Returning to Bangkok University’s School of Entrepreneurship and Management (I can’t believe it’s already my second year being a guest lecturer for their MME program!), I wanted to stress the power of entrepreneurship through a session called “Through the lens of entrepreneurs”. I wanted this session to show the power of entrepreneurs that goes way beyond starting a new business or pursuing one’s passion. Entrepreneurs have the power to solve complex problems our society faces, turn their vision of what the world can be or what the world should be into a reality, and leave a positive and lasting impact on the world. When we see entrepreneurship in a new light, the way we approach it is different. Entrepreneurship is no longer simply an end in and of itself (i.e. having your own venture), but a means to an end (i.e. using your venture as an approach to solve a big problem, create a new reality, and leave a unique mark in the world).
I asked my students to brainstorm as a class and name all the big persistent problems we face. By “big persistent problems”, I meant problems that keep us up at night, get us worried about the future of our planet, our own lives, our children’s or grandchildren’s lives, frustrate us on a very deep level (not just the fact that the ice cubes in our iced coffee all melt within the first 3 minutes in Bangkok’s unbearable heat!), or seem unsolvable. We got a long list of problems, most of which are interconnected and interdependent, such as climate change, the frequency and impact of natural disasters, wealth gaps in developing countries, corruption, access to and quality of education, waste, water sanitation, and gender equality. While these really big and complex problems seemed distant at first glance, the more we looked into them, the more we realized how closely they were linked to many aspects of our lives. I asked my students to dive deeper into the problems they identified. They then realized that these seemingly distant problems were in fact very relevant to them. For example, corruption permeates all levels of society, from communities, schools, and small businesses all the way to industry-wide or even nationwide. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor is apparent even in the Netflix series, pop music, soap operas or blockbuster movies we consume. With the rapid rate of urbanization, crime rates also increase and mobility becomes an urgent yet persistent issue to solve.
Once we got the big problems listed, I asked my students to divide themselves into teams. Each team was responsible for a big problem. Within each problem team, the students had to envision a better future or a new reality for the problem at hand. What does the future they want to create look like? I told my students that solving big, complex, and persistent problems is like trying to grow a tree or rescue a yellowing dying tree. We have to break down the big tree in front of us into parts. What makes a tree grow into a big, green, and healthy tree we want to see? Of course, we can break down the tree into parts: water (e.g. how much? Source of water?), soil (how dense? How permeable? Need fertilizers?), technology (e.g. how can technology help us to grow a tree? Maybe to control the temperature or the water intake? Maybe to shield the moisture?), weather conditions, and the list goes on. The same goes for the problems my students and I listed on the board. We can break down each big problem into smaller design challenges to tackle. Education, for example, can be broken down into much more manageable parts, such as the design and use of space of a classroom, teachers, students, parents, content, online learning, time management, and so on. Once we have broken down the big problem into smaller design challenges, we can then focus on each challenge at a time. Even when team members worked on different design challenges, they shared the same end goal. In this case, for example, the end goal was how to improve the quality of education for our youth. Each design challenge can start with a core question, such as “how can parents help to improve the quality of education for children while children are on school breaks or at home?” or “how can online learning support or complement physically going to school?”
When the students regrouped with their teams, they realized each of their ideas contributed to the big solution to the big problem they started with. They also realized there were many answers to the same problem. There were also many equations that led to the same outcome. This is the fun part of entrepreneurship. It is problem solving through design (human-centered design) and through business. It is about starting something that matters. It is about solving a problem in a systematic manner but through creative, innovative or—even better—unconventional approaches. A classic design challenge, mobility, can be solved through many creative approaches. For example, carpooling, drone, working from home or from anywhere at any time (so we don’t have to spend the long stressful hours getting stuck in Bangkok’s traffic, which not only kill our time but also kill our productivity and damage our souls), changing working hours to avoid rush hours, and so on. But, as I mentioned, before we get creative with our approaches, we should start by breaking down the problem at hand. Mobility is a big problem. What does mobility mean? Mobility means being able to move freely and easily. How can we move freely and easily? So many ways! When we don’t have to get stuck in traffic, when we don’t own anything (so we don’t have to find parking, wash/clean our cars, lock our bikes, etc.), when we can work from home or anywhere, when we live near all the places and people we need in our lives, and so on.
In conclusion, the session was so much fun. The students ended up with so many cool ideas after they tried out this new way of breaking down big and seemingly unsolvable problems into small design challenges. By the end of the session, we got “a B2B database storing survey responses of what activities school children at different ages prefer” as a possible solution for the big problem of improving the quality children’s education, “a built-in application in cars that helps women driving long distances alone locate clean and safe bathrooms and gas stations” to address persistent safety issues women face, “a vending machine that rewards customers who bring back used plastic water bottles by giving discounts and sells used plastic to creative artists or designers who can add value to used plastic” to help the planet to reduce waste, and “a platform that features anonymous portfolios and skills to help capable job candidates or aspiring entrepreneurs with great ideas and unique skills that may not have gone to big-name schools to get a job or funding” to distribute opportunities to more people in our society regardless of their less fortunate backgrounds. I am meeting this group of students again in May next year, and I look forward to coming back here to share even more stories!