Christmas in Taipei is a Commercial Affair (but there are so many ways to be happy)

Holidays in Taipei - Gift Exchange at EPL Steakhouse

“How to Talk to Girls.” Thanks, coz.

Taiwan’s biodiversity really stands out. An active volcano lives next door to Taipei. There are evergreen forests up and down the central spine, and tropical beaches in the south. Almost everything is represented here, including real pine trees, but there are no real Christmas trees. Nearly all of the Christmas trees you’ll see in Taipei are artificial.

Holidays in Taipei - Christmas tree in National Taiwan University's social sciences library

Christmas tree in National Taiwan University’s social sciences library. (The Swedish flag is a nice touch)

Is this surprising? When you spend the holidays in Taipei, fragments of Christmas are everywhere. A sure sign this holiday means something different to Taiwanese people than Westerners.

Western products are everywhere in Taiwan. But as expats know, this is different than having Western ideas. In other words — Western things isn’t the same as Western culture.

No one is putting a Santa hat on Confucius. Also, Christmas and Boxing Day aren’t national holidays. Taiwan is open for business on Christmas Day, and so are the schools.

This means there are no days off, like you might get in Hong Kong. Last year, I gave a final presentation for a MBA class on Christmas Eve day. As one of my classmates calls it, “Fake Christmas!” Yes, and not exactly.

At least there’s no pretending. Christmas in Taipei is a commercial affair. Treat yourself to something 88 折 (12% off).

Taiwanese Christmas Spirit

Disney's Frozen Carnival with Elsa at Taipei 101

A winter carnival in Xinyi for Disney’s ‘Frozen’ with Elsa (Credit: TripAdvisor)

Where’s all the Christmas spirit? Most people know what it looks like. New Taipei City annually transforms Banqiao into a winter wonderland. Taiwanese people generally aren’t as familiar with the customs because it’s not linked with Chinese culture — other than red being a lucky color. Locals don’t go around saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” to each other, because people generally keep to themselves. This doesn’t change during the holidays.

Map of Religions in Taiwan

Religions in Taiwan (Courtesy: Taiwanball)

Christmas in a lot of non-Judeo-Christian countries is already about the shopping. And Taiwan, as a nation, is mostly devoted to Buddhist and Daoist temples.

There’s a clear line between Santa Baby and Baby Buddha. Christmas just hasn’t been integrated into the folklore or the educational system, in spiritual ways. The people miss out on certain aspects of the western version. This means Christmas gets respect, but not the same respect. It’s accepted, differently.

Christmas Tree Singing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

For example, most Taiwanese don’t know stories like the ‘Gift of the Magi‘, or, ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas‘ — seen above. No one knows Cindy Lou Who but everyone’s heard of Elsa. You know. Elsa, from Disney’s Frozen. Partly, it’s generational. Mostly, ideas about Christmas are passed along through pop culture and commercialization.

This statement isn’t totally fair. Western companies like Coca-Cola set the example by commercializing Christmas a long time ago. The biggest difference is Christmas in Taiwan doesn’t come with the history or traditions that don’t have to do with buying things. And for a holiday that’s so deeply rooted in both, the rituals become more important than the expectations. Getting thru Christmas in Taipei is finding something you recognize from home, and holding onto it for a couple hours.

Surviving Christmas in Taipei as an Expat

Holidays in Taipei - One could also go to church for Christmas spirit

Grace Baptist Church in Taipei

The big adjustments for this American Christmas refugee were the sub-tropical weather (no snow) — but even more, the smells, and sounds.

Mulled wine. The roasts. Yes, even fruitcake, to some extent. You find that Starbucks plays a lot of Christmas music and that’s about it.

There are no volunteers ringing red kettles for the Salvation Army. Which ironically, is also a form of commercialism. Charity drives is an industry of its own in America (Taiwan is catching on, though).

But I’m not the spokesperson for America, or Christmas. People have their own ideas of what that is, and there are so many ways to celebrate Christmas in Taipei. These are a few of the rituals that became valuable to me.

  • Friends volunteer at The PACK Sanctuary, a shelter for rescue dogs, on Christmas Eve
  • My first-year MBA students put together a gift exchange through Elfster.com. They’re awesome.
  • Every year, I come up with a new holiday drink. 2017 featured a different take on the White Russian, with gin and almond milk.
  • To kick off the holiday season, we had a pot-luck supper at a friend’s bar
  • Some expats put on a Christmas cabaret production every year
  • Outdoor holiday bazaars, like Banqiao in New Taipei City. Taiwan definitely gets the shopping part right.
  • My friend does a Google Form to exchange real Christmas cards
  • Hosting a Christmas Eve get-together so no expat has to be alone
  • Saying thank you to people who are kind to you. Sometimes people are so practical that they forget gestures don’t have to have a value.
  • I’d like to rent a commercial kitchen – which there are a lot of – host an outing, and bake a few dozen kinds of Christmas cookies.

Next year, you’re invited.

Holiday Season 2017

Holidays in Taipei - “Drink Raki with flaming hot Cheetos, or else it’ll burn a hole in your stomach.” A night with new friends from National Chengchi University's IMBA program.

“Drink Raki with flaming hot Cheetos, or else it’ll burn a hole in your stomach.” A night with new friends from National Chengchi University’s IMBA program.

Holidays in Taipei - The Christmas tree in National Taiwan University's Student Activity Center

The Christmas tree in National Taiwan University’s Student Activity Center

Holidays in Taipei - My local "American" diner gets dressed up for the holidays

My local “American” diner dressing up for the holidays

Holidays in Taipei - Chocolate vodka - hot chocolate with vodka - being served at National Chengchi University's holiday bazaar

Chocolate vodka – hot chocolate with vodka – at National Chengchi University’s holiday bazaar

Holidays in Taipei - The new VP of Events for the MBA student council delivering pizzas to hardworking students in the lounge during the holiday season

The new VP of Events for the MBA student council delivering pizzas to hardworking students in the lounge during the holiday season

Holidays in Taipei - The Taipei 101 Christmas tree

The Taipei 101 Christmas tree

A Commercial Christmas in Taipei

Holidays in Taipei - How Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) does Christmas

How Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) does Christmas

Holidays in Taipei - Pose with Santa in a snow globe at Leeco Outlets

Pose with Santa in a snow globe at Leeco Outlets

Holidays in Taipei - Nothing says Christmas spirit like Microsoft Office for the holidays

Nothing says Christmas spirit like Microsoft Office for the holidays

Holidays in Taipei - McDonald's decorated their Christmas tree with empty apple pie boxes

McDonald’s decorates their Christmas tree with empty apple pie boxes

Holidays in Taipei - Wooloomooloo Cafe hangs ornaments from the ceiling to make a "tree"

Wooloomooloo Cafe hangs ornaments from the ceiling to make a “tree”

Holidays in Taipei - Heineken built a Christmas tree at 7-11 using neon light strips and Heineken bottles

Heineken’s Christmas tree at 7-11 using neon light strips and bottles

MBA Resolutions and New Years Goals for 2018. Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Beef Noodle Soup from Yongkang Street in Taipei

I hadn’t been thinking about New Years Resolutions when I sat for lunch with my Uncle Tom on New Years Day. But, I had been thinking about adjusting my MBA goals as I start my final semester. Let’s call them MBA resolutions.

Uncle Tom is who I go to for insight and practical advice, because he has a lot of international business experience in pharmaceuticals, a very complex industry. What he said to me was, “Phil, I’ve opened a hundred companies and hired thousands of people.”

“The most important thing is motivation, communication, and interpersonal relationships. Especially for MBA.”

I couldn’t tell if he was consoling me because my semester wasn’t going to end well. One of my goals was presenting a strong academic record in Asia to Asians. My semester was mostly a case of dmned if you do, fcked if you don’t. Some opportunities also fell through.

Fall 2017 Didn’t Go As Planned

I was admitted to Kyoto University’s dual-degree program, and then I wasn’t. The plan. Learn Japanese, take advanced electives, get my American CPA — Japan is the only place I can test for it in Asia. To be fair, my paperwork was late, but I had very short notice and was told it’d be okay. A lot of other people also want this opportunity, and I hope whoever goes has a great time!

Elsewhere, I ran out of resources, didn’t have time to process what was going on, and pushed through. I pushed myself and felt pushed to meet standards  beyond what we should do, and I knew it. Good things, and some firsts started, though. We learned what we’d need to do to make positive change happen.

Why is all this so challenging?

  • Busy people don’t have time to process, of course. But, they generally have jobs, which means money to make their lives run smoother.
  • Students have neither time or money. They have classwork.
  • Student council presidents aren’t really considered students. The stakeholder management is challenging.
    • If the school wants you to do something, you’re expected to. When you aren’t able to, some understand. Some say you’re uncooperative. The difference between can’t and won’t isn’t always understood. Maybe this is partly why I couldn’t go to Kyoto. Such is life! Balancing the breaks is part of the job.
    • When students need (or expect) you to do something and no one else is around to help, that’s just your duty.

