How I boosted my entrepreneurial skills and founded a Hong Kong start-up

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When Gerardo Salandra, CEO and founder of Rocketbots, looks back at the MBA he took at the Chinese University of Hong Kong one element stands out: entrepreneurship training. “By far the most useful course I ever had was applied entrepreneurship,” he says.

The module involved students being paired with struggling start-ups at Hong Kong’s largest incubators, Cyperport and Science Park. They had one month to learn about the business and suggest changes, before pitching the new business model to a room full of investors.

“It was a huge pressure. You really wanted to help, and you knew that, in a way, the future of this company was in your hands,” he says. “It was like the TV show Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.”

Salandra’s pitch was successful, and he secured the entrepreneur he had been paired with the investment he needed. Fast-forward a year and Salandra found himself pitching to investors again, but this time for his own start-up, Rocketbots.

“The experience was really helpful. You have no idea how many situations I have been in, especially in the last four months, in which I have been going into a room and having to pitch to people who are interested in investing in our business,” says Salandra. “We have seven minutes, and you have to go out and be memorable. If it had not been for that experience at CUHK, I think it would have been harder for us to raise money.”

Not only did the CUHK MBA enable Salandra to hone his entrepreneurial skills, but taking the course was also instrumental in helping him get to where he is today.

Salandra, who was born in El Salvador, started out working as an intern at Google, before moving on to IBM and then fitness app start-up Runtastic. He came to Hong Kong in 2015 to do his MBA, where the CUHK alumni introduced him and other students to CEOs and entrepreneurs while they were still studying.

One member of the CUKH alumni contacted Salandra after seeing his CV. Salandra says: “I still remember his email. He said, ‘Gerry, I am keen to work with you in employment form, partnership form or sponsoring you.’ He was keen to work with me in any possible way.”

After initially working at his company to help him grow his business, the pair went on to co-found Rocketbots, which creates artificial intelligence chatbots for companies. Salandra explains that the company came about after Facebook announced it was opening up its Messenger app to other services.

“It meant you could connect Facebook Messenger to anything,” he says, enabling Messenger to be used as a channel through which people could interact with company chatbots. Within a couple of weeks of starting, Rocketbots had signed up Hong Kong’s largest bank as a customer.

“There is a huge gap in the market between the tools that are currently available and the tools that could be available. That is where Rocketbots was really born,” says Salandra.

The company went on to sign up several other big clients, including luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, home to brands such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, and tit completed its first round of funding in November last year. “We are incredibly excited,” adds Salandra.

While Salandra’s MBA concentrated on entrepreneurship and marketing, CUHK has recently adapted the programme to focus on entrepreneurship and technology. Salandra says he is jealous of the students who do the new programme and genuinely wishes he could have taken it himself. He points out that people often associated entrepreneurship with starting your own business, but in reality, it is much more than that.

“I used to work at Google and I tell you the first thing they looked at when they hired someone was does this person have an entrepreneurial spirit because being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean starting a business, it means starting things from scratch,” he says.

Salandra adds that large multinational company and banks also want to hire people who can come in and create new things, not just follow. “I think entrepreneurship is something that is incredibly relevant for today,” he says. “We talk to a lot of industry leaders and they tell us someone with entrepreneurial skills has an incredible edge when it comes to hiring.”

He says that having an MBA that focuses on entrepreneurship is going to have a stronger weight than just a general MBA, and as an employer himself, he always looks for people who are innovative and creative, who have an entrepreneurial spirit. “Over the last few months we have received nearly 400 applications and hired six people. We hire them because we saw this spirit in them,” he says.

Salandra is also enthusiastic about the technology element of CUHK’s programme. “In the next five years, all companies will be IT companies. That is why it is very important for anyone, no matter what they are going to do later on, to have a digital background.”

Another aspect of the CUHK MBA that Salandra says has been invaluable to him is the networking opportunities it offers, with many of his clients coming to him through the CUHK network. He adds that the degree has paid for itself just through the clients CUHK has brought him. “To be honest, I don’t think I would have my own company at this point if I hadn’t done the MBA,” he says.