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

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.

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.”

Waiao Beach Cleanup After Typhoon Talim

Waiao Beach cleanup volunteers

As inclement weather likes to do, Typhoon Talim left a big mark, despite missing Taiwan on its way to Japan. Even when Taiwan gets a lucky miss, the winds still bring the junk. A lot of junk. So last Sunday, I headed off to Yilan 宜蘭 with Taiwan Adventure Outings for a Waiao Beach cleanup 外澳. Shoutout to National Chengchi University for joining the fun (and going surfing after).

Usually Waiao is in great shape because the locals farm the beach. There’s also a surf, paragliding, hostel, and pizza business. But a handful of humans can’t compete with typhoon-force winds. The local ghost, Trash Baby, will follow you home if you don’t pick up after yourself. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not (probably not). Although do you really want to test the patience of a baby? I didn’t think so.

Here’s a few photos from our Waiao Beach cleanup. If it’s watermarked, pretty much all of them, it’s Ryan Hevern Photography. (Buy a print!) For more about beach cleanup in Taiwan, here’s a little something I wrote around National Taiwan Clean Up Day. Read about it. And come with us next month to Jinshan Beach!

Polystyrene that washes onto Waiao Beach looks just like fish food

Polystyrene that washes onto Waiao Beach looks just like fish food

Fishermens' nets like to make themselves at home on the beach

Fishermens’ nets like to make themselves at home on the beach

Dustin Craft, one half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Dustin Craft, one half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

The Waiao Beach locals provide burlap sacks for collecting trash

Waiao locals provide burlap sacks for collecting trash

A pufferfish washed onto Waiao Beach

A pufferfish washed onto the beach. Also, finally — one of my own photos!

Ryan Hevern Photography - another half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Ryan Hevern Photography – another half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Waiao Beach cleanup bounty

Waiao Beach cleanup bounty

Meet Trash Baby, the local ghost of Waiao Beach. Pick up after yourself or it'll follow you home.

Meet Trash Baby, the local ghost of Waiao Beach

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.