Mark Zuckerberg finally graduates — 12 years after quitting Harvard. Picture courtesy of AP

THE global economic slowdown has exacerbated an alarming rate of unemployment among fresh graduates. Recognising the impact of this climate, the Ministry of Higher Education launched the first phase of Higher Education Institution Entrepreneur Strategic Plan 2013-2015 to create more self-employment and reduce dependence on the government.

Changes trickled in agonisingly slow at first, but now the plan has spawned a host of new economic activity in institutions of higher education.

The Ministry of Higher Education saw the explosion of small-scale entrepreneurship as a stepping stone to launch the second phase of HEI Entrepreneur Action Plan 2016-2020. The culture of entrepreneurship is further strengthened through a giant government-backed national enterprise campaign organised by the Companies Commission of Malaysia/ Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia by giving out free company registrations to all tertiary education students.

The growing demand for entrepreneurship programmes is also contributed by the stress on the millennial generation to take an entrepreneurial approach to their job hunt.

It’s really a diverse time in entrepreneurship, with almost every university having its own enterprise society or entrepreneurship centre. So it isn’t uncommon to see a landscape of jostling enterprising activities selling knick-knacks to printing services in the event of celebrating national entrepreneurship.

There are no real entrepreneurship boundaries, so it’s pretty easy to encourage student entrepreneurs to establish their own business and make the unemployment figures appear better.

But in the face of all the excitement around creating businesses, how many “Mark Zuckerbergs” are universities turning out?

The government reckons that discovering the next Mark Zuckerberg could really help to boost the economy. Are we even getting close to that?

A majority of the local universities surveyed by the Higher Education Ministry across the country said they only managed to engage about 2.5 per cent of their students to set up their own enterprise while still studying. Nevertheless, the numbers of graduates starting businesses after graduation improved to 3.2 per cent.

In reality, a lot of our students are setting up their businesses as a means out of destitution of their lives, and into the success they fantasise about. So, does setting up businesses provide a guarantee in solving the problem? Is that a route to success? It’s not as straightforward as one might think.

Walking in line with the government’s vision to jack up employment and to change the mindset of our graduates via entrepreneurship could be the students’ refuge, but crawling from the space of establishment to sustainability of business leaves many of them in agony.

How many programmes do we have that are likely to get to the bottom of the issues of sustainability?

To see how this might be possible, we need to approach it from another dimension. It is very much similar to capturing images. Often, a slight change in viewpoint or angle can completely transform your photo.

The book “How To Be a Billionaire” is another magic wand for these aspiring enterpreneurs. Many put their hopes sky high in getting the first million overnight simply by reading the book.

Well-known entrepreneurs also throw prestigious and glamourous events that constantly pull crowds to social gatherings where they bring their “secrets” to light. But how many successful and sustainable entrepreneurs are created out of these approaches?

The existing entrepreneurial assistance or programmes offered by the university or government have helped projects get off the ground but they could move beyond money matters by offering them skills and strategies. The entrepreneurship education in Malaysia’s institutions of higher education is still finding its potential to grow new and contestable markets.

However, to tackle all of that we can’t let young people start businesses without proper guidance.

Stop tossing lifelines to them. Instead, equip them with life skills and strategies to battle for business survival.

Let’s pause and reflect on some of these ideas for students:

1.Ask for help to kickstart your ideas. Don’t break your bank. The universities can offer students space to rent on campus with a low rental. By providing kiosks or space and facilities at a low rent, combined with entrepreneurial advice, this strategy offers a way of starting up a business. It is basically offering an ecosystem of businesses for the new entrepreneurs.

2.Execute your big idea the moment you spot an opportunity. Majority of the trainers or even entrepreneurs believe that having an original idea is the ultimate key to thrive in business. However, research has shown otherwise because original ideas aren’t as important as execution. I’m not saying that innovation is not important, but competent entrepreneurs are exceptionally brilliant at transforming little changes to existing ideas.

3.Start up the business as soon as you graduate or before graduating because you are very likely to live at your family home where financial responsibility are contributed mostly by family members. So the stakes are lower.

4.Run as little risk as possible by putting very minimal investment, and try to be independent of financial assistance wherever possible. Equip yourself with much-needed skills even as clear-cut as managing their finances. Young people need this awareness before they place everything they own as collateral to establish their businesses. Remember you might have study loans to pay off. So avoid staggering debts.

5.Scout for a mentor whom you feel comfortable to talk through your challenges, to get some pointers and even to vent your frustrations. It’s not all about profit making. Baring hopes and fears as well as opening up about your own insecurities to your mentor can contribute to your emotional confidence. As Spencer Rascoff, the CEO of Zillow once mentioned in his commencement top speech in LinkedIn Influencers’ programme: “You want to be able to ask stupid questions without worrying about looking stupid”. This is to say the advice can come from anyone. He does not have to be Tony Fernandes because not all business strategies and ideas suit us. So choose your mentor wisely.

6.Be a great believer of “Rules aren’t set in stone”. You don’t need to take the usual route. This means you do not follow the crowd. Instead do things uniquely to set you apart from the rest of the pack. You will do fine as long as the product is desirable by the market and there is a demand. Truthfully, you can run and establish any business idea there is, but remember there must be a demand for it. You may start a business that appears bizarre at this point, but it won’t be in three years’ time. You just need to think creatively about how to work around the business.

If the aim of entrepreneurship for good is to create employment in the country as well as to enhance good characters amongst the youngsters by supporting entrepreneurial programmes, we must set out our plan to aid long-term businesses’ sustainability. We must not expect to be taught to be successful. We need to approach it actively.

Nurlisa Loke Abdullah is the deputy director of Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka’s Centre of Entrepreneurship, Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Industry and Community). Email her at education@nst.com.my

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