21 September 2018
Cyberport CEO Herman Lam said startups should try to attract talents with their company vision. Photo: HKEJ
Cyberport CEO Herman Lam said startups should try to attract talents with their company vision. Photo: HKEJ

How to boost talent supply for Hong Kong startups

The lack of high-caliber talent has been blamed for the slow growth of entrepreneurship in Hong Kong.

And some scholars blame a flawed university education system for the talent shortage.

Au Yuk-fai, professor of the Center for Entrepreneurship of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said engineering courses in the university are not geared towards entrepreneurship. Students who want to design a mobile application, for example, have to learn how to do so by themselves.

“This knowledge is too new for most professors,” Au said.

“Cross-subject training is quite limited. For example, mainstream courses are designed to cater for big companies, organizations or academic institutions.

“However, entrepreneurs badly need cross-subject skills to fix issues, such as how to get water and telecommunication during a disaster. There is huge shortage of supply of such capability,” he said.

There are plenty of science and engineering talents in the market, but they may not fit the needs of startup firms.

Most university graduates believe it’s a good choice to join a big company.

“Engineers in Hong Kong are not interested in share options. How could startups compete with large, deep-pocketed companies?” Au said.

When recruiting talents, startups should play on the inherent passion of youth by sharing with them their vision of the future, he said.

After the 2000 dotcom bubble burst, IT-related subjects slipped out of favor. However, things have changed in recent years.

The university has to create the atmosphere to encourage students to find solutions by themselves and grasp the opportunity to start their own business.

In fact, some universities and organizations have already started projects for entrepreneurship.

Cyberport has launched Cyberport University Partnership Programme (CUPP), an elite pilot program with focus on financial technology. It is being undertaken in collaboration with the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Cyberport chief executive Herman Lam noted that both the United States and China face talent shortage, which is a key issue for startup firms.

“Hiring is always a big headache for entrepreneurs, as these companies may not offer highly competitive salaries,” Lam said.

“Entrepreneurs have to convince these talents with the company vision. That’s the key.”

As more startup firms emerge, the competition for talent has become fiercer. 

Cyberport has arranged internships for local university students at local startup firms.

It has also sponsored hackathons, events in which computer programmers and other IT practitioners engage in software and hardware development and collaborate intensively on software projects.

“These activities have gathered students who are interested in working for startup companies, and established a good platform for these companies to recruit,” Lam said.

The more mature the ecosystem of entrepreneurship, the more talents startup companies can attract.

“It takes at least 20 years to build such an ecosystem, the first decade being the dotcom era,” Au said.

“At that time, there was no mentor available to help a local company to tap into China or global markets.

“Now, we are in a new era. Hong Kong has many people who have a comprehensive experience in mainland market, and some local startups have been acquired by Silicon Valley investors. We’ve got many mentors to help startups now,” Au said.

Also, Hong Kong has good infrastructure for “metropolitan entrepreneurship”, which is similar to that of Singapore or London.

“Hong Kong is a financial center, logistics hub as well as a haven for gourmets,” he said.

“What Hong Kong does best is not ‘zero to one’, but from ‘one to five, five to ten’ — that is to improve something that already exists, and lower costs and expand the market.”

Mina Chan and Jeff Pao are co-writers of this article.

[Chinese version中文版]

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Chinese University professor Au Yuk-fai said engineering students who want to design an app have to learn how to do so by themselves. Photo: CUHK

Cyberport is digital cluster with over 600 community members. It is managed by Hong Kong Cyberport Management Co. Ltd., which is wholly owned by the Hong Kong government.

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