Stress is a mental and physical condition. But the business world doesn’t like excuses. Fortunately, I’m back to being a student soon. Will being student council president help me get hired? In Uncle Tom’s words,

“Bring it up at the right time right place.”

MBA Resolutions: Motivation, Communication, Relationships

Taking the rest of Uncle Tom’s suggestions to heart, I came up with a few “MBA Resolutions” for 2018.

How MBAs Get Hired. Personal MBA Resolutions by Philip Chang.

I’m a MBA student. Of course I draw diagrams.

MBA Resolutions: Motivation

The Motivation to go deeper into the subjects I need to learn to be more competitive. MBA programs go broad. But to be useful, we need to be good at something so that we’re good for something. As far as MBA Resolutions go, this is a really good one for everybody.

Personally? I will strengthen my quantitative business science (QBS) skills, and continue studying Chinese. Our new QBS professor says, “I believe that if you have heart, you can learn most of it in a month.” We’re going to find out how much heart I have in 2018. And really, if you can reach native levels of 中文(Chinese), everything else is easy in comparison.

MBA Resolutions: Communication

Adjusting my English so people understand more than 80% of the words coming out of my mouth. People love American pop culture, and American English is taught here. But, during higher education, most people in Taiwan and Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong) end up with a form of Commonwealth English that’s spoken and interpreted differently. It creates a language soup that’s not clearly defined — outside of basic greetings and simple conversation.

This is a cultural tick people don’t pick up on until they move here. The phenomenon also isn’t well-represented on maps.

Global Map of Where Commonwealth and American English is Taught

An unscientific look at where Commonwealth and American English is taught. Blue is for British. Americans, we’re outnumbered. (Credit: MoverDB)

Some things I try to promote around this MBA program is empathy, understanding, and forgiveness. In part because of the translation involved when people speak with 1) different accents (native vs. foreign Chinese), or 2) different meanings (Commonwealth vs. American English).

People either just want to be heard, want the straightforward solution that’s hard to come by in a bureaucracy, or don’t want to change (like most adults). Understanding which of the three options are in play, is recognizing the culture and mental model — this might be more important than listening skills.

My senior is very careful not to weaponize his English with his Taiwanese girlfriend. Another tells me it’s a lot about code-switching. I agree. One person’s meaning vs. another’s understanding of that word or phrase.

Weaponizing a language means using words, on purpose, that non-native speakers won’t understand.”

Can’t vs. won’t, for example. What a difference a few words make!

MBA Resolutions: Interpersonal Relationships

Investing in getting to know the people who intrigue me. Now that I have fewer responsibilities flying around. Things minor or urgent emerging here and there. Wicked problems to contend with. I’ve actually met a lot of people. I just haven’t given myself the time to sit down and have a beer with them.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma speaking at a conference

I really just want to have a chance to meet this guy. (Courtesy: WSJ)

Also, my MBA program is going on its first study trip, to China, in April. We’re visiting Alibaba Group, Geely Automotive — which owns Volvo, and Zhejiang University’s Innovation Institute.

But the best part of this is going to be spending time with this crew in Hangzhou (locals, you’ve been warned).


“We’re going to find out how much heart I have in 2018.”


These people connect my MBA resolutions together and make this experience valuable! But now that I’m concluding my term as student council president, I’m looking forward to having more flexibility to fulfill my own goals in just one semester with what I value most — time.

GBC 2017 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, A Global Conference for MBA Student Leaders


“One of the speakers, Jeff Hoffman (founder of Priceline.com), said it best. ‘This conference is why people go to business school.'” – MIT


One of my MBA highlights was representing Taiwan at Graduate Business Conference (GBC), the only annual global conference for MBA student leadership. GBC 2017 was hosted by Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), a short 2-hour flight from Taipei. The first GBC was in 1983 at Columbia University. GBC 2018 will be hosted by Copenhagen Business School.

GBCers are elected student leaders, mostly from schools in the Graduate Business Forum. These are the top 50 top business schools in the world, now 70.

Each year’s GBC covers a theme around responsible leadership. What are some of the biggest issues in the world? How will they affect business? What are the roles we will have to play in solving them? How is the world we’re going to lead look like? Here’s what goes on at a typical GBC:

  • MBA student leaders sharing their challenges and successes, what’s working and what isn’t, bouncing ideas off one another.
  • Best practices for student government. How to work with administration, alumni relations, extracurricular activities, student discipline, academic affairs, budgeting, continuity, planning, career services, engagement, setting up new initiatives, etc.
  • Keynote and panel session speakers following that year’s theme. GBC 2017 was ‘Business 4 Good: The Ultimate Challenge.’
  • Networking with most of the top student leaders in the world

Business 4 Good: The Ultimate Challenge

For long, businesses have focused on profit and shareholder value as ultimate parameters of success. Instead, balancing a focus on profit with delivering positive impact to the world is believed to be the path to true prosperity. A complex challenge to innovate the status quo in business and economics today – maybe even the ultimate challenge!

Social business is that topic which comes up when we talk positive impact, and it’s often in the same sentence as startups. GBC 2017 speakers focused on how the new wave of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives is also changing corporate governance, board support, and what to pay attention to right now.

CSR Panel at GBC 2017, Hosted by CUHK

Not having a grasp on CSR is a bottleneck here. One speaker talked how in a recent divestiture, the other party required a CSR audit before the sale could be completed. Others talked how CSR is built into new business processes, so we are 1) meeting carbon emission standards. 2) It is integrated. And, 3) not done on an one-off basis. It’s designed into the way we look at and do business.

This means we’re going beyond community service, and into the vision set forth by The Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the United Nations’ Strategic Development Goals. It’s not altruism anymore, CSR is a cost of doing business. Depending on your views, this cost is also value for society.

Overall, it’s quite broad – fitting for a MBA crowd. Speakers included:

  • COSCO Shipping’s executive director
  • Tencent’s strategy director (WeChat)
  • Huawei’s corporate social responsibility head
  • Infosys Consulting partner
  • Head of IBM Cloud in Hong Kong

Also, that’s our OM Share Charging mentor and GBC keynote speaker at 2:04 in this video by CUHK. Meet Dr. Niven Huang, general manager of KPMG sustainability consulting, and one of my professors at National Chengchi University.

MBA Networking Insight from GBC 2017: People in Certain Positions Possess Certain Traits

You know, if there’s such a thing as an archetype of a MBA student leader, it’s here. As much as we talk about diversity, at the end of the day, people in certain positions tend to possess certain traits.

Here’s something Jim Deveau, founder of the Graduate Business Forum, pointed out in his closing remarks. GBCers relate to each other right away, before we start talking about what’s going on in our programs. It just takes a few minutes to meet someone who understands you, because we’re here for the same reasons.

Our programs also tend to follow certain paths, and maybe that’s partly because of accreditation guidelines. We also face many of the same pains. At a certain point, someone comes up with a fix. And because we know who each other are, we swallow the medicine.

My message to other MBA student leaders is, GBC is our people. I left with a stack of new connections — people I’d love to build something with. It’s these people who make GBC an incredible opportunity to test and talk out creative, constructive solutions.

The kind of student leader who attends Graduate Business Conference is someone who offers themselves to others in all realms, to improve the MBA experience. GBC is engaging, it’s thoughtful, it’s a capsule of the best a MBA has to offer. Come meet me, this March, in Copenhagen.

More Photos from GBC 2017 at CUHK

Keynote: "CSR and ESG Governance Matter for Asian Business Competitiveness" - Dr. Niven Huang

Keynote speech by Dr. Niven Huang from KPMG: “CSR and ESG Governance Matter for Asian Business Competitiveness”

Best Practices Workshop for MBA Student Government

One of several best practices workshops for MBA student government

Founder Jim Deveaux with Purdue University, Copenhagen Business School, and National Taiwan University. Carnegie Mellon and York University in the back.

Visiting with Dr. Steve Ahn, KAIST K-School Professor and Founder of Leadis Technology

Dr. Steve Ahn from KAIST K-School with National Taiwan University Global MBA students

Earlier this week, the NTU Garage – National Taiwan University’s startup incubator – hosted Dr. Steve Ahn, a professor from Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology. Just call it KAIST. Dr. Ahn gave a room full of MBA students a presentation titled, “My Journey from an Engineer to an Entrepreneur.”

Before KAIST, Steve Ahn founded a company delivering color LCD drivers for cell phones (amongst other innovations) and took the company public. At KAIST, he’s a leader of the K-School, their 1-year entrepreneurship program.

Even though he has an EMBA from INSEAD – Tsinghua University and teaches business school, he says he wouldn’t have done things any differently. Maybe that’s exactly why he’s teaching. I suppose when you’re someone who’s made the choices he has, it’s hard to question them, anyway. Besides, what’s the point of looking back? His connections do help get companies to bring their problems to K-School for students to solve. That’s a huge asset for any school that stakes a claim on innovation and entrepreneurship.

