I just finished the semester at USC and for one of my graduate courses, Technology Commercialization, the students, who come from science, engineering, fine arts, psychology, and business, have to write a reflection paper of about 4,500 words on the insights they gained and novel connections they made across all the various activities and requirements of the course. This is always an eye-opening experience for me because I discovered long ago that students are frequently learning things you never thought you were teaching!
Most of the students excel when they’re free to approach an assignment in their own unique style, but often international students are challenged because 1) they’re not used to writing expository type papers and 2) they’re not used to thinking systemically or holistically about what they learned in a course. That’s why one student stood out. Scott (his chosen Americanized name) is a computer science-educated, harmonica playing Chinese man who had spent a number of years as a software engineer in a Fortune 500 company and then led a sales team at Dell; and just before starting his MBA, he was a business unit director for a B2B startup.
The assignment posed the situation that he imagine himself five years out and an opportunity to commercialize a technology presents itself. What would he need to remember to successfully commercialize it? This intrepid student surprised me. He was particularly enthusiastic about two lessons that are not typically associated with the Chinese culture: failure as an option and the notion of protecting intellectual property.
On failure, he was very impressed by the inventors and creative entrepreneurs he met in the class who had failed many times but still considered failure a badge of courage. After all, failure could be turned into an option to learn. What a concept to someone whose culture does not exactly encourage the type of risk that might result in failure. Scott also liked the idea of finding a muse to spark his creativity; in fact, he fell in love with the whole idea of creativity—not everything you created had to have a purpose. Einstein’s muse was his violin, and Scott has his harmonica (which, he claims–and so do his neighbors- he doesn’t play very well)—that was very comforting to him.
He struggled initially with the idea of intellectual property. “Considering…the popular Linux, the recent Wikipedia, and the current hot mobile platform Android, open source is a trend…I believe that with more and more…people involved in this open-source revolution, one day there will be a totally transparent environment [where] every people shares his/her idea without selfishness.” Well, that comment in a class full of capitalists certainly stirred some conversation. Scott continued to think about this issue all semester long, debating its merits with Chinese and American friends. By the end of the semester he had concluded that perhaps “many people use the communist world idea as an excuse to do illegal business…too much abuse of illegal [copying[ not only destroyed the normal value chain for global business, but also disturbed Chinese…innovation and reforms.”
When he finishes his MBA program next year, Scott will return to China where he hopes to help the local people respect intellectual property. “I hope that one day Chinese innovators can use their action to change the mark ‘Made in China’ into ‘Created in China” and gain the respect from the world,” he proclaims. I hope he does just that because with more people like Scott doing business, the world will be in good hands.