Business hopefuls need reality check

Rob Whelan, the outgoing president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai, talks about how entrepreneurial education within the region is changing--and what's still missing.

Rob Whelan, the president of University of Wollongong in Dubai, is leaving the university.
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Rob Whelan's term as president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai is nearing an end. He looks back at how education for entrepreneurs has changed over the past few years, and what's still missing.

q How has the landscape for entrepreneurial education changed since you arrived in 2008?

There is a much greater understanding of the importance of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the UAE economy. So there's now an increased focus on giving people who are working in SMEs the skills to develop their businesses better. We've seen the development of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid (Establishment for Young Business Leaders). One of my staff in the finance department has a group of his students working on projects with the Establishment, so the students who are themselves learning how to be good business people are doing a project with SMEs.

q And what do aspiring business owners here need to learn?

I think they need a reality check. Right across the world, but it's evident here as well, there's a general perception that all you need to be a successful entrepreneur is a good idea and then somebody to give you some money. There's not enough attention given to the side of entrepreneurship which is putting a good idea into action. I think people have come into entrepreneurship with naivete about how big the challenge is.

q So which skills are required to turn that concept into a successful venture?

Understanding how to be a good manager, putting a good team together [and] working in a team. Understanding the financials, at least to the level where you can understand some consultant's report. Universities can give that knowledge in a number of ways: an undergraduate course, master's programme, short courses [and] a particular type of research - understanding the business landscape.

q Yet what's one problem with how universities approach business education in this region?

The problem is there aren't business cases that are published about the business landscape in the Middle East. All the textbooks are full of American examples. It's not enough because business is a global enterprise, and business success globally depends on a good understanding of different cultural environments in which you're doing business. You can't afford to be narrow.

q Last year your school launched a Business Case Centre, where faculty from different schools were invited for training on writing regional case studies. One book has been published, but what were some of the hurdles during this process?

It's quite challenging doing that in this region because businesses generally don't want to publish their failures. In developed economies, there's generally more information in the public domain, so it's actually easier to teach. You have access to a lot of material such as annual reports, financials. That's increasingly happening here. The business case allows you to get the collaboration with industry.