What I ended up learning from Steve Ahn was his attitude towards, well, everything. I say this because usually these presentations are too preachy, or self-serving. But Steve can balance humble and humble brag as well as anyone else I’ve met. Very matter of fact and open about what the process was like between leaving Samsung to start his own venture, Leadis Technology; taking the company public, and leaving it to take on his bucket list.

He’s basically the kind of professor that can talk you into KAIST K-School without saying much because he’s just the way he is. He also sounds more and more like the world’s most interesting man once you get to know how he spent his time, after selling his stake in Leadis.

  • Climbing mountains. Mt. Fuji, 20 times.
  • Moved to Beijing to learn Chinese at Tsinghua University
  • Cooking school in Spain and France
  • Spent a year as a winemaker in Melbourne, Australia
  • Built his own home on Jeju Island
  • Walked the Camino del Santiago in Spain
  • Returned to Europe to learn how to make his own furniture (see below)

不錯,不錯 (not bad, not bad)。

Lessons from Dr. Steve Ahn’s Journey

Korean companies tend to hire top talent from universities to innovate from within, instead of buying startups and companies — unless they’re in a field like artificial intelligence or dealing with Industry 4.0.

South Korea was able to get ahead of Japan in certain areas, because compared to Japan, there are fewer companies in Korea hiring the top talent. Also, a massive amount of resources, “do or die,” was put into it.

Getting investors isn’t necessarily more or less difficult in Asia, even though Leadis was headquartered in Silicon Valley. It depends on product-market fit.

You want your IPO to go quickly because the window of opportunity to get the most money may close quickly. I always felt this was important because the longer you wait, the more people speculate about your competitive position. Speculation decreases confidence, and less confidence cuts your valuation.

March-April is the best time to walk the Camino del Santiago. It gets too hot in the summers. Great, since I was thinking of doing it in April.

Before the Korean War, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea. More natural resources. What’s his point? The world can change quickly.

Dr. Steve Ahn at National Taiwan University

OM Share Charging Presents at TaiFu Association International Forum

Our team, with the founder and several leadership team members of TaiFu Association

Our team with the founder and leadership team members of TaiFu Association

A brief update on the OM Share Charging team since taking top prize at the Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability earlier this year. The annual competition is a national call for startup ideas that achieve United Nations Strategic Development Goals (UNSDG), hosted by National Chengchi University — one of Asia’s top business schools. After winning, our team visited Europe with the general manager of KPMG Taiwan’s sustainability consulting unit. I have stories and a treasure chest of photos I haven’t organized. In the meantime, 3/4 of us presented at TaiFu Association’s International Forum.

Philip Chang with microphone and clicker at TaiFu International Forum in Taiwan

Mic + clicker, weapons of my trade

TaiFu Association is the alumni association for the executive MBA (EMBA) programs of National Taiwan University (NTU) and Fudan University in Shanghai. The two EMBA programs have a partnership that sends students to each university. When you put together Taiwan and Fudan, you get TaiFu.

But why does the alumni association have to be a separate organization?

I’ll explain. To be an alumni association in Taiwan, its members must be in Taiwan. This means you’re out of luck if you’re a NTU or Fudan University EMBAer living in China.

The EMBA also has its own alumni association. But the reasons why a university keeps track of alumni are different from why its graduates get together. For example, fundraising vs. networking. Helping the school vs. helping each other. We should be doing both, and here, it’s served by different organizations.

Networking is one reason why presenting at the members-only International Forum is valuable. It’s a stage for startups and enterprises with a connection to TaiFu Association — a group of people helping each other, and Taiwan, develop international connections. TaiFu Association has actually become a wake-up call for Taiwan to build its global profile, through its relationships with diplomatic and economic development offices of other world powers.

For this, I thank Mr. Peter Lee, founder of iFoodbank, director of international affairs for TaiFu Association, and an alumni of my graduate program at National Taiwan University for bringing us in. We’re very grateful for the opportunity. Shyam, the man who fathered the idea, couldn’t be with us the day of the presentation. But we have voices and know how to use them.

The OM team described the problem we’re trying to solve, and why the platform business model we propose is compelling. Some key points:

OM Share Charging Logo

OM Share Charging. “Networked Power for the Next Billion.”

  • We use the platform to provide a practical and more environmentally-friendly solution to last-mile connectivity, through a novel distributed power system.
  • Unlike other technology-based transportation solutions (Tesla, Gogoro, etc.), ours benefits people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
  • We’re not a solution for the wealthy, and we’re not for all people. We believe we have the right solution for the right people.
  • Who are the right people? Those at the very ends of a public transportation system — the “last-mile.” It’s not a sexy idea, but creating something practical is more important for our audience.
  • We now have a certain smart city in mind for a pilot project. It enables the city to potentially claim the world’s first public transportation system to be powered by renewable energy.

This is vague, but accurate and probably all we’re ready to say right now. On a personal level, I am looking to create a system dynamics model for capacity planning. I know, I have weird hobbies. The objective is to anticipate and account for the effects of demand. Also, externalities, which are unexpected results on people who are not users. This leads to better business decisions and in our case, civic planning — because we are talking urban transportation infrastructure.

In system dynamics, no one at my university has active expertise or interest in exploring this area. In fairness, one can’t expect a university to have an expert in every single area. Right now, it comes out of my spare time. Or, I may need to come up with a fellowship at another university. Our journey continues…

More Photos from TaiFu Association International Forum

3/4 of the OM Share Charging startup team from National Taiwan University -- From left to right, From left to right, PhD candidate Tanmoy Kundu, MBA candidates Philip Chang and Brian Blankinship

Left to right from National Taiwan University, PhD candidate Tanmoy Kundu, MBA candidates Philip Chang and Brian Blankinship

MBA candidate Brian Blankinship from National Taiwan University, and the winning moment

MBA candidate Brian Blankinship and the winning moment

Group photo with other presenters at Taifu Association International Forum -- Tanmoy Kundu, Philip Chang, Brian Blankinship from the College of Management at National Taiwan University

Group photo with other presenters at Taifu Association International Forum

Why Get A MBA in Taiwan? Part 2 of 3: Dos and Don’ts of the Taiwan MBA

National Taiwan University Global MBA (GMBA) is an international Taiwan MBA program at the one of the top research universities in Greater China

National Taiwan University Global MBA (GMBA) is an international Taiwan MBA program at the one of the top research universities in Greater China

A MBA can be the best investment or worst decision for your career. The first thing a foreigner should know about getting a Taiwan MBA is there’s only one reason to do it. You plan on working with Asia.

Secondly, people here have different outputs for a Taiwan MBA than people in the West. In fact, most are operated as part-time programs with full-time students. Finally, many programs are still figuring out how to deliver an MBA experience. They’re lacking in areas that go beyond delivering core academics.

This is second in a three-part series. I’m writing this now because recruiting season is underway, so let’s Q&A. I’ve taken classes in Chinese and international MBA programs at two of the top schools in Taiwan. My comments are directed at the international or global MBA programs, which track more closely with western MBA programs in order to create a globalized student body.

  1. The business case for and against Taiwan
  2. Why you should and shouldn’t consider a MBA in Taiwan
  3. Why I decided to go for it, anyway

Before We Continue, the TLDR;

Do Maybe Don’t
Know What You Want From a Taiwan MBA Think of It As A Language Learning Opportunity Get a Taiwan MBA If You Won’t Use It In Asia
Manage Your Time and Make Time You Want to Write a Thesis Come to Discover Your Inner Passion
Embrace Your Core Classes Expect Asian Perspective
Have Your Own Strategy Believe Everything You’re Told
You Want to Change Careers
Expect Career Services

Don’t: Get a Taiwan MBA If You Won’t Use It In Asia

There’s nothing that keeps a Taiwan MBA graduate from getting a job anywhere else in the world. People just won’t know about your school. There are world class MBA programs everywhere else for the regions their students work in. And a lot of Asians getting degrees outside Asia. There’s a lot of competition.

For example, most people in the U.S. don’t know what’s special about St. Gallen, INSEAD, Mannheim, HHL, and other top European schools. They definitely won’t know Asia. Know who you’re marketing your degree to.

Also, Asian MBAs also tend to get a bad rap. In the Far East, having the diploma can be more important than the actual education, since a large portion of the opportunity structure is based on connections. Quality varies and you may have to do more work to compensate. The top schools have fixed their core curriculum, but holes remain.

Take mainland China. Let’s look at what’s going on with the crackdown on their EMBA program, the subject of a recent Financial Times article. There are cultural points for comparison, like how Chinese societies view education and its effects. Something similar can be said about Taiwan.

“I estimate that of  these 64 programmes (in China), perhaps only 15 are performing decently,” – Zou Yufeng, head of EMBA projects at Renmin University of China School of Business

So, only attend a top school, because most of them don’t meet the minimum standard. And put it to use it in the region where people recognize the brand of your school. Maybe for a Western company in Asia, or an Asian company in the West. Either way.

