Reimagining the Entrepreneur

Chris Zaharia

How innovation is driving UTS’s next generation of business leaders.

Andrea Myles was a regular country girl from regional NSW. At the age of 23, she took her first ever overseas trip to China. Later, she enrolled in successive masters programs at UTS. Never once did she realise this sequence of events would transform her into an entrepreneur.

“Coming from a working class background I believed I had to get a real job, not create my own,” says Myles. “The culture of UTS was really different; really multicultural, egalitarian and the teaching was practically-based. You had to jump off the bridge and swim – it was not just stuffy, theoretical academia.”

After completing a psychology degree at another university she realised it wasn’t for her and enrolled at UTS in a Master of Arts majoring in International Studies, graduating in 2007. She then undertook a Master of Arts majoring in China Studies and International Management, graduating in 2011.

These two degrees equipped Myles to co-found the China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP) with four others, three of whom are also UTS alumni. CAMP links young Australian entrepreneurs and innovators with their China-based peers in a fast-paced business incubator. 

Over a period of nine weeks, 150 young business people (with male, female, Australian and Chinese demographics equally represented) build relationships with their counterparts and develop business ideas to change their communities while receiving mentoring from experts in the field.

This culminates in an intensive five days in Sydney where the young entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas face-to-face to venture capitalists, government agencies and corporate sponsors. In its first year, CAMP has spawned four bilateral businesses and 13 cross-cultural think tanks. In recognition of these achievements, Myles was awarded the 2015 Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award.

The New MBAe

After carefully taking onboard the experience of entrepreneurial graduates such as Myles, and considering what skills and tools other budding innovators actually need, the UTS Business School has launched Australia’s first entrepreneurially-focussed MBA – the MBAe.

The inaugural students began attending lectures in February. “A conventional business education program is about skills acquisition, teaching you how to do something,” says Associate Professor James Hutchin, UTS Business School’s Associate Dean, Business Practice and External Engagement, of the new degree.

“But when you talk about entrepreneurial education, it’s about teaching you how to be something. It’s about creating the conditions that allow entrepreneurship to emerge, while giving people the skills they need.”

Students can choose to undertake a full MBAe, divide it into three discrete graduate certificates in commercialisation, entrepreneurship and new venture funding. All students attend lectures in the inspiring Frank Gehry-designed UTS Business School in Ultimo, Australia’s start-up capital.

Hutchin says MBAe candidates will bring their own business idea to develop, test and launch under the guidance of academic experts and local and international industry mentors. They will also get opportunities to liaise with incubators and accelerators.

Design-led thinking

While she was at UTS, Myles says the university’s philosophy of design-led thinking, with its end user focus, had a deep impact on her and was a crucial component when she constructed the scaffolding for her business. Design-led thinking is also at the heart of UTS’s Innovation and Creative Intelligence Strategy, which underpins the new MBAe.

"When I was studying at UTS, even the Chinese language, I learned that it wasn’t just about speaking. Listening was just as important."

“When I was studying at UTS, even the Chinese language, I learned that it wasn’t just about speaking. Listening was just as important and I used that skill when I was strategising how to launch CAMP,” she recalls.

“I looked at the Chinese government’s five-year plan about how they want to work with countries like Australia. I talked to Chinese business people to see how we could work in synergy and parallel with their goals. I really didn’t want it only Australia focussed.”

Bosco Tan, a UTS MBA graduate from 2010, says that he also used design-led thinking when he and a friend from high school created Pocketbook in 2012, a personal finance and budgeting app.

“We really listened to the feedback from our early customers; what they liked, what they didn’t like and what else they needed,” he says. “We built up trust and, from that basis, we felt we had a solid product we were able to eventually grow to 5-6000 customers and then get external fundraising.” After three years on the market, Pocketbook now has 200,000 customers Australia-wide.

Tan initially enrolled in a UTS MBA straight after graduating from a combined Bachelor of Commerce and Science from another university. He says he needed the MBA because he landed a job at a start-up consultancy in internet security, but felt totally ill-equipped.

“I was supposed to talk to senior corporate executives about their strategy issues and I just didn’t have the confidence,” says Tan. “I felt I had a choice to go through the painstaking process of networking with them through their social pursuits like golfing, or do an MBA and quickly learn their language.”

Tan spent the next three years studying the MBA part-time at UTS while simultaneously continuing to work full-time. Within that time, he was able to hone his management and business skills to a point where he could discuss business issues as equals with CMOs, CFOs and CEOs of blue-chip clients.

"UTS made me feel that nothing was too hard. Even failure was not the worst that could happen because I had an MBA to fall back on and could get another job – that was my safety net!"

In fact, his MBA made him so confident that he left a secure job to plunge into Pocketbook –spending the next year working out the details of this new start-up in his business partner’s sitting room.

“UTS made me feel that nothing was too hard. Even failure was not the worst that could happen because I had an MBA to fall back on and could get another job – that was my safety net!” he says. The degree also equipped him with a business toolkit that can be applied to many situations.

UTS’s practical approach to teaching, and the fact that many of his lecturers were still immersed in their respective industries, was also an inspiration to Tan.

“My marketing professor had just come from a senior position as head of marketing in a big company. He had real-world stories that he shared with us – not just academic research – and that really gave me a lot of motivation,” Tan says.

“The uni preached work-ready and we really got down to doing stuff.”

Unlike Tan and Myles, Chris Zaharia, who graduated with a Bachelor of IT and Bachelor of Business from UTS in 2010, was not such an accidental entrepreneur.

“My parents ran their own business so I saw the appeal of it immediately,” he says.

Rather than his undergraduate course content, which Zaharia says was more focussed on large corporates rather than start-ups, the most useful activity he did on campus was joining UTS’s ACES (Australian Collaborative Entrepreneurial Society) where he networked with alumni business founders and was inspired by speakers such as Michael Cannon-Brooks, the co-founder of IT giant Atlassian.

Within six months of graduating, Zaharia co-founded Zookal with a fellow UTS alumnus and a current student, based on the Blockbuster Video model. Their company rents out university textbooks, initially to UTS students. It has since expanded throughout NSW and Victoria; and soon it is expected to expand into Singapore. Now with revenue of more than $1 million, they have attracted international investors and have a customer base of 40,000.

Zaharia’s achievements were recognised at the 2014 UTS Alumni Awards, click here to find out more.

The Chat with Chris Zaharia


Click here to listen to more chats with UTS Alumni.

Suggestions from the frontline

Now that these young alumni are succeeding in their start-ups, they have some constructive ideas for what UTS’s new MBAe students should look out for on their journey towards the business world.

“I would have liked to learn more about entrepreneurship in my business degree and how concepts apply to small businesses and start-ups in particular,” says Zaharia.

“There are unique issues at every stage of entrepreneurialism,” adds Tan, who’d like to see a focus on legal and regulatory basics. “Turning an idea into a product, finding first customers and seeking seed funding require a very different set of business skills.”

But above all, Zaharia suggests it’s important to be realistic about the business life cycle, and understanding “why companies fail, when it’s time to change products, or pivot to something else.”

Story by Melinda Ham
Photography by Kevin Cheung