Office of the President
Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor
Remarks made by
Simon Fraser University
April 4, 2013
to the Vancouver Board of Trade
Sutton Place Hotel, Vancouver
My name is Michael Cheng, and I’m a 23-year old entrepreneur studying at Simon Fraser University. Throughout the years, I’ve started a number of successful ventures across for- and non-profit sectors. I’ve been named Top 25 Under 25, SFU Entrepreneur of the Year, and one of Canada’s most promising undergraduates to be accepted into The Next 36. I also just found out that I’ll be featured in the next issue of Maclean’s as a Future Leader of Canada.
But it wasn’t always that way for me, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. About 6 years ago, I was in my grade 12 year, and the only thing on my mind was World of Warcraft. If you don’t know what that is, it’s an online game with more than 10 million players. I didn’t think about education and I didn’t care about my career. I ended up going to University as a result of parental pressures.
But in my first year, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I took a number of random courses in arts, sciences, business, you name it. In the design classes I learned how to make pretty things, like logos and web design. It was cool, but I didn’t think I could make a living out of it. In the computer science classes I learned how to use programming language to draw a turtle on the screen and made it wiggle across the monitor. Which again, I thought was irrelevant to my career. In business classes I had to read countless case studies. I hated reading them and I always fell asleep whenever I tried.
I ended up pursuing a degree in the interactive arts program, a program where we learned skills like product design, web design, and 3d animation. In my second year, I started doing some freelance work. Through that time, I met a lot of other freelancers. Some went to university, some went to trade schools, and some didn’t go to school. It quickly became clear that my approach to freelancing career was extremely different. Within a couple years I transformed my freelance career into a full-blown business. We quickly reached 6 figures in annual revenue and went from a one-man-show to a team of 30, servicing hundreds of clients worldwide.
As Steve Jobs once said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect the dots looking backwards. It was then I realized that in the design classes, I didn’t just learn how to make pretty things; I actually acquired the rare skill of creativity. I learned how to think outside the box, conceptualize, and I was always one step ahead of the market because I was thinking innovatively. In the computer science courses I didn’t just learn how to draw turtles and make them move. I learned the art of leveraging technology to integrate and implement creative concepts. I wasn’t merely conceptualizing. I had the skills to build and execute. And all those case studies that I hated reading in the business classes came back to me. I realized that I already had all the basic skills I needed in marketing, finance, team building, and project management to start a successful business. The only thing that was missing; was that I never realized I acquired those skills.
The experiential learning and multidisciplinary teachings of the University gave me the competitive advantage against my counterparts who unfortunately did not have the luxury of higher education. The experiences at the University gave me all the characteristics I needed to become a successful entrepreneur, to not just function well within the system, but to step beyond it, innovate, redefine, and recreate traditional conventions.
I can’t speak for other Universities, and I certainly have no idea what Universities were like decades ago. But I can speak on behalf of my University, the University that transformed me from an online gamer into a future leader of Canada.
What scares me though, and what brought me here today, is that I didn’t have an 85% grade point average. Due to a shortage in resources, the entrance requirements at SFU have skyrocketed by 10% over the past several years. This means that if I had graduated high school today, I may not receive the luxury of University education. This means that your future leader of Canada may still very well be playing World of Warcraft.
I’m 23 this year and I don’t have kids yet. But I’d like to think that when I do, my sons and daughters would have access to an education system that would, too, give them the opportunities to be trained and taught to become a future leader of Canada, and I’m sure you’d like that for your children as well.