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A seasoned mentor who can stand behind a novice entrepreneur is a valuable asset for anyone attempting a start-up, but especially for those who are now launching ventures in Asia’s complicated business environment. K.O. Chia believes that in a new enterprise, the CEO-investor relationship can spell success or disaster. “When I sit on a board, I think of it as mentoring,” says Chia, EVP of Walden International Investment Group in Hong Kong. “I don’t think of myself as a venture capitalist but as somebody providing venture assistance, nurturing the next generation of companies.”

Silicon Valley-­based Walden International takes a hands-on approach when it backs new enterprises, insisting on monthly board meetings and close cooperation. Chia is well suited to this coaching technique. While most venture capitalists in Asia come from an investment banking background, Chia, a native of Malaysia, earned an engineering degree in England and spent fifteen years in the corporate world, first with Hewlett-Packard and then with Apple Computer. In 1991, he was part of the management team that founded Premisys Communications, a telecom venture that has been listed on Nasdaq since 1995. Chia built the telecom services company’s Asia-Pacific operations from scratch. After six years running nonstop at full speed, he took a break to figure out “what I needed to do for the rest of my life.” When he was approached by Walden, he decided the prospect of working with new ventures was a good fit.

“With my corporate start-up experience, I know what it takes to build a company up from zero,” Chia explains. “A lot of young entrepreneurs, particularly in Asia, are quite inexperienced, and you literally have to draw the whole game plan — step one, do this; step two, do that; and so forth.” What makes the mentor-pupil relationship work? “You need to approach the people you’re advising on their own level,” he says. “A good ‘mentoree’ is one who listens and is open-minded.” It often just boils down to personal chemistry, Chia observes. “If you don’t click with each other, then you have a problem.”

But when a partnership works, the experience can be highly rewarding. That’s why Chia has been sharing his insights with HBS professor Dorothy Leonard, who is studying the mentoring process. Chia hopes her research will improve understanding of the complex business environment in Asia. “This region is a collection of diverse cultures, stages of economic development, and political infrastructures,” he observes. “What works in one country may not work in others.” In such tricky conditions, struggling entrepreneurs need the wisdom of a veteran like Chia to open doors and help sort out the winning strategies.

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