Entrepreneur Highlight – Prof Ikhlaq Sidhu: Prototyping a New World During COVID-19

By Aster Cheng Yan (BEST Ambassador)


For this September issue, we invited Prof Ikhlaq Sidhu, Founding Director & Chief Scientist of Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at UC Berkeley and Visiting Chair Professor at Department of Physics of Faculty of Science at HKBU, also the Deputy University Chair of our BEST Community, to help us understand what “new normal” means and how it is accelerating business changes and development in the ecosystem. Prof Sidhu also moved on to share some insights and advice for not only businesses that have been “hit hard” by COVID-19 but also fresh graduates who originally have planned to enter these businesses.

As more reports of corona vaccines entering the final stage of human trials have come one after another since July, some people are expecting our life to finally get back to “normal”, in other words, back to the state where we were before the pandemic. However, Prof Sidhu has made it clear that while the pandemic could be, as Bill Gates predicted, over by 2021, the new normal won’t. Despite the persistent outbreaks of the corona, people carry on their living; and precisely due to such persistency, some ways of living are rapidly “shut out” while others burgeoning “at home”. Most importantly, neither are these burgeoning “new” ways of living entirely new nor are they make-dos that we merely put up with. The new normal (digitalisation process, for instance) has had its foundation firmly laid well before the pandemic. It possesses certain efficiency that we are comfortable with enough to continue adopting.

How did COVID-19 affect the business world?

Echoing the headline of The Economist’s August edition crediting viruses with not only causing pandemics but also shaping the world, Prof Sidhu opted for a more up-lifting metaphor, affirming that “we are prototyping the future world right now, due to corona”. The new normal at this decade signifies a further acceleration of the already fast changing 21st century. If there used to be still businesses who considered their resistance towards rapidly market changes and constant technological updates a “benign business model”, they better rethink about it before it becomes too late. On the other hand, it is exactly those companies who demonstrate a strong will to try out new technologies and experiment with solutions that enjoy good resilience in the face of unpredictable crisis.

Professor then gave a more detailed analysis by putting different businesses into three categories.

  • The first group consists of tech giants (such as Amazon, Netflix) and digital applications whose products and services are originally exchanged on virtual platforms. They basically benefit from “being on the proper side” of the spectrum, with some other markets being forced to come to them.
  • The second category on the exact opposite side of the spectrum includes some “destructed” businesses (such as retail, airline, hospitality) whose physical layouts cannot be moved online. The pandemic would mean a long, cold winter that they are not going to overcome if their business had already been in a bad shape during the summer. As for other top players, surely their businesses are bound to shrink, similar to our demand for office space. But the springtime will come at last. The key lies in the physical changes that these businesses are willing to make so that people can use their services with no concerns.
  • In between the two categories are businesses who are capable of adapting to online platform (such as psychotherapist’s, yoga coaches, restaurants, manufacturers). They also partially explain the growth of the first category businesses for their reliance on e-commerce and social media. The key to their success lies in whether they can maintain a proactive, positive mindset to mobilize enough resources and skills to adapt and digitalize.

Advice to University students and recent graduates

When asked to give advice to university graduates who are facing the toughest job market in decades, Prof Sidhu used one word – “patience”. Since most businesses are still running assessments of the current situation and trials of countermeasures to cope with the sweeping recession, new job opportunities are merely emerging. Young job seekers need to wait in patience for their decision-making to demonstrate more flexibility than urgency. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, it’s important to stay involved, connected and well-informed to maintain your presence in the target industry. Especially for those industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic, their decision-making is almost paralysed, aspired youngsters can even consider volunteering to invest your labor and build up relationships. If you can afford, further education is an option for self-enrichment. And when the situation starts to “unfreeze” and more opportunities open up, you will be more ready to receive assessments.

Is it a good time for entrepreneurship?

As we wonder whether entrepreneurship is also a way to get “self-employed”, Professor expressed a mixed perspective. Speaking of how even well-established businesses are struggling and bracing themselves for challenges, the market is simply not yet ready for new businesses. Instead, youngsters can make use of their entrepreneur spirit to brew business ideas and build connections. Even if it’s not yet practical to start a business, it would still be rewarding to plan for one, stay engaged with the industry, work on a real problem and connect with new people: a process where you combine your core skill with the supporting skills broadened along the way to solve real life problems.

Always keep a dynamic mindset in the challenging time

Towards the end of the session, we raised a query about a curious article of Prof Sidhu arguing against the uniform applause for a growth mindset, to which he gave some advice on how to maintain mental health during difficult time. Given a crisis, sometimes it is indeed crucial to think out of the box to “think away” a problem. However, we also should beware of “fake, far-fetched innovations” where there is no genuine need to innovate but responsibility to take and hardship to overcome. The solution is thus a dynamic between a growth mindset that says, “We can do it somehow” and a fixed one that says, “We will do it despite pain”. When you fall into a negative mode, you need a growth mindset to pull you back. When you want to turn away from a problem and escape, a fixed mindset can help you face the challenge. Learning when to adopt which mindset is essential to stay positive, proactive and resilient during an unprecedented pandemic.

[Webinar] Innovation in Times of Change

Prof Sidhu is going to share with you how to navigate innovation in these times of change. Every business, government organisation, and investor is trying to navigate the changes that are now occurring. The simple fact is that change creates opportunities for those with proactive mindsets and behaviors.

Date: 25 September 2020 (Fri)
Time: 10:00am (HKT)
Language: English

HKBU Students: Click HERE
HKBU Staff and Externals: Click HERE

Registration deadline: 22 September 2020 (Tue)