Jack Ma and Hupan University: Cultivating the Next Generation of Chinese Entreprenuers Through Failure Education

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela

It was a humid and steamy weekend, and we ventured our way into Hupan University in Hangzhou.

In 2009, Jack Ma and a group of his Chinese entrepreneur friends went together on a trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan.

While in there, they started to think about a question:

private businesses have been flourishing in China for over three decades now thanks to the free-market policy, how come there still isn’t a Chinese institution dedicates to the education of entrepreneurship?

Of course, you might say, nowadays there are many MBA programs to choose from; but the educational approach of conventional Business Schools might not necessarily be the most useful for start-up founders, in particular for those operating businesses in China. Is it possible to create an academic experience specifically for China’s aspiring entrepreneurs, to help everyone learn and grow together by exploring how to build businesses to last, rather than just for sale?

In 2015, after building a team to interview hundreds of entrepreneurs and companies around China for more than 2 years, Ma and 8 of his business and academic friends turned their question into an aligned quest by establishing Hupan University in Hangzhou, China.

Board of Trustees of Hupan University, China.
Hupan University’s current school campus.

“It doesn’t matter if I failed. At least I passed the concept on to others. Even if I don’t succeed, someone will succeed.”

-Jack Ma

To start the school, the 9 of them voted for a leader (Ma was voted to be the university principal), found a place, hired a team of staffs and kick-started the venture. The only problem? No one knew how to actually run a university.

But like any ambitious founders, Ma and his friends knew where they were heading thanks to a shared vision: instead of teaching the skills for success (as if such a thing existed), they wanted to create an institution on failures.

As experienced entrepreneurs themselves, the 9 of them knew more than anyone that rock-bottom is the foundation in creating successful business. Failure matters, and only by learning from failures one could stand a chance to success. Hupan, therefore, will be a space for entrepreneurs to deconstruct success and learn all about failures.

Principal Ma giving a speech to Hupan University’s Class of 17′ students.

With such vision in mind, the founding team began to look for the first batch of students for the University’s 2015 class.

Unlike conventional schools which treat students like students, in Hupan, students are more like partners of a business venture. “We honestly had no idea what to teach our students for the first day of class in Hupan,” says Jack 2 years later, during the enrollment ceremony for the school’s 2017 class. “but we didn’t lie to our students, we just told them, let’s build the school from scratch together. You all own this school as much as owning your own companies, so let’s make it wonderful by finding more top-quality candidates for the school, by making the university community better, and by driving up the Chinese economy together as a leading, positive force.”

Hupan’s students celebrating the start of a new academic year in March 2017.

From the beginning, Hupan University has always been very open about its selective nature for students. By admitting only 44 out of over 1000 applications in 2017, its acceptance rate (4.07%) was lower than that of Stanford (4.7% for this year’s undergraduate college).

“China is filled with amazing young entrepreneurs nowadays, so it’s not that we can’t find enough good candidates”, says Zhouyi, staff member of Hupan University’s curriculum and technology team, “we decided to admit only 30-40 students each year because we believed in the power of intimacy and emotional connections when it comes to education. Also, Hupan is really just a baby at the moment; people think it’s Jack Ma’s school so everything must be grand and luxurious, but in reality, we are a small team trying to figure out everything by ourselves, and there’s only so much we could accommodate before opening the new campus in 2020.”

A model of Hupan University’s future campus.

“The life purpose of the true social entrepreneur is to change the world.”

-Bill Drayton

Getting into Hupan as a student is no easy task.

First of all, just to become an eligible applicant, one has to be the founder of a company that’s at least 3 years old, has more than 30 employees and an annual revenue of over 30 million yuan. On top of them, applicants also need to provide proofs of the business’s tax payment, and to get 3 accommodation letters of which at least one must be from the University’s list of certified referees.

Students are required to put their phones away during classes at Hupan.

For those that are good and lucky enough to get to the interview round (in 2017, there were 79 candidates made it out of over 1,000 applicants), they’d be invited to the campus to share their answer to one same question: what differences do I make to this world?

Facing a crowd of judges consisting the university’s trustees, teachers and candidates, entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to reflect upon their own business journey and to map out their vision into the future. “We are basically asking our candidates to begin thinking about three questions before they join the Hupan community as a student-

What do you have?

What do you want?

And most importantly,

What could you give up for what you want?

Ma and his foreign friends at a young age.
Ma has always held a passion for teaching and sharing.

For Ma and his entrepreneur friends that founded Hupan, these are the questions that have guided them, and are guiding them into the future of building business that matters to the world.

