By the SMU Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship
Startups. Venture. Entrepreneurship. Innovation. Community. Problem-solving. These words may not mean much to most but to Clarence Ong, a final year Bachelor of Business Management student at the SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business, they have stuck with him since he discovered his interest in entrepreneurship. Currently in his second term as President of Eagles Inc., a club for student entrepreneurs, Clarence is also an Associate at Protégé Ventures, Southeast Asia’s first student-managed venture fund. Today, Clarence shares with us his entrepreneurship journey at SMU.
To start off, tell us about how the journey began for you.
I was mainly involved with entrepreneurship programmes and student clubs initially, and they went on to become a big part of my university education and a strong starting point for my entrepreneurial journey. I had taken a proactive approach in dipping my feet into the entrepreneurship and innovation space, and spent a large portion of my time outside classes working on initiatives and networking on behalf of Eagles Inc. As President of Eagles, I was rather daunted by the position at first but also felt excited knowing I could bring fresh changes to the student-entrepreneurial community in SMU.
Before joining Eagles Inc., I was looking for a way to enter the entrepreneurship scene in SMU and when I stumbled upon an emailer calling for applicants to join the organising committee of PAK Challenge 2019, I knew I had to be involved. Little did I know that I would be the one spearheading the club and PAK Challenge—Singapore’s largest student-led startup pitch competition— a semester later, and for two years in a row now.
But, of course, there have been ups and downs in this journey. With unique experiences like this, there tend to be unique challenges as well.
Clarence (third from left) with the 2021 Eagles Inc. Executive Committee
Of the many entrepreneurial experiences you seem to be involved in at SMU, which one do you find the most challenging and why?
During my time in SMU, I have had the opportunity to wear different hats. Over the years, I have served in the capacities of an Operations Director, event lead, Venture Analyst, Venture Associate, and President in different clubs. These are incredibly diverse positions requiring various competencies and time commitments, and my pre-university self would not have believed that I would end up in these roles.
One of the challenges I faced in the leadership position as President at Eagles Inc. was in managing my peers. Managing one’s peers is never easy, as there is a constant struggle to find the right balance between being “one of the team” and being taken seriously. With my team, I make it a point to set the expectations right from the get-go.
Through challenges like this, I learnt a lot about myself as a leader and was rewarded with insights to nuances of managing teams and expectations. However, the learning journey does not end here, and I am looking forward to my next challenge (and more growth opportunities)!
Tell us more about Eagles Inc. and what the PAK Challenge is all about.
Everything we do has been made possible by SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business alumni Mr Jeff Tung and Mr Benjamin Twoon who had jointly donated $1 million to set up the P.A.K. Entrepreneurship Fund. In 2020, Mr Jeff Tung donated another $1 million to enhance the Fund, which aims to ignite the entrepreneurial spirit amongst SMU students and to support the growth of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in SMU.
PAK Challenge, the flagship event of Eagles Inc., is for tertiary students who are interested in creating their own startup or are already working on one. As Southeast Asia’s largest student-led startup pitch competition, PAK Challenge provides the essential startup capital and also aims to connect student entrepreneurs to potential angel investors and venture capitalists, thereby providing mentorship opportunities among players in the startup ecosystem.
Clarence (centre, front row) and participants of PAK Challenge 2019
Apart from Eagles Inc., can you tell us more about the other highlights of your entrepreneurial journey?
With Protégé Ventures (PV), the decision to be part of a venture fund dedicated to supporting student entrepreneurship seemed natural to me, given my interest. Apart from providing critical access to capital for startups, venture capitalists (VC) are like start-up Sherpas who provide mentorships and networks to guide the founders to the peak. Undoubtedly, start-up founders and VCs are still merely two nodes in the much broader network of the start-up ecosystem; regardless, the opportunity to break into either of them has been priceless.
In PV, we believe in grooming driven, analytical students who are interested in the startup ecosystem into the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders. Through hands-on venture capital training, we impart to them knowledge and confidence to navigate with ease into the disruptive economies of tomorrow. But you cannot be an excellent venture capitalist without first knowing where your knowledge blind spots are. And so, my key takeaway from PV is to be obsessed with learning from everyone and about everything you come across. Be curious, ask questions. The great thing about PV is that it is a tertiary-wide programme that involves students from other Institutes of Higher Learning, and it massively broadens your perspectives with the interaction and experiences shared by peers from other universities.
Building connections with fellow students is important, and so is networking with seasoned VCs who may have years’ worth of experiences and vast insights into the start-up landscape. PV afforded me with the opportunity to interact with an experienced VC during the 10th Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition’s VC Office Hours. As a representative of PV, I got the rare chance to shadow Hian from Openspace Ventures, as he spoke to and mentored startups. In these sessions, I observed how he approached the challenges that the startups brought forward to him. Immediately, I realised that VC veterans, like Hian, could instantaneously dissect the business models, pinpoint specific industry challenges and even offer targeted advice on how the startups can improve—all that, within a five-minute pitch from the founders.
Clarence (left) at a networking event
Apart from PV, I also had the opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant for the first iteration of the Social Entrepreneurship Practicum under Professor Kenneth Goh. I have always believed that entrepreneurship should be learned practically, more than theoretically, and this module is like no other in SMU. With a $1,000 grant per team, students get the opportunity to develop and market-test new venture ideas by creating a real prototype or minimal viable product (MVP). On top of that, mentors would be introduced to the teams to provide valuable feedback and help calibrate the team.
Collectively, these experiences have been a huge source of motivation. University years became the sweet spot to explore my entrepreneurial pursuits: a minimal risk environment, plenty of opportunities and open-mindedness—all conducive conditions for young entrepreneurs to experiment, fail, learn and try again. One would not be accorded the same safe environment out in the “real-world”. Sometimes, even the unexpected can also happen; student projects could lead to ground-breaking innovation and potentially become world-changing companies.
And it all starts here in SMU; the Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship (IIE) has been fertile ground for student entrepreneurship and innovation by providing opportunities for students to incubate their startups, provide mentors, bringing in a network of like-minded communities (e.g. Eagles Inc.) and much-needed grants to kickstart their entrepreneurial journey.
Finally, do you have any inspiring words for our readers?
I wholeheartedly believe that entrepreneurship rises above political, economic, and cultural boundaries, and through entrepreneurship, the world can become a better place for all. I also believe that entrepreneurs will become the main engine that moves the world forward because all jobs of the future will most likely come from new creations or ventures. As students, we learn about how the world works with society and economy, learn how to solve problems, and ultimately, make a difference in our own little part of the world.
But more importantly, I believe all aspiring student entrepreneurs should heed the advice in one of my favourite quotes by Simon Sinek: “Dream big, start small. But most of all, start.”
I am optimistic and excited to see how this and future generations of students can make a positive impact in the world—with their ideas, wit and determination. Overall, my entire experience, thus far, has been extraordinary and something that I could never have imagined when I first entered SMU.
Fulfill your entrepreneurial dreams here at SMU. Accept your offer today!