harnessing the same inventive energy of the street markets and small-time entrepreneurs and putting it in the schools.

The Chinese don’t need expensive free-agent scientists. They need a new farm system — and about 10 million liberal arts professors.

As much as Pollock’s article stereotypes Chinese into one group, I hate to have to agree with him (at least for Chinese innovators). While not all Asians have a problem innovating, I think the Chinese have a particularly difficult time with the idea of being creative. It’s not part of the culture. We’re so ingrained with the idea of conforming and being respectful.

My own dad was the exception. Throughout his life and mine, he asked me not to go to work for a big corporation. He implored me over and over to come up with a good idea and start my own business. He didn’t care what that business was, so long as it was my own. On the other hand I was never very good at coming up with creative ideas for businesses, and instead usually found myself locked away in my own head writing poems and fictional short stories. I always viewed working as a means to end. I got a job to make money, so I’d have money to spend on the things I liked to do. Working wasn’t about working hard to start up a business as my dad wanted me to do. I was too American for my dad’s Chinese work hard ethic.

In the end, I did achieve some success in the business world working for big corporations, and my dad grudgingly gave me some level of respect, in acknowledging I had surpassed his achievements and was a good provider for my family, even if I didn’t run my own business.

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About Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.
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