Everyone knows creating a business is not easy, yet few really gets the opportunity to see and comprehend the ego-brusing, painful knowledge in making, growing, and sustaining a business. “We are where we are today “, said Ma, “because we woke up early, we got off late, we didn’t sleep enough and had much shorter holidays. We struggled day and night and picked ourselves up from disappointments and frustrations again and again and again. 

It is indeed this journey of constant reflection and adaptation that Ma wants to share the most with his entrepreneur students at Hupan. “My vision for this University is very simple: 20, or perhaps 30 years later, I hope at least 200 out of the top 500 businesses leaders in China would have studied in Hupan. By learning from each other’s failures, we’d help the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs not to grow bigger, but to thrive for a longer, happier, and healthier business.

Hupan University’s school badges.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. “

-Albert Einstein

Hupan doesn’t do graduation. Once admitted, students are required to show up at the campus for 4 days every 2 months, attending the school’s 3-year, part-time based academic program in order to get all the necessary credits.

After completing the learning requirement, which includes writing a thesis paper for the 3rd year, students are still welcomed to auditing for new classes or participating in discussion groups at any time, both within and beyond campus.

“We are not a formal public higher education institution and we don’t intent to be”, introduces Zhou, “the whole purpose of our university, as principal Ma repeatedly emphasized, is to create an environment for knowledge-thirst entrepreneurs to learn and grow as a community, instead of just showing up, networking or grabbing a degree. It’s is all about education.”

From students, staff members, trustees to Principal Ma himself, everyone at Hupan shares a humble respect and burning passion for learning. As a community of impact-drivers and change-makers, they understand the value of knowledge, and are genuinely open to share just about every valuable, personal experience with each other.

Classes at Hupan University.

So how to create an education experience that truly enriches its students?

For Hupan University, the answer lies in its careful yet innovative curriculum design. “The University is super flexible when it comes to course development,” said Zhao Yi, the CEO of Earth&People,  Hupan University’s student of the 2015 class. “The staff team will ask for our specific needs in terms of what we want to learn, and we could even request for a particular teacher/mentor for specific classes. As a student of Hupan, I could feel that there is really no limit for the school when it comes to mobilizing teaching resources for us students.”

And there really isn’t. Unlike traditional MBA courses which are taught mainly by academic professors, the majority of Hupan’s classes are taught by the most influential, top-tier entrepreneurs in today’s China.

Education is what matters.

Having grasped the opportunity of China’s social and economic changes in the early 90s and fought their way up fiercely until this day, these folks are the real drivers of the Chinese economy. For them, things never just stay on papers; they poured their hearts and souls on the battlefield, made many bloody, cruel mistakes, tripped, stagnated and even failed. Yet again and again, they managed to bounce back and continue to march forward in creating new ventures in China and globally.

After over 3 decades of relentlessly hard work, today, more than anything, they are passionate about sharing all of their experiences to a new generation of emerging Chinese entrepreneurs. The things they missed before success, the dangers that trapped them in desperations, the lessons they didn’t learn and wish they’d have learnt now looking back, these are what being shared openly and intimately again and again inside Hupan’s classrooms.

Mr. Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of Lenovo, taught a class for Hupan students last year titled “How to Deal With Complex Relationships as an Entrepreneur “. He revised his lecture contents for over 10 times before actually teaching the class, “I’ve never so carefully prepared for my notes in a decade,” says Liu, “I truly believe Hupan University’s students would be the future forces of the Chinese economy.”

I don’t want people in China to have deep pockets but shallow minds.

-Jack Ma

And things don’t stop inside the classrooms.

Last September, Hupan University launched a podcast series on Himalaya, China’s most popular audio/podcast app. The podcast, which shares highlights from the school’s lectures and classes, have attracted over 40,000 paid subscribers within 6 months since then. The University also live-streamed its opening ceremony for the 2017 academic year in March, and has been actively producing various insightful documentaries on its website for the public.

“I know there are people out there saying Hupan is mysterious, but the truth is the exact opposite of that.” Zhou laughed, “the school was established with a clear vision to be accessible to the public, because Principle Ma and us staffs knew from the beginning how much entrepreneurship education could inspire everyone. We are devoting more resources to develop open courses for those passionate about making an impact to the world, while doing everything we could to help Chinese entrepreneurs grow, bound, and thrive in the global economy.”

Principle Ma giving out the student badges.

It is undoubtedly a challenge, yet from what we’ve seen, Hupan University has truly created a comfortable and liberated space for China’s challenge-takers to learn, to empathize, to communicate and to lead as a global force.

Hupan University’s 2017 class.

Three years into making, China’s Hupan University is indeed still a baby.

The adventure has just started, and much unknown remains-

But honestly, we can’t wait to witness its exciting future ahead.

Hupan University’s 2017 class.
This article by Biyi and Yan originally appeared in elephant-room, all rights reserved by the authors