Culture Clash


Countries may view
the entrepreneur differently

'Entrepreneurship in Asia! Sounds interesting," Ann Nelson said to herself as she examined an invitation from the Advanced Management Institute in Bangkok, Thailand.

Working out of Hong Kong for the last four years, Ann had started a small export business and had also invested in an old friend's textile company. Ann and her friend had been high school classmates in Detroit and had been active in the Junior Achievement program. Her successful business was featured in an article in the Asian Wall Street Journal, and this was the basis of her invitation to the conference in Bangkok.

Ann was asked to give a talk on American entrepreneurship. She did so early the program, and it seemed to be well received. However, when other participants gave their talks, they seemed to be speaking another language even though all presentations were in English. Ann was especially confused when Chinese businesspeople from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand spoke. They described successful businesses, but the steps they took to be successful were alien to Ann's experiences. Ann felt like a character in "Alice in Wonderland" trying to figure out what was going on during this topsy-turvy conference.

When Americans and offshore Chinese speak about entrepreneurship, they have different models in mind. In America, the model includes steps such as researching consumer needs and demands, identifying underdeveloped niches, preparing a careful business plan, attracting an initial set of investors, later approaching venture capitalists and possibly proposing an initial public offering.

Among Chinese businesspeople, models of entrepreneurship start with the family. Family members work together in a small business. Hard working young family members are identified. Some may start their own businesses with investments from parents, uncles, and cousins. Many times, the businesses are integrated. For example, if the initial business was a restaurant, the new entrepreneurial venture could be a company supplying plates, silverware and linens.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with James Wills of the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. He points out that uncles and older cousins are expected to invest as part of family obligations. Profits are plowed back into business expansion or are invested in real estate. If entrepreneurs fail with their first ventures, family members often will support a second attempt, but that is the limit. After two failed attempts, elders will find a place in an existing family business for a person who has not demonstrated entrepreneurial skills. Sons and daughters in their early teens learn the principles of business by working for the family, an asset known as "sweat equity." Men from outside the family who are courting daughters will be looked upon more favorably if bring assets that can be used in family businesses.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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