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Entrepreneurs go back to school to keep up with China

Entrepreneurs go back to school to keep up with China

HONG KONG -- Cai Mingpo's life story is a case study of how self-made entrepreneurs use China's East-meets-West business schools to profit from the ever-shifting landscape of the world's second-biggest economy.

Cai Mingpo (Photo courtesy of CEIBS)

Born into rural poverty in Fujian Province when China was still engulfed in the turmoil of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Cai was encouraged by a teacher to seek opportunities in France, where he worked as a waiter and studied for a masters degree in management at EMLyon Business School before making his first fortune selling tombstones in Orleans, 130km south of Paris.

But Cai's ambitions eventually focused on finance, not funerals. At 33, he bet that he could improve his career options by returning to China to enroll in the Executive MBA program at Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School. What he learned there, he says, helped him launch Cathay Capital, a Paris-based private equity firm that today manages investment funds worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.41 billion) in Europe, China and the U.S.

Cai, now 48, saw his opportunity in private equity, perceiving that the sector often struggled with cross-border deals involving China. He also noted the opportunities to fund tech startups as China began transforming itself from the workshop of the world to a leader in innovation. Cai cites Cathay Capital's recent investment in its first "unicorn" -- the $1.5 billion startup Pinduoduo, founded in Shanghai by former Google engineer Colin Huang. "CEIBS provided me with new ideas, contacts, opportunities and investments," Cai said.

Never too late

Even the highest-flying Chinese entrepreneurs have taken time out to go back to school at critical times in their careers. Take Alibaba Group Holdingfounder Jack Ma Yun. In 2006, the year he won a protracted battle with eBay that resulted in the U.S. e-commerce giant retreating from China, Ma completed the CEO program at Beijing-based Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. Eight years later, he raised $25 billion when he listed Alibaba on the New York Stock Exchange, making him a major contributor to the $1 trillion in annual revenues CKGSB says its alumni now control.

Alibaba's Jack Ma delivers a speech to rural teachers in Sanya, China, on Jan. 6. © Getty Images

Cindi Mi, 34, may soon be another. Mi left school at 17 to join her uncle in a brick-and-mortar English tutoring business that by 2009 was making 100 million yuan ($14.9 million) annually. But when her uncle balked at expanding further, Mi enrolled in a full-time MBA course at CKGSB that included a one-semester exchange at Cornell University's business school in Ithaca, New York. She then founded VIPKid, an enterprise that aims to provide Chinese children a U.S. education through online instruction by North American teachers. The startup has so far received $125 million in venture capital funding. Investors range from Alibaba's Ma to U.S. basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

That an MBA is a passport to entrepreneurial success is also apparent in Hong Kong, says Tam Kar Yan, dean of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School. "When students came here, their aim used to be to get jobs in finance or consulting," he said. "But now many of them want to join tech companies or start their own, and we are changing to meet this demand."

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