National Chengchi University established the first international MBA (IMBA) program in Taiwan. Courtesy: NCCU

Students from National Chengchi University (NCCU) visit Advantech, a global leader in Internet-of-Things devices (IOT). NCCU established the first international MBA (IMBA) program in Taiwan. (Courtesy: NCCU)

Do: Know What You Want From a Taiwan MBA

Here’s an important question. What do you want to do? A Taiwan MBA presents challenges that you may not have to deal with elsewhere. I’d ask myself:

  • Want to make new connections? You’ll have to invest time and money to bring people together. Many Taiwan MBA programs are small, with 40-60 new students each year. They are operated as part-time programs with full-time students, to recruit local executives. This means very little is done to help people network.
  • If you need the MBA to advance in your local job, great. Classic output. In Asia, some people use it as a credential for taking over a family business. These students may be less interested in networking because they already have their own group, and Chinese societies are made up of insider/outsider groups. For others, socializing (and not necessarily with classmates) is the biggest motivation.
  • Here to learn more language and culture? That’s something to pursue outside the MBA. Students tend to revert to their native tongue whenever they get a chance, so bring your knowledge of their language.
  • If you want international work experience, consider what it takes to get that. “Unlike 10 years ago, employers now don’t care much whether a candidate has studied abroad. Instead, they are more interested in those who have worked abroad or completed internships while studying abroad.” – Fu Yin, a senior headhunter

Regardless, set some goals of your own. Having a MBA is a differentiator, but it doesn’t do as much as it used to. This is especially true in Asia. If you’re on the outside looking in, you’ll distinguish yourself by what you set out to accomplish. How you achieved that.

“It’s crucial to know who you are and what you want.” – 25-year-old Sun Han

Life in Taiwan is pretty good, so a lot of people come here with the idea it’s going to be easy. But they eventually find out whether it’s about classes or not, it’s a challenge — because adjusting to a new environment can be overwhelming.

Define yourself based on why you are here, and do what you can to be true to that. You may have to revise them, but at least you’ll have a North Star. Being able to tell people what your goals are also makes you a lot more memorable when you’re introducing yourself to them.

Also, get this mindset fast. It’s going to happen because you’re going to make it happen. That’s how you find the resilience (or grit) to get what you want.

Don’t: Come to Discover Your Inner Passion

In the top schools, the professors typically have solid credentials. There’s real academic horsepower. Either they are visiting lecturers from other esteemed institutions, or professors with PhDs from prestigious universities. In my program at National Taiwan University, these schools include MIT, an adjunct lecturer who also teaches at Harvard, University of Southern California, University of Washington, and INSEAD.

Lesson Learned in China by U.S. Diplomat William Stanton

“Every U.S. President… Winds Up Toasting China in the End”

Professors are generally experts in concepts, but they’re mostly at the university to do research. Whether it inspires you might not be their goal. It’s still possible, but professors aren’t motivational speakers.

Schools sometimes have interesting guest lecturers, but is the university the only place you can see these people speak?

Here’s a more positive view. Taiwan MBA programs are much cheaper than MBA programs in the U.S., where I’m from. So you get access to professors with elite credentials at a discount price. How cool is that? Somewhere in that pool, somebody will give you a new way of looking at the world. But you also get what you pay for. Naturally.

Maybe: Think of It As A Language Learning Opportunity

I joke that I’m getting a degree in Chinese, with a MBA on the side. Learning any language is hard work, especially Chinese. Whether a class is taught in English or Chinese doesn’t really matter to me because people often speak Chinese to me anyway, and all slides in all classes are in English. Still, you should gauge how realistic it is to get fluent fast, or reach the next skill level.

Locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form… I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility. – Learning Mandarin Chinese is Hard

If learning Chinese is your priority, you might want to consider dedicating yourself to it for awhile. Chinese classes move fast, and assume you’re going to spend a lot of time outside class, practicing the material.

International MBA programs often advertise free Chinese classes for some period of time, usually a year. But, these classes have too many students, maybe 30-40, despite saying they only have 10-20 students (let this be a lesson). If you go to a language learning center, even at the university, these classes are capped around 8-10 students. That’s about right.

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard. Get it right.

Do: Manage Your Time and Make Time

Aside from taking MBA classes? Schools are generally short on specialized learning opportunities, social activities, career services, funds to go to conferences, opportunities to participate in competitions, which means you have to come up with your own. This goes for anything that has to do with applying what you’re learning while living or going to school in Taiwan.

I actually don’t know how this is possible, given that international MBA programs can cost up to 6x more than local MSc-style programs. My assumption, based on visiting Taiwan MBA programs in-person during the application period, was this situation was the exact opposite (another lesson). This means you need to be the type of person who can create their own opportunities. Program staff is often so busy dealing with internal affairs they may not have a point of view that comes from the outside-in.

Anyway. You can have all these things, but you need to be able to find them on your own — often, in Chinese. Incoming students should know this. If your’re looking for action, then you’ll have to provide the spark. Supporting your student councils will give you a better chance to access these opportunities.

Do: Embrace Your Core Classes

Core classes are meant to give you some direction for what you can do with your interests. Good Asian MBA (and top Taiwan MBA) programs deliver a solid core curriculum. The same core you get elsewhere, because it comes out of the same textbooks. It covers the basics of what you need to work with different functions of a business.

But, core classes are just core, they won’t make you experts in the field. It’s only the start. You’ll need more specialized education if you’re really interested in a particular area. Here’s where we run into some issues. You can get the basics of a MBA education here, but not really a MBA experience (one more lesson).

The key takeaway? Goal setting is most important. Taiwan MBA programs can enhance whatever existing credentials you have, but they won’t transform you into leaders or anything like that, unless you put in the work yourself.

Let This Be a Lesson. Don’t: Expect Asian Perspective

Why the red text? People don’t always say what they mean. A lot of programs advertise this to foreigners, but what they really mean by Asian perspective is:

  • You’re being taught by someone who is Asian
  • “There was a story in the news several years ago…”
  • You are in Asia now. Therefore, Asian perspective

It is generally not:

  • Learning methods and secrets of doing business in Asia. Things are rapidly changing here so it’s debatable how practical this information is.
  • Cultural how-tos, professional etiquette, opportunity structure, etc.
  • Asian case studies, those that are specific to the region. There actually aren’t many of these, period.

There’s no better place to learn these things than being here, but “here” is probably not inside the MBA program. It’s in the city you’re in, the people you introduce yourself to, and your own determination. It really is. Things that are observable are much easier to learn, a crucial factor in education. But sometimes visitors get it wrong if they don’t have the experience of living in a place.

Last summer, I met a student in a top American MBA program who insisted most people in China can’t read, and that’s why menus have  so many pictures. I had to correct them and say, those are actually just the menus they give to foreigners — who can’t read Chinese. Just one example of how people in the West will get the wrong idea of Asia.

Don’t: Believe Everything You’re Told

Tell the t_uth…

This entire bit about ‘Asian Perspective’ brings up another point. Getting people to be real is very difficult, partly because people want to save face.

In fact, the people writing this stuff may just be putting it out there because it sounds good. They don’t actually have some strategy or vision for making any of this happen other than to do things that resembles it, which is very un-MBA. They might not even really understand the meaning of what they write. But of course, they won’t fess up to that, because, face.

But it’s important to assume people are doing the best they can, with the time and knowledge they have. Assume good intentions. Or you will have a very difficult time trying to make sense out of nonsense.

Some of the things schools say they have lots of:

  • Scholarships. How many, how much, and for whom – foreign or domestic? Select countries? Need-based?
  • Resources. Name them, discuss how they’ve grown, and an example of how students use it.
  • Job Opportunities. What companies came to campus and which students in the program went to work for them as a result?

So, don’t just believe the sales pitch. People have a way of saying what they think you want to hear.  Anyone who’s done business in Asia can tell you that. This is not a Taiwan MBA thing. In one case I heard of, the school made up an alumni association (and the administrator who did it was asked to “resign”).

Also, Asian people generally don’t like to be directly challenged. But it’s your time and money, so you deserve an answer. Rather than entirely trust what you hear, or read on the internet, ask questions to a few different people. Talk to actual students in the program about how they make their time in the program work for their own goals. Ask them to share their strategies.

Do: Have Your Own Strategy

M.C. Escher diagrams the path of an entrepreneurial Taiwan MBA student

M.C. Escher diagrams the path of an entrepreneurial Taiwan MBA student

A lot of students, once-in, find themselves inside a box that they now have to solve their way out of in order to graduate, or protect their investment in time.

  • Some people let the small stuff stress them and they give up.
  • Or they clear the table, pick the option that sucks the least, and work with its flaws. This is actually very practical business experience.

It’s also why you see few strong testimonials. The people who succeed are thankful for their credentials, some of the people they met, see the potential of their programs, but credit themselves for their success.

