‘Food Hub’ Project: Learning Through Competing

As awareness for corporate social responsibility (CSR) is increasing, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School has been offering numerous initiatives to encourage its students to practice this concept. One such initiative is the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) CUHK contest. Michelle Lai, an undergraduate student who led the project “Food Hub,” recounts how her project ended up beating top-notch contestants in the competition:

“I’m Michelle Lai and I’m the project leader of Food Hub, a social enterprise that sells and delivers local organic fruits and vegetables to offices. We won the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) regional championships last year in Hong Kong. Then we went on to compete in Beijing for the National championships.

Members of the Food Hub team 2012: (from left)Jasper Chan, Michelle Lai, Cynthia Tam, Sylvia Wan, Queenie Wong and