Building an entrepreneurial mindset from childhood: Helping BMA Students become Self-Sufficient

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration or BMA, the governing body for the city, has over 428 schools under its management, with up to 15,000 teachers and 350,000 students. BMA is responsible for providing health and human services.  For education, this includes daycare center, primary and secondary schools, adult schools, community colleges and one university.

“Entrepreneurship, financial literacy and citizenship are the core life-skills that these students need”

For the primary and secondary schools, they are run separately to those under the authority of the ministry of education, and often serve the poorest communities. The children who attend the schools are in economic difficulty so they often unlikely make it to higher education.  They are expected to end up joining the blue-collar work base across the city.

The teachers work under difficult conditions due to the nature of students, and need to be creative to engage the students in teaching and learning, especially the fundamentals.  It is with some of these teachers and their students, most aged between 14 and 16, that we spent a Saturday, working with them to build an awareness of what might be possible. We did this as part of the Education & Skills Committee of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand, under the leadership of the Chairman, Professor Kongkiti Phusavat.

“Building self-confidence in these students is essential”

From our initial discussions, we decided that helping students understand entrepreneurship at this stage in their lives, could potentially open doors that they may not have access to otherwise. This entrepreneurship together with financial literacy and citizenship represents the life skills that individual students need.  Professor Kongkiti’s long experience with this group of students and teachers, made us realise that along with basic business tools, something really important that was required to help the students, was to build their self-confidence.

Another key aspect of engaging with this group was to not only teach the students, but to give their teachers the pedagogical tools that they could use to spread this knowledge across their schools. Because the students level of English was not strong, the professor and I worked together to deliver in both English and Thai.

“We used simple leadership development tools to help these students engage”

Over a period of five hours, we used some very common leadership development tools, including icebreakers and self-awareness techniques, to get the students to self-reflect and begin engaging with the own strengths as individuals and as groups. The energy and enthusiasm with which the students jumped into these activities was inspiring, and the visible increase in their confidence about how they could move forward was energising. Following this we got them to grapple with some simple business tools such as a SWOT Analysis.

One of the things that made this process easier than expected, is that most BMA schools have at least one item or product that they produce as part of their curriculum. In the group that we work with, this ranges from handmade soaps, to traditional scents based on cultural literature, and bags made from recycled material. This meant that they already had a base for a business, despite their lack of knowledge about how to move from producing something, to selling it profitably and sustainable. It was in this area that we were probably able to help most, as the tools that we shared, what useful for the students immediately, and at the same time help the teachers understand what was required to build additional capacity at their schools.

I have been invited to visit one of the schools that we worked with, and I look forward to that as the next step in a continuing journey of collaboration and development with the BMA.

Does Success Inevitably Breed Arrogance and should Founders Prepare Better for Leadership?

“leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Simon Senek.

There has been a lot of social media criticising the high-handed and dismissive tone taken by the Uber CEO in a recent video that went viral, and there have been some interesting articles that look beyond Mr Kalanick’s attitude in that exchange, to the very real issue of driver compensation and Uber’s business model. I would like to take a look somewhere in between, and consider what it is that allows someone like Mr Kalanick to intuitively feel like he has the right to behave like that with another human being.

“Founders have a disproportionate impact on company culture”

While Travis Kalanick is an extreme example of the culture, he is merely the sharp end of a rather unpleasant trend that seems prevalent in many of the founders and tech leaders in silicon valley and elsewhere. I am in two minds about the ultimate responsibility for organisational culture. I believe that employees who point blame upwards for bad behaviour are like soldiers who say “I was just following orders”, BUT the leader, and especially the founder of an organisation, does have a disproportionate impact on how things work in a company.

“the extreme competition in the start-up world pushes leaders to be aggressively confident”

In an environment where you have to be exceptional to succeed, and you have just over a 1% chance of becoming a unicorn (https://www.cbinsights.com/blog/unicorn-conversion-rate/), if you’re not truly confident of what you have to offer, you are very likely to be buried amidst the hundreds of other companies that never make it beyond start-up stage.

The problem is when this confidence in your product or service bleeds into your character and becomes a feeling of being personally special, better than others, more deserving, and therefore arrogant. The ease with which this happens may be due to a variety of factors. You may very well be intellectually, or technically gifted, which is what got you to where you are in the first place. However this does not give you the right to be any thing more than good at what you do, and many great intellects and inventors manage to be completely humbly and down to earth. Think Richard Branson or Warren Buffet.

“founders should prepare themselves more effectively for leadership”

From a mitigation perspective, it is important to see the context in which this sort of behaviour develops. Successful start-up founders are by definition really good at what they do, which is usually based on creativity, the ability to innovate, and technical expertise. This is all very useful when you are starting off and have a small group of like-minded people all focused on one thing and with similar mindsets. However once your company has grown beyond that initial core group and is now made up of several hundred or thousand staff, and potentially several million customers, the technical skills that got you to this point will not have not prepared you for what it means to be a leader at this level.

Mr Kalanick has promised to seek some guidance on his leadership style. As the founder of a start-up hoping to grow into the next Uber, it is probably better to prepare yourself for leadership more effectively than he did, so you do not get caught out the way he has, and end up affecting not only your own reputation, and that of your company. After all, who wants to give money to an A*****, either as an investor or as a customer.

In my work with start-up founders and entrepreneurs as well as senior corporate executives, some of the key behavioural traits I focus on are empathy and humility. While you can learn the former behaviourally and to some extent act it, the latter quality has to come from within, and it is only through a process of self reflection, that one can achieve it.