Here’s the thing. If you don’t come in with goals, you may not find what you’re looking for. But when you go looking for something and don’t find it, you have to keep exploring. Find another way to get what you need, even if it’s not exactly what you want. This might mean you have to spend more time and money.

Don’t: You Want to Change Careers (Or Take Great Electives)

Most of the students I talk to in MBA programs around Asia say their core is okay, but electives are often off the mark. So taking electives might not be a solution. There are some great ones, for sure, but not enough to turn you from good to super in any particular area. You’d have to be a particularly motivated and resourceful person to get what you need.

It actually appears to be very difficult to deliver a decent core set. Quality electives and advanced coursework is a long way off for many programs, unless it’s the area they’ve chosen to make a name for themselves.

Last spring, I toured Europe with professors and students from National Chengchi University, who really invest in teaching sustainability across all levels. We visited company headquarters in Italy, Switzerland, France, and learned about leading sustainability practices. It was, an incredible experience.

That's our Bloomberg Terminal and you can't use it.

“Our Bloomberg Terminal and you can’t use it.” (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Another path is a specialized masters. Like a masters in finance. You can re-brand yourself with just a MBA, but don’t expect a Taiwan school to provide special resources for your quest. This may include a CPA club, or access to CFA Institute study materials.

For example. The masters in (XYZ department) people are busy taking care of their own professors and students. These departments manage themselves. In Taiwan, I’m told that being in these departments is like belonging to a small clan that has their own norms. They may even have their own databases and resources they don’t share with the school, because they paid for it themselves. Yes, same university, same college, but different clans. I mean, teams.

Don’t: Expect Career Services, Either

Unless your Chinese is tip-top, career services for local jobs don’t exist for international MBA students. First, these students are outliers to begin with. Career services serve the college at a broad level. But it’s not from lack-of-trying.

  • There aren’t enough foreign business students to justify creating a new function for them. Global MBA programs tend to be small, only half of which (20-30 seats) are foreign students.
  • Students’ backgrounds and skills are so diverse it’s hard to individually serve them. This is also true of schools in the West. Schools don’t have the know-how for doing this at a multi-cultural level. However, programs in Taiwan don’t seem to teach students how to be self-sufficient in this environment.
  • Finally, staffers may have difficulty having an in-depth conversation about students’ professional goals using English business terms. Similar to how business Chinese is a different skill level from conversational Chinese.

There’s not much help. In fact, because global MBA programs are more expensive than local programs, some professors will talk about how rich everyone in the class must be, and that they don’t need help. It’s a terrible joke in which you’re the punch line, and that’s all it is, a terrible joke. As most parents and professors know, kids succeed most when they learn how to help themselves.

Is all this wrong? No matter what, students expect more from a MBA program, in this regard. This is the way I look at it. People who are special know others may not or aren’t able to recognize this in them. Special talents must be able to use their unique abilities to get noticed.

Finding work opportunity for international MBA students in Taiwan is a team effort in which no one is quite sure how to be a team player. There’s good news, though. A new government initiative called Contact Taiwan helps find opportunities for international students in Taiwan. The fact that the government is needed to create this kind of service gives you an idea of how challenging it is.

Maybe: You Want to Write a Thesis

Writing a thesis (or in some cases, a substitute like a case study or business plan) is a requirement for graduate degrees in Taiwan. Putting out a good thesis can be an incredible asset. It shows how you think and what you’ve learned. It can also make up for other shortfalls.

But, you’re limited to how much time you will sink into this, and the expertise of the professors you can work with. Fact of life. It’s a big world and sometimes your school doesn’t have a professor who has the same interests.

NTU GMBA Professor: "I don't think that an MBA needs to write a thesis"

“I don’t think that an MBA needs to write a thesis”

Many professors might only be interested in writing a business plan or case study. Or that world-famous professor from another department is not interested.

There’s also a perception that students can’t write a solid thesis, because of the time it takes. It does take a lot of time.

From the perspective of someone who’s written a lot of business plans and case studies, you don’t need a MBA to do this. But, you can use your time in MBA to find business partners, ask professors, ask around the university, learn new things, while working on the plan. This is a big plus of being in school.

Summary: Pros and Cons of a Taiwan MBA

Pros

  • You need a regional credential. Something to boost what you already have.
  • The opportunity to network with and explore other areas of the business world, as a MBA student (on your own)
  • You want access to Western-educated professors. But, do not want to or cannot leave Taiwan.

Cons

  • You don’t know what you want. You are not the type of person who already knows how to create opportunity for themselves. This is where a culture of supporting each other becomes very important.
  • According to my own experience, few insights on doing business in Asia can be learned from the classroom. Cultural dimensions and financial management systems at the macro-level, for example.
  • Local career services for multi-lingual, non-native Chinese speakers

Three Things

  • What you get from a Taiwan MBA is up to you.
  • Be driven by your goals. Set some.
  • “Schools are generally short on specialized learning opportunities, social activities, career services, funds for you, opportunities to participate in competitions, which means you have to come up with your own. You can have all these things, but you need to be able to find them on your own.”

Taiwan Wants More Foreigners in its Universities. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth It?

Taiwan really wants to foreigners to come get a Taiwan college degree. The good news. Internationalizing Taiwan universities is a initiative led by the very top, and there’s already 110,000 international students in Taiwan.

“The world’s universities are competing fiercely to attract the best students. [We are] aiming to attract 150,000 students by 2020, that will account for 10% of the total college and university student population.” – past president Ma Jing-Yeou

The education system is strong by any standard I know of, especially on primary and secondary levels. The literacy rate is 98.7%. For college, Taiwan is the 5th most affordable country to study (the U.S. is the most expensive). Schools look more and more like modern institutions. This is Koo Chen-Fu Memorial Library at National Taiwan University, by architect Toyo Ito.

But the trouble with recruiting foreign students is supporting local students is still a big challenge. If Taiwan colleges can’t help Taiwanese students, then what about the foreign students? Now you’re getting it.

Why I’m Writing This Post

A funny thing happens when people start talking and drinking at the same time. They forget when to shut their mouth. I was at FRANK Taipei when a foreigner started saying,

“Have fun now, because when you graduate, you’ll find out your degrees are worthless.”

Dick move! Part of being student council president is having to say, everyone is here to support each other. Bring a productive attitude or maybe you don’t belong with us. It’s not like they’re the first person ever to dump a purse after a few drinks. I completely understand. They did have a point, though. Higher education today has shortfalls. But that’s everywhere. Taiwan has other issues. Some that were worse in the past, many which are similar to the U.S.


Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence.


Me being escorted out of the all you can eat Chinese buffetFor many, the system in Taiwan beats where they came from. Let’s appreciate that. Some of the best universities here are among the world’s top research institutions. Taiwan’s economy is proof of this.

There are also other reasons Taiwan is a great place to hang out for awhile. (Thanks for the laugh, Nick) ->

But the way Taiwan is setup creates under-served college graduates. Foreigners easily fall into this category, like in the U.S. Waiguoren 外國人 sometimes don’t think of the ways tables turn when they leave home. Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence.

Some issues predictably get swept under rugs (and out of brochures) because people want to give a good impression. Taiwan is recruiting students!

If you’re a foreigner looking at college in Taiwan, understanding the system might help you get more from it.

A Numbers Problem in Taiwan Higher Education

Taiwan has a ton of college graduates, and a lot of them are engineers. The 30% becoming engineers feels higher if you’re at one of the 12 universities (out of 160) with an engineering program. HOLD UP. Taiwan has 160 universities? And how did the U.S. get pulled into this?


Imagine 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.


There used to be very few universities in Taiwan. Then, Nobel Prize Winner Yuan T. Lee returned a national hero and talked up how universities are everywhere in America. So all the junior colleges were upgraded to universities. Classic example of a Taiwanese shortcut. Now Taiwan has so many university graduates! #NailedIt

“When everyone’s super, no one will be.” – Syndrome, not a Nobel Prize Winner

Just having a Taiwan college degree no longer makes you super. In some ways, Taiwan has more complex issues than the U.S. Imagine the effect of 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.

Over a period of several years, universities and university students have gradually become hot potatoes. Newly graduated university students cannot find a job, and even when private universities want to donate their institutions to the state, the state does not want them…

There are many, many good colleges in Taiwan, and I know a lot of very talented people who graduated from schools that aren’t considered the very best. There just aren’t 160 of them. Taiwan is now planning to close or merge 1/3 of these schools between 2015-2025. Joining forces is a good move for Taiwan. Going to a school that’s moving in the right direction is good for you.

… At the beginning of this year, Leader University ignited a potential trend toward disappearing universities, a trend 1 million college and university students and their families must confront.  — CommonWealth magazine, vol. 444

Quality is Job No. ??

More students and universities means more choices. But competition doesn’t always improve educational quality in Taiwan.

Many universities today are providing education with more of an eye toward profit than quality. The implications for educational quality and equity of opportunities tend to be less emphasized in the era of market-driven environments (Olssen, 2002; Mok & Welch, 2003)

Because the system is trying to serve as many students as possible, there are gaps. Lowering the university standard means students aren’t as ready — coming in or going out. From the same CommonWealth magazine article:

Another law department professor said he originally wanted to emulate a former teacher of his at National Taiwan University and fail about one-third of his students to force them to work hard. The school, however, blocked the initiative because of the Ministry of Education’s quota system for total enrollment. If too many students are flunked, then a bigger share of the fixed student body will be repeat students, and unlike new students who pay full tuition, repeat students only pay a fee based on credit hours.

Here’s how this affects the better schools. Where I’m from, there’s a saying about being chased by a bear. You don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the guy next to you. Since most schools have lower standards, top schools don’t have to push so hard.

Professors and Students Both Lose

More students means educators have their hands full. In general, schools with more academic freedom (to recruit professors) face a common dilemma of uneven quality. They expect things to balance out. Stacking this issue on top makes balance more difficult to achieve. Here’s how it works.

  • Some professors work even harder at teaching (great!)
  • Some teach to an acceptable standard (thank you!)
  • Others say as long as you learned something, it’s good enough (no!)

That’s one hell of a low bar. I learn something from a Uber driver every time I ride. I suspect this is one of the reasons why Professor YouTube is becoming a bigger thing than just digital learning.


Unfortunately, the school may not be preparing (international students) to be competitive in the global marketplace.


Finally, for the international students. Traveling students already come in with a more global perspective. Unfortunately, the school may not be preparing them to be competitive in the global marketplace. Good thing higher education is cheap, because some people are getting what they are paying for.

Sh*t. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth Anything?

Of course it is! As a foreigner, if you want to work in or with Asia, a Taiwan college degree makes sense. There are a lot of successful and smart people on this island who recently got a Taiwan college degree from all different schools.

On the outside (in my opinion), Taiwan degrees are better regarded than those from most other Asian countries because of its high-tech industries. Also, selective immigration of intellectuals to the West helped the Taiwan brand a lot.

Here’s National Taiwan University (#1) and National Tsing Hua University (#4) on top of the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for Greater China. ARWU is “the most widely used annual ranking of the world’s research universities,” says The Economist. Recently, National Taiwan University has fallen a bit, although it’s almost always in the top 5. There’s other schools that don’t show up on their rankings, mostly because they aren’t research-focused.

Getting a Taiwan College Degree: National Taiwan University is Ranked #1

And, Taiwan is one of the world’s most productive economies. Even if wage inequality is rising, so is GDP. Some people are doing some things right.

"Taiwan Is the Success Story, not China" - Cato Institute

But you need to reach the people who are making it happen, at their level. That’s tough to do without connections. Even tougher without skills and smarts. Metrics like an absurdly high literacy rate don’t happen by themselves. If you came without strong credentials and aren’t building them, you might struggle! Taiwanese people have innate abilities beyond KTV, whether they are using them or not.

Good Enough is not Global Enough

Some Taiwanese say the “credential” (Taiwan college degree) is good enough. Taiwan is a great country and attending a great university in a great country will help you make it happen in Asia blah blah blah.


In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global.


Maybe it’s good enough for the generation without 160 universities. Not today. This is the same message talked up by lower-tier schools in the West. A school could get away with this before the number of universities got out of hand, and Taiwan is slowly adjusting to reality.

You’ll even find this mentality at top universities. It’s not because they don’t care about quality, but because being on top of Taiwan – a country with strong nationalism – is where to be. For almost all Taiwanese, this is the competitive set that matters. But on top of Taiwan, on top of the world? Not quite.

How to Make a Taiwan College Degree Useful for Global Citizens

Anyone in Taiwan who is really serious about a global outlook has to do more than other top students — local or international. For example, some Taiwanese work very hard to improve their English. Many of them go abroad to get a more complete look at the world. 6,000 Taiwan college graduates go to the U.S. for graduate studies every year.

Foreign students need to explore possibilities. In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global. The traditional Taiwanese classroom is also not setup to integrate perspectives. Maybe find a more progressive school.

In my own graduate program, many professors now think of ways to discuss things that are going on right now in Taiwan. It’s typically at the end of lesson plans. But, international students should also go find people, on their own, who will speak to them about how Taiwanese get things done.

Why The Rush to Attract International Students?

Start by following the money. The Ministry of Education began offering universities a funding package to create programs for international students. This also counters brain drain. But then there was a rush that led to a lot of lousy international programs.

Why are so many of them below expectations? Existing mediocrity in the system. Sub-par bachelors degrees means people plug up the graduate ranks to stand out, which leads to the creation of sub-par masters degrees. That’s the “educational industry” in Taiwan and you don’t want to be a victim of it. I’ve heard of some Taiwan college degree programs which require only 24 credit hours. Factor in instructors’ ability to teach in English, and quality goes down another notch.

  • There are far fewer classes available in English, then there is in Chinese
  • Even in the English courses, an instructor is really only able to teach what they can communicate
  • Some university resources, like computer software, may only be available in Chinese. My own Chinese is barely enough to navigate Microsoft Office!

Seriously. Don’t just go to any school because they have an international program. Any college degree is only worth what you get out of it. This quote by an American-Born Taiwanese who came for her bachelor’s degree is a little damning.

“Many of these schools (not even yet fit to give Taiwanese students a proper education) are scrambling to “globalize” their student body & are drooling for foreign students like a fat boy and cake–has resulted in some horrible, horrible English-language programs. Out of all my exchange-student friends, I’ve never heard a single one that was satisfied with the quality of their exchange programs; citing crappy classrooms, imcomprehensible teachers (that can barely speak English) and a general lack of a stimulating classroom environment.” – TheThousandthGirl.com

Addressing the Criticism


Work with it the way professionals do.


She’s not wrong. This is less of an issue for better funded “brand name” schools in Taiwan. For example, National Taiwan University likes to hire professors with Ph.Ds from English-speaking countries, and the school has enough money to make itself look good. For the most part.

Here’s an example of a problem students at struggling institutions may face. The library doesn’t have certain journals. No problem. Go online. Then you discover your school cancelled its digital access plan. So you borrow your friend’s student ID. Sneak into their library, check out the texts, and use their resources.

For niche areas, the brand isn’t so important, the school should be notable in its field. Still…

Crappy classrooms? Some older buildings look like they came from developing countries. You won’t find pictures of my university’s Teaching and Research Hall on the internet (on purpose). Good thing it’s being torn down and re-built. Across Taiwan, well-funded schools are doing the same.

Incomprehensible Teachers. The English ability of international students and professors is a moving target. The two have to communicate with each other, so it’s not really fair to criticize one without calling out the other. That’s un-possible? It rains bigly? These are some of the stranger things I’ve heard lately in “Taiwan English.” And some insist their English is 100%.

Here’s good advice. Don’t judge. Just work with it the way professionals do. This is the English language in foreign countries. Chinese learners will discover the same when they realize HSK Level 6 Chinese only gets you so far.

Asian English: “Do Not Disturb. Tiny Grass is Dreaming.” Courtesy: Etsy

Stimulating Classroom Environment

Traditionally, Taiwanese students just accept what is taught. Many classrooms aren’t open forums where people build on each other’s views. There may be little opportunity to integrate Asian with Western perspectives, before relating it to a concept. You’ll have to learn from your classmates.

At times, the professor doesn’t know enough about what they’re supposed to teach. Some topics are required so schools are meeting generally accepted standards. But their expertise is in whatever area they got their Ph.D. in, so they’ll gloss over the rest. Like, showing a YouTube video.

Taiwan is trying, though.

  • Bachelor’s degree classes started covering less. Unfortunately, it leads to students taking 25+ credit hours each semester. That tells you something about how much material they’re going over. Also, instead of having more comprehensive courses, students just have to take more courses.
  • Invite visiting professors from other nations to fill holes in subject matter expertise. Very clever!

What about integrating perspectives?

Foreign professors are more likely to let you expand on what is being discussed. The downside is they may not know much about the local environment. They can only offer what they are learning about it.

A lot of local professors are surprisingly progressive. It figures that people don’t always want to do things the way their elders did. It gives me hope to witness the enthusiasm of some professors towards the students who are here right now. After all, who’s going to take care of this place when they retire? Exactly.

Cliffs Notes: Getting a Taiwan College Degree

Not everyone who comes to Taiwan is part spiritual gangster, but I think it helps. If you know how to contribute to other people’s lives while taking care of your own, you’ll be in good shape. Here are some key takeaways:

Undergraduates:

  • Native-level Chinese. I have no reservations about a Taiwan college degree for this group. There are a lot of Malaysians and mainland Chinese here.
  • English-speaking. Unless you want to make a commitment to Asia, consider going on exchange. Exchange students tend to be better taken care of. Why? Because there’s a relationship with another university at stake. Also, course selection is limited.
  • There are more established bachelors degree programs in Asia for international students. See Waseda University in Japan.

Graduate students should only go to a top school:

  • Top universities (and their individual programs) have a better chance of surviving The Purge. Also, name brand schools tend to have more resources. For example, you don’t want to BYO specialized software.
  • Invest time outside the classroom. Figure out how what you’re learning is being put to work in Taiwan. Explore the local perspective. Consider the other pieces you need in order to be competitive.
  • The doctorate-level might be the most foreigner friendly of all (because many professors were educated in the West, the English level is higher), but it is its own bag of worms. The Academia Sinica is where the quality of the facilities and English is the very best.

Master of Ceremonies at SEMICON Taiwan 2017, for Taiwan’s #1 Industry — Semiconductors

If there’s one area Taiwan is #1, it’s semiconductors. I was fortunate to be master of ceremonies for National Taiwan University, a host of SEMICON Taiwan — one of the industry’s largest conferences. Semiconductor = SEMICON, get it?

Master of Ceremonies at SEMICON Taiwan 2017 for National Taiwan University's High-Tech Facility International Forum, put on by the Department of Engineering's High-Tech Facility Research Center

Taiwan used to be a world leader in toys. Now the toys are made in China, but the CPUs inside may be from Taiwan. For devices and electronics that are even smaller, higher tech, and proprietary, it’s more likely it’s made in Taiwan. You’ve heard of AirPods? AirPods are made in Taiwan by Inventec. Today, advanced manufacturing is one of Taiwan’s strengths, and semiconductors lead the way.

Smart Manufacturing and National Taiwan University

There’s a bigger opportunity for semiconductors with industrial applications than consumer goods. New CPUs can make smart anything possible. This is what the president of SEMI Taiwan says about it.

“The four major trends of applications in the market… Internet of Things (IoT), Smart Manufacturing, Smart Transportation, and Smart Medtech.” – Terry Tsao, president of SEMI Taiwan

Smart everything, basically. These are all major categories of their own, but it all starts with smart manufacturing. Knowing what is being made and how, anywhere and when in your supply chain. And, optimizing it.

“Effective Ways to Make Facility Smart.” The High-Tech Facility International Forum by National Taiwan University’s College of Engineering and its High-Tech Facility Research Center focused on the path to developing smart manufacturing facilities. This also made it one of the more popular forums at SEMICON Taiwan.

Because everything in the manufacturing future incorporates principles of information technology businesses. Especially engineering, mechanical or electrical or civil. Building these facilities ties all of that together. Smart factories simply know more about what goes into smart products.

Get to Industry 4.0: The Hot Topic of SEMICON Taiwan 2017

Many countries have initiatives in this area. In the U.S., it’s smart manufacturing. Europe calls it Industry 4.0, which is what Taiwan generally goes with (it’s catchier). China put it in their China 2025 plan. This was also the major discussion at SEMICON Taiwan. How can Taiwan become a leader in Industry 4.0?

Well, each nation faces major roadblocks. One example. China relies on imports to meet 90% of its integrated circuit needs. This is because for now, China is doing mass manufacturing for the world. Meanwhile, Taiwan is hanging onto its lead in advanced applications. Each nation is traveling a different path.

  • Taiwan is optimizing its supply chain
  • Germany is focusing on green manufacturing
  • The U.S. is re-industrializing (With help from Taiwan’s Foxconn)

Everyone is taking manageable steps because certain obstacles to ongoing transformation can only be taken apart over time. Big Data is one of the more general roadblocks, and one I find personally compelling.

Big Data vs. Business Intelligence. Know the Difference.


Big Data is not an enormous flat file.


Big Data can help optimize smart manufacturing, but people confuse Big Data with Business Intelligence. Here’s what it’s not. Big data is not an enormous flat file. “Big data is a term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing application software is inadequate to deal with them.

There are three ways to work with data. Only the third is truly Big Data.

1. What has happened? This is Business Intelligence. Descriptive Analytics looks at past data to review what happened. “Sales were down because we produced less units than last quarter.”

2. What might happen? Predictive analytics. Here, we are finding patterns between different data sets that might lead you to make a different management decision. Great for forecasting demand. Still based on the past. “Retailers cut their orders, partly because of increased shipping costs, so we produced less units, and sales went down.”

3. What will happen? Prescriptive Analytics is modeling the effect of future management decisions on future outcomes. This is where Big Data comes in. To help you figure out what you could be doing before you know what you should be doing.

One barrier is there aren’t enough people in Taiwan capable of using prescriptive analytics. Ironically, Taiwan has the manufacturing but not the data scientists. The U.S. is in the exact opposite position. One estimate I’ve heard places Taiwan’s shortage at 5,000+ data scientists. If you’re about to graduate from MIT, there’s a job for you in Taiwan.

As a practical solution, some leaders like National Tsing Hua University professor Chen-Fu Chien are advocating Industry 3.5. Maybe Taiwan can’t enable, but it can enhance. Perhaps that’s good enough for right now.

Warning: This Isn’t Covered in a MBA Program

Advanced manufacturing and semiconductors aren’t discussed in my MBA program. I got it from the College of Engineering, where the experts are. An advantage of getting a MBA in Taiwan is being around all this high tech. But it isn’t going to be conveniently given to you. Even if you’re paying for it! So, I don’t want to give the impression this is what you can expect if you come here.

Management schools, by design, don’t do cutting-edge. They do Practical. Until then, it’s not coming into a MBA program. Or it is, but in “know-this-buzzword” form. Despite the marketing, a MBA probably isn’t raising your ceiling. It eliminates the liability of what you don’t know or aren’t connecting with.

This is also why managers get Big Data confused. Statistics for MBAs covers the most practical aspects of statistics — what has happened and anticipating what might happen. Many decision-makers tend to plug the term Big Data into their understanding of statistics. This is not correct. An easy way to remember this is Big Data is beyond the powers of Microsoft Excel.

This graphic from Wikipedia explains the difference between Industry 1.0 and 4.0.  You can intuitively understand the different ways data was used for management decisions, and what some current and future needs are.

Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing

More Photos from SEMICON Taiwan 2017

SEMICON Taiwan 2017 Panel Discussion Speakers

SEMICON Taiwan 2017 Panel Discussion Speakers

Handicapped Teenagers Perform for the Banquet

Handicapped teenagers perform at the banquet. Thanks again to TSMC!

Why Get a MBA in Taiwan? Part 1 of 3: Doing Business in Taiwan

You’d like your career to be a more global experience. You’re thinking of getting a MBA in Asia. And, you’re ready to commit to living and working in the Far East. If so, than maybe a MBA in Taiwan is also for you. Because of its high-tech industries and educated workforce, business in Taiwan is a future direction for Asia.

Taiwan (Courtesy: CIA Factbook)

Taiwan (Courtesy: CIA)

Taiwan is like Switzerland, in some ways. Both punch above their weight class.

  • At $529B USD, Taiwan’s GDP is the global 22nd (Switzerland is 19th)
  • Taiwan’s GDP is bigger than Hong Kong’s $309B, and Singapore’s $293B
  • Comparing Taiwan to Japan, it’s almost as productive per square kilometer

I’ll go over considerations for a global career around business in Taiwan. This mostly means its links to China and Asia. I’ll avoid talking about personalities and culture shock. These are big topics and we already know Taiwan is a nice and safe place to live. In this series, I’ll discuss:

  1. The business case for and against Taiwan
  2. Reasons you should and shouldn’t consider a MBA in Taiwan
  3. Why I decided to go for it, anyway

Advantage: Taiwan, Greater China, and Asia


Taiwan has a few strengths other Asian economies don’t.


Getting a handle on Asia doesn’t have to mean going to mainland China, even if it’s the biggest piece not named India. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore are all their own things, for example. All of them have good business schools. Have their own culture and economies. And, deal with China.

If you’re looking for a stronger Chinese and Asian connection, Taiwan has a few strengths other Asian economies don’t. In fact, Taiwan gets a lot of credit for preserving Chinese traditions.

Taiwan is Chinese without China, but not more China than China. Figuring Taiwan out gives you a framework for accepting China. Relating to the average Zhou. But, this also means they are still two different cultures. Recognizing what’s what is key to figuring out how Taiwan fits in.

Advantage: Taiwan’s Chinese Role in Asia

Taiwan is more Chinese. Waves of Chinese immigrants have been coming to Taiwan for centuries. This is also true of other places in Asia. Singapore is one of the first Chinese colonies outside China. However, after the Communists won China after WW2, the exiled Chinese government set up in Taiwan. They are the Republic of China (R.O.C.).

In some ways, Taiwan connects to Asia in a way that China doesn’t. Japan-Taiwan relations are pretty good. Taiwan was part of China for hundreds of years, then part of Japan for about 50 years, before the R.O.C. came around. Japan-China aren’t doing so great. If you need to connect to the Far East, but don’t actually need to be in China, Taiwan is more business and investment friendly.

Taiwan can also provide a Chinese perspective from the outside-in. There’s a kind of nationalism and group dynamic (thanks, Confucious) in Asian countries that makes it difficult for foreigners to learn what’s really going on. It’s easier to figure out what you’re dealing with when you’re in the middle of things, and not the thick of it.

Your idea of China (and Asian companies) might actually be Taiwan. Major Taiwanese companies include Foxconn (they make your iPhones), HTC (they make other phones, and VIVE), TSMC, Viewsonic, Delta Electronics, the power convertor module in Tesla cars is made by Chroma, Pou Chen Group is the world’s largest manufacturer of branded shoes. So on and so forth.

Growth of Business in Taiwan

Taiwan GDP Growth, 2006-2016

This report by the Brookings Institute nicely profiles Taiwan’s international trade.

Advantage: Taiwan’s Business Legal Environment

More protections than China. The mainland has weaker patent protection, so innovations have a better chance in Taiwan. A typical strategy is a Taiwan company will build factories in China, but keep their most proprietary manufacturing in Taiwan. Bicycle maker Giant is one example.

Taiwan is now more open to foreign investment than China, even if it’s not quite sure how to get it. Leu Horng Der is a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Chung Yuan Christian University.

“In the past China’s approach to soliciting foreign investment was to ‘draw in’ capital. Now the approach is to ‘choose’ foreign investors.” – CommonWealth magazine

Government programs like Contact Taiwan and Invest Taiwan talk up strengths, even if they don’t present many real differentiators. There’s an underutilized Taiwan Entrepreneur Visa program. Taiwan is positioning itself as a gateway to Asia, and is pursuing foreign direct investment.

More freedoms than China. Like, being able to take U.S. dollars out of the country, and no Great Firewall. A free flow of information is important for knowledge sharing. Taiwan is also more open, politically. When Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement organized protests to demand free elections, they were advised by Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement.

Taiwan is also #1 in media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Media freedom isn’t the same as a commitment to media truth. This, and a lot of other moves, are steps in the right direction.

World Press Freedom Visualised

Disadvantage: It’s (like) China

Taiwanese may not seem as aggressive as mainland Chinese. But, much of what happens in China goes on at a scaled-down level here. Let’s just stick to some key points about doing business in Taiwan.

Taiwan talks up its capital markets. However, local accounting standards are very different from the West in generally accepted principles. Capital markets also serve publicly-traded firms — 70% of the TAIEX is family businesses and 10 families run 25% of itThis matters to you because Confucian societies are insider-outsider arrangements, and local capitalism works the same way.

It’s like X, but in Taiwan.” Venture capital often skews toward C2C (copied-to-China) or, copied-to-Taiwan ideas. This works way better in China, because Taiwan has fewer consumers. Proposals like these are easy to understand for practical, less technically sophisticated investors. While innovation can happen incrementally, there’s such a thing as inching the wrong direction.

The high-margin innovations Taiwan is known for require timing, patience, and risk capital. More than what investors are willing to give — but it’s possible. Apple’s OLED facility, for example. Government funds research. Family money. Some set up incubators, which leads to companies like Taiwan Mobile.

Pressure to deliver fast, if it’s not your money. Taiwanese sometimes take severe shortcuts. Like, New Taipei City’s pay.taipei — an online payment system for utility bills. If only pay.taipei wasn’t insecure and didn’t ignore basic protocols.

“pay.taipei app does not send HTTPS traffic, sends plain text passwords and uses fixed IPs for traffic…” – Thomas Kuiper

In some cases, fast makes sense. A lot of business in Taiwan is high-tech and tech has fast product development cycles. However, being practical doesn’t always mean doing things the cheapest way possible. 

Disadvantage: It’s Not Modern China

People say Taiwan is the way westerners wish China were. But most Taiwanese haven’t been to China. So they don’t know. People might give you Chinese perspective, but it’s not based on experience. Taiwan also has its own quirks.

Taiwan is culturally ambiguous. Chinese and Taiwanese culture are patchworks of different groups. However, because of Taiwan’s 20th century, management styles run the gamut from Japanese tactics to Chinese habits to clan politics.

Taiwanese businesses don’t operate like Chinese businesses. They can’t, because the laws are different. You can’t directly apply what you’ve heard about Chinese businesses with Taiwanese businesses. This goes from land ownership to human rights to labor laws. Yes, there’s less rule-of-law in China, though plenty gets swept under the rug in Taiwan.

Getting past law enforcement, China changes quickly, and a lot of Taiwan businesses aren’t up-to-date on new Chinese requirements. Wenhsiung Tseng is with Deloitte China. “Taiwanese employers used to enjoy saying ‘I’m firing you.’ But this kind of phrase can’t be recklessly used in the future…” Now, if you fire workers arbitrarily, companies must pay twice the normal compensation.

Many large multi-national corporations (MNC) are zeroed-in on China. Earlier, we pointed out China simply has more consumers. The population and size makes a case for itself to shareholders.

Taiwan is a good proving ground or staging area. But for companies like Frito-Lay that spent years trying to figure out how to grow potatoes in China so they could sell chips to Chinese consumers, Taiwan’s a sideshow. Big investments in infrastructure and production were made, and they’re staying put.

Finally, Chinese government policy shapes economic development to an enormous degree. Every bureaucracy speaks its own language. In short, there’s no better way to get to know the Chinese government than being in China.

Summary: Doing Business in Taiwan

  • Taiwan is not exactly China. But, being there gives you a baseline and some tools for making sense of Chinese thinking and behavior.
  • The talent, companies, and connections for bringing any kind of high-tech idea to life, are here.
  • The good news. Legally and socially, it’s easier for outsiders to figure out what they’re dealing with. The bad news? You’re not an insider.

I have some solutions for you in Part 2.

Winning the Top Prize at the Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability

Our team from National Taiwan University (NTU) won the top prize at the 2016-17 Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability. The contest is to create profitable businesses that achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Our concept, OM Share Charging, is a platform business model targeting the light electric vehicle (LEV) industry with a battery exchange system.

OM Share Charging Team at Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability

With Dr. Niven Huang, GM of KPMG Sustainability Consulting. (Left to right, R. Shyam Shankar, Dr. Huang, Tanmoy Kundu, Philip Chang, Brian Blankinship)

I’d like to tell you more about plans for OM, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of us. Also, Shyam fathered the idea (I took on the finance and PR roles). For now, we’re spending weekends absorbing an elective course at National Chengchi University on sustainability practices in European industries, before flying to Europe in April to see these in action. Our prize covers the trip and the course to Italy, Switzerland, and France. In broad strokes:

  • We are utilizing the unique capabilities of Taiwan technology partners to grow the LEV industry. This is good for the environment, the future of transportation, and the Taiwanese economy.
  • Our business model benefits all our stakeholders. Including, those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
  • The pilot we propose targets a smart city, and provides last-mile connectivity to help complete the city’s vision. I know that’s vague. It’s simply too soon to say more. Stay tuned.
  • OM fulfills five of the United Nations’ 17 SDGs. Good Health, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption, and Climate Action.
  • I’ll need one hell of a refresher course in French before we fly over. Merde.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Why Should You Sign Up for the ‘Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability’

Networking! You’ll meet entrepreneurial young people from other universities who are interested in business and sustainability. At this moment in history, governments, companies, and citizens are aligned on the importance of taking care of the environment.

Business Plan. Get more experience putting together a business plan and refining it. This is a useful skill whether you start a company, because you’ll also use it to create any kind of business proposal. Also, Taiwan has a lot to offer. You’ll begin realizing it a little more when you start looking for ways Taiwan can produce sustainable businesses.

Industry Connections. The Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability does an impressive job of bringing together executives to be judges and/or serve as consultants to the teams. A partial list of the people we met include:

Leaders from KPMG’s Sustainability Consulting practice, KPMG Transaction Services, Delta Electronics (One of Tesla’s OEMs), Delta Electronics Foundation, Ford Lio Ho Motor, Leopard Mobile, Ogilvy, HSBC, as well as several venture capitalists, chief strategy and chief technology officers.

In other words, these are the people I came to Taiwan hoping to meet.

Competition of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability Taiwan Photo Collage

The Big Prize

OM Share Charging Logo

First prize is more work! Such is life and yes, if you win, it means you’ll have more work to do to prepare for the European trip.

  • Learning about the companies you’ll visit
  • Researching their strategies and reading their sustainability reports
  • Reading industry reports from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development on current trends
  • Refining your business plan into something for sharing

And the fun stuff, too. Checking out what each city has to offer… A few days of tourism…

But, the learning opportunity is unique. The class is taught by National Chengchi University professors and professionals, like Dr. Huang. You travel with them. And then you spend a few weeks meeting the executives who are actually making these strategies happen, at company headquarters. The knowledge and connections is what I really want a MBA education to be like, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to being in the same room as these industry leaders.

April 1. See you in Europe.