On August 12, just as I was picking up my bag and planning to head over to Taiwan’s Academia Sinica to study up on some materials there, the phone suddenly rang. I was reminded of a meeting that had been scheduled at the Epoch Foundation, a private institution founded in 1990 by twenty Taiwanese enterprises.
The Epoch Foundation is located in a small office, no more than forty square meters. Every inch of the office is used to its utmost potential, objects tucked away ingeniously. There are green plants everywhere in the office, all rescued from various events where they had worked to generate atmosphere.
There is a small corridor in the office used as a meeting room, and when meetings are held everyone remains standing. This way, meetings don’t last too long and you can stretch your legs and move about. There’s a place where you can sit and have meetings too, but this room is used as a classroom space.
The Epoch Foundation is apparently a world of women — I saw no men there during our visit, at least. Everyone seemed very busy, although people would find moments to greet us with a “Hi.” We were attended to by three people during our visit. The first was the administrative assistant, who invited us in. The second was the office manager, who served us tea. The third was the assistant director, who explained their work to us. As the assistant director spoke, the office manager showed slides on the projector for us. I have no idea how the director of the foundation managed to keep these women at work, spinning like gyroscopes. But I certainly saw no whip sitting around in the office.
The Epoch Foundation accomplishes many things, and it has played an important role in fostering Taiwan’s knowledge economy. What most intrigued me, however, was their program for the training of university students: The Young Entrepreneurs of the Future Program.
This program was started in the year 2000, and assistant director Zhao Ruyuan (赵如媛) informed us that with a severe economic downturn that year students had found it very difficult to get jobs. As a civil society organization, they began to pay special attention to this issue, and the training program was their answer to the problem.
They had only one objective, and that was to strengthen the creativity and practical capabilities of university students. From that time on they supported 100 university students every year. If students wanted to participate in the program, they needed first to apply and go through an interview process.
Once admitted, the students make contact with one another and select partners to cooperate with. They then work together to conduct research, executing the projects they expressed a hope in doing when they applied. Only after grueling work and preparation do they enter the second phase of the project, which involves a set of courses on specific topics, including innovation, market development and social enterprise incubation.
The courses are led by university professors who are specialists in the fields concerned, but the instructors are all bosses from Taiwanese enterprises. This sort of case-based MBA learning environment is something most universities have been unable to achieve in crafting their MBA programs. Once their courses are completed, the students enter the enterprises themselves, interning directly with enterprise bosses and managers.
Ultimately, through a process of decision-making among the students and scores awarded by the enterprises, top students are chosen for study and research in the United States. The entire process takes a year. But student participation takes place during vacation breaks and after formal study hours. The entire program is free for students who are admitted.
Ten years have gone by, and the Epoch Foundation has now provided training to 1,000 students. Former students have become successful businesspeople in the knowledge economy, and a number have even become well-known managers at major companies.
There was a column at the Epoch Foundation pasted full of green apples, each with a tiny photo, representing all of the students who have passed through the program. The art visible everywhere around the office of the Epoch Foundation was created by the program’s students too. I was struck by how this program devoted to training talent for the knowledge economy had managed to find so many students with a strong artistic sensibility as well.
There was a small balcony in the office with a number of sofas, and this was where they took their meals at the foundation. One of the sofas was made out of recycled paper, the creation of one of the foundation’s former students. It could seat one person, or four people, or even ten, foldable into different shapes. I was told that this student now had his own company, started with funds pooled together by Epoch Foundation classmates. The advertisements can be found on YouTube. [NOTE: This is the “Flexible Love” folding chair, which truly is amazing].
If you are an alumnus of the foundation program, I am told, and have an innovative idea of your own that alumni and classmates approve of, you can count on receiving the investment you need to make it happen, which everyone pools together.
Over the past few years, college graduates in mainland China have had trouble finding employment. During this time, the relevant government departments have made various efforts to tackle the problem. But the efforts of the private sector are still basically nonexistent. And as I emerged from the Epoch Foundation, I didn’t at all feel a sense of comfort or relief. What I felt was a sense of heaviness. When, I thought, will we be able to see this sort of student training program on the mainland?
A version of this editorial appeared in Chinese at the Oriental Morning Post.