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Made in Kunming (continued)

Yasheng Huang

The China Lab began in 2008, the brainchild of MIT Sloan professor and associate dean Yasheng Huang. MIT Sloan’s action learning programs—a series of “labs” that bring students around the world for trial-by-fire real-life consulting projects—were growing at a rapid clip, following a decade of success with the Entrepreneurship Lab and the Global Entrepreneurship Lab (E-Lab and G-Lab, respectively).

Today’s MIT Sloan action learning programs include 13 labs and a series of study tours. Students from across the School’s programs have taken to the unique learning model. A full 75 percent of MBA students participate in at least one action learning project (and some do as many as three). Every member of the 2012 Master of Finance class completed at least one project. All told, MIT Sloan students have finished action learning projects with more than 400 small and medium-sized companies over the past decade.

Huang wanted to see that same energy focused on China, where MIT Sloan already had strong relationships with leading business schools like Yunnan University. China’s boom was in full swing, and Huang saw a win-win opportunity.

“It occurred to me that I could use our students to help small and medium-sized entrepreneurs in China who otherwise couldn’t afford the consulting advice that would make a real difference in their businesses,” he said.

For students: “I think what’s unique is you get inside a Chinese entrepreneurial firm. You get close to Chinese entrepreneurs. They tell you things they may not tell you if you don’t do this project with them. You get data you may not get if you don’t do this project with them. So in that sense, I just don’t think you can get the kind of exposure our students get by doing anything else.”

During China Lab projects, MIT Sloan students do real consulting work. China Lab—like all of MIT Sloan’s action learning programs—is not an internship, it is not a mentorship, and it is not an apprenticeship. Students are expected to produce results that rival the work of the top global consulting firms.

Students in MIT Sloan’s action learning labs also work almost exclusively with entrepreneurs managing small and medium-sized companies. Sure, Huang says, you could send a China Lab team to a multinational corporation with a Beijing office. But that would be missing the point.

“We emphasize entrepreneurs because we like entrepreneurs,” Huang said. “My own view is that entrepreneurs are the future of economic development in any country, including China. But the other reason we like them is because almost every decision an entrepreneur makes is a high-level strategic decision. If you work with a big company, you will be given a very well-defined task. You don’t learn as much, because it’s well defined.”

“The way I look at working with a big company is it’s a bit like filling in the blanks,” he said. “So there are blanks that they need you to fill in, but they don’t want to spend the time, and they don’t have the expertise. Whereas, if you work with a local entrepreneur, it’s like filling in a whole page. They need it all. It can be anything. There is a lot of frustration, no question about it. But that’s life. Life is frustrating.”

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