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Susan Scott

Interim Executive Director, Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship

Susan Scott is a humble Kaneohe girl whose business savvy and leadership skills
took her all the way to Silicon Valley, where she spent 17 years working
in senior management positions for various startup tech companies.
In both her professional and personal life, she has one mission:
“I want to leave things better than I found them,” Scott says. photo: Olivier Koning

Q: In July, you were named the interim executive director of the UH Shidler College
of Business’ Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship (PACE). What is PACE?

A: The objective of PACE is to assist students in starting up businesses. The education here at UH gives them a foundation for the vertical skills that they need, so to speak — marketing, finance, accounting, etc. It’s really risky to start a business. But the more you know, the more analysis you can do as far as your market, who’s going to buy it, how you price it, who’s your competitor; you’re minimizing the risk. We’re trying to help the students go through a thought process, incorporate what they’re learning at the university with real-world, practical experience.

Q: One of your goals is to engage the local business community with UH business students. What is the value in forming this relationship?

A: You can only learn so much in the classroom. They’ll teach you the tactical skills, but what you really need is strategic, real-world experiences that people go through. For example, professors aren’t going to teach you what you have to do when someone calls in sick. The interaction gives the student a real-life perspective of what it’s like to start a business — not having enough resources, not being sure if you can cover your own expenses, much less your employees’ expenses. I think it’s a real nice marriage of classroom and real-world experiences. You need the two in order to have a good idea of what you’re getting into.

Q: One of PACE’s more popular programs is the Business Plan Competition. What is the most important thing to remember when creating a business plan?

A: What I always say is that you put together a business plan, and as soon as you print it out, it’s getting obsolete already. There’s a very short shelf life, because there are so many factors out in the world that are changing every second. What I look for in a good business plan is somebody who really understands what their market is, and they have to be smart. That’s why they say investors will always invest in the management team. You could have the greatest idea, but if they’re not sure about your management team, the chances of you getting money are slim. Or else, the money will bring in a good management team. The people are really important. I think what we’re looking for is someone who really knows what they’re getting into and the investor feels confident that when obstacles start popping up — and they always do — that they’ll figure out a way to overcome them.

Q: What other types of programs would you like to see implemented by PACE?

A: For the fall semester, we’re implementing several new programs. One of them is a hatchery, so in this office here, we want to start an incubator for students who want to build teams, or build a company. We’ll start off with two companies. They’ll have up to six months to stay in here and we’ll support them however we can. We’ll try to help them cultivate or refine their business plan. The second thing we’re putting together is a professional in-residence program. Every Wednesday, there will be a professional with vertical expertise from the community in here that has office hours for two hours. Since it’s hard to manage people’s schedules, I also want to put together a virtual professional residence program. I hope to get about 50 business professionals to participate and provide counseling and feedback to students who may have questions about a business they’d like to start. It’s just a way for us to cast a wider net into the business community. It’s really about trying to bring the business community and UH community together.

Q: How difficult is it to start your own business in Hawaii compared to on the Mainland?

A: If the students are optimistic, that’s the main thing. I have a theory, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s just based on my own personal experience. Because Hawaii has such a strong Asian influence, it’s very conservative. You don’t want to lose face, failure is not an option; everybody has to succeed. But frankly, a big part of entrepreneurship is failure. It may not be failure like the company goes bankrupt, but it’s going down one path, [finding out] it doesn’t work and then choosing another route that might be more successful. I think in Hawaii, there’s a big avoidance of risk. My feeling is, if you have a dream and you want to pursue it, go for it. Go for it when you’re young because when you have three kids and a mortgage and a car payment and private school tuition, you can’t afford it. What I do encourage people to do is to go work for a big company first. You’ll learn so much about how you want to do business.

Q: Industry experts are forecasting that the slump in tourism could last through 2009 and into 2010. What do Hawaii businesses need to do to survive and thrive during this economic downturn?

A: My feeling is that tourism is in for a really rude awakening. I’m not sure even 2009 is a safe bet to say that our industry will start to rebound. I have two friends that come to Hawaii every single Christmas with their families to spend the holidays here. Both of them are not coming this year. It has nothing to do with the subprime situation. It has to do with the $1,300 per person to get their family here. It has to do with gas prices. That’s why I think this slump is going to go past 2010, and that’s just from my own anecdotal data points. I think if you’re an established business, you’d better dig in for the long haul. I wouldn’t spend a lot of money. I would really look into how you can pinch every single penny. I would be looking at other markets that might be interested in your product. Another thing is that you have to be willing to make the hard decisions and you have to be willing to make them quickly. Sometimes you have to make decisions to let people go for the greater good, but when you wait too long, you’re tapping into resources that you really don’t have. I think the best thing to do is to buckle down for hard times.

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