Get an education, some experience first, then start a business

  • Dropping out of university to start a business may not be the best approach anymore
  • University should educate students on the how-to of starting businesses


MaGIC CEO Dzuleira Abu Bakar (left) with Professor Jonathan Calof from the University of Ottawa

“WE CAN think of universities as being in the beginning of the innovation value chain in terms of research and training. Universities have also become the centre of developing innovation ecosystems and startups in terms of incubators within universities. We are very unique in that we can combine expertise across domains,” shared Professor Jonathan Calof, a professor of international business and strategy at the University of Ottawa.

He was speaking at a panel on “Startup Growth Strategy: Looking Beyond the Horizon” at the University of Malaya Industry and Community Engagement (UM ICE) forum on April 30 alongside newly-minted chief executive officer of Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC), Dzuleira Abu Bakar. The panel was moderated by Dr Ram Gopal Raj, the director of Fylix (UM Startup) and a lecturer at UM.

Kicking off the session, Ram asked the speakers their thoughts on university education – whether academia nurtures innovators or if those with fantastic business ideas should consider dropping out.

Calof’s response was pretty unexpected. “The point, however, is that they started in university. The reality is that you can argue that in the past that was true, but the complexity of the business environment today with how fast it moves and the need to combine different domains, that old stuff does not apply anymore.”

Adding on to this point, he also believes that university is the perfect setting to grow one’s contact base. “A strong network is important to develop and grow your business. Your university alumnus network actually is one of the best places to develop that.”

Dzuleira asserts that there is a disconnect between university education and preparing graduates to be business leaders. “I guess that just begs the question of whether the universities are doing what it takes to churn out entrepreneurs and talent. If we go by the idea that people can start businesses by dropping out of universities, that itself should be a push to change how universities operate.

“We have to move away from how universities think traditionally and how we look at education traditionally – the shift has to be there,” she emphasises, adding that MaGIC is in the space of capacity building.

“We’re somewhat an extension of university by providing ground-up training to help entrepreneurs start companies or accelerate existing businesses.”

Ideally, however, Dzuileira thinks it is a gap that university education should already be able to fill. “So when they come to us, they’re already equipped. We can just provide them the link to the greater network – the corporate sector, funding institutions, or getting them beyond the business building periphery.”

Within her extensive background of witnessing businesses grow, she likens it to holding a family together. “It’s a combination of multiple complex aspects which involve dealing with human capital and expansion.”

While many fresh graduates come out of university and are raring to go build their businesses, Dzuleira encourages a five-year period of learning how the market works. Newbies should work along with other business leaders and come to understand the entrepreneurial mindset.

“I’m a bit traditional in that sense, because we see a lot of university students starting up businesses and not being able to sustain them. They have very bright ideas but I think that must be accompanied or complemented by industry experience,” she explains.

In fact, once a business is founded, it should gain sufficient traction within a year or two. “If you do not have that after two years, then something is really wrong,” she says, suggesting that founders go down to the grassroots level to understand the problem. “Within the first year, a business should be generating revenue – that is a mark of business viability.”


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