‘Diversity’s an important value in business’

As one of six Dutch students participating in the 2010 Kauffman Global Scholars Program in the United States, MSc student, Mei Ling Tan, has just returned from a six-month journey of work and study at some of America’s and the world’s leading companies and universities.

Mei Ling Tan. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester/FMAX)
Mei Ling Tan. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester/FMAX)

As a Kauffman Global Scholar, Mei Ling Tan’s itinerary began with five intensive weeks of lectures at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, in Kansas City. This was followed by two weeks of lectures at Harvard Business School and MIT, where she also met leading east-coast entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, before flying west to Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. At a start-up job fair at Stanford University, Tan met the people behind Facebook, Mozilla and Twitter. “We also visited Google HQ to learn about open source business opportunities”, Tan (23) says. She then headed back to Boston for a two-month internship at Ernst & Young Venture Capital Advisory Group. Now back in Holland, Tan is starting her final MSc thesis work in Systems Engineering Policy Analysis and Management, specialization energy.

What was life like at the Kauffman Foundation?
“The program started at the ‘Kauffman Labs’, a fun, interactive workspace for business creation, which included smart boards, iPads, 3D printers and Playstations. Everyday we attended lectures or worked on our own business ideas. And teachers and entrepreneurs from across the US flew in to share their insights and help us with our business plans.”

What was the mix of fellow Kaufman scholars like?
“Scholars from Holland, Denmark, India, Singapore, China and Vietnam. All Master’s students or PhDs with backgrounds in technology or science and aspirations to start their own companies. There were also faculty members from various Indonesian universities.”

Any amusing clashes of cultures?
“Well, we were almost kicked out of Google because the Indonesians couldn’t stop taking pictures!”

Was there some common denominator that united you and your fellow scholars?
“We all shared a passion for creating new things and being more comfortable in risky environments than those in which people constantly tell you what to do.“

What university impressed you most?
“Stanford University is amazing. The campus is a combination of tropical island and ancient village. Walking around, I could totally imagine that so many creative business ideas started there. And the people are very cool, cruising around campus on their long-boards wearing flip-flops…. This is where the next generation of creative minds is being raised.”

Of the companies you visited, which did you like best?
“The coolest company was Pixar Animation Studios, where they’ve found a professional way to foster creativity. Illustrators and molders work together with programmers and animators. Employees are allowed to ‘pimp their own workspace’, which was hilarious. Some people worked in a Barbie house, others in a jungle.”

As an intern Ernst & Young Venture Capital, what were your responsibilities?
“I worked directly with my mentor, Bryan Pearce, who is Americas leader of the venture capital advisory group, and I was temporarily project manager of three initiatives, including a research project investigating the perspective of limited partners on the venture industry, which is a hot item nowadays, as some people say the venture model should change.”

“When I arrived I didn’t even understand what private equity meant, yet the same day I was having lunch with people from NasDaq! So I’ve learned how the financial industries work, but more importantly, I’ve grown on a personal level. Working next to a senior partner makes you aware of the importance of leadership and execution. To experience how to behave at business lunches and effectively make conference calls. Just seeing how a leader gets things done was extremely valuable.”

Did this experience change the way you think about entrepreneurship?
“I did change my definition of entrepreneurship: it’s not only the people who start their own companies; it’s all the people that start new movements by making a change. I don’t consider the founders of Google the sole entrepreneurs; rather, I believe the first 1,000 people who worked there had to be entrepreneurs to achieve this exponential growth.”

So the programme intensified your desire to be a future entrepreneur?
“Yes, but I’m no longer in a rush to start my own business. When I do it, I want to do it well. The programme made me very critical of business ideas and models.”

Did you return home with new business ideas?
“I decided my industry focus: smart grids - new generation intelligent electricity networks and electrical devices. I also came up with a new business idea: an online platform for digital artists to sell their art to business customers, which hopefully will be online soon.”

Is success measured differently in the US compared to Holland?
“In the US, successful people are celebrated; they become role models and everybody loves them. In Holland, successful people are often criticized for their shortcomings. This fundamental difference has a big impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Did you meet any female entrepreneurs during your travels?
“Female entrepreneurs are rare, but this will change soon. Christina Lampe Onnerud, founder of Boston Power, really inspired me. She passionately told her amazing story of how she moved from research into business in front of a crowd of old male bankers. It felt like she was just talking to her girlfriends, sharing all her securities and insecurities.”

Did the experience change the way you think about gender equality?
“What I’ve experienced is that diversity is an important value in the business community, and women are very welcome.”

Like Dorothy in Oz, what was your ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment in the States?
“Well, my ‘not-at-TU-Delft-anymore’ moment happened when my friend Katie took me to one of her classes at Harvard Business School. The course was called ‘Competing through social networks’. All the students had their own fixed spot, with big name tags in front of them. Before the teacher started, he deferred to Katie, who said: ‘I’d like to introduce you all to my friend Mei Ling who is visiting from the Netherlands’. Then everybody stood and clapped for me.”

Was there something you especially liked about the States?
“The most exciting difference was that I felt so much freer to move in the US. People there like curiosity and ambition; they don’t try narrowing you down, but rather try to open you up. They’ll go with you in your beliefs and thoughts, and try to help get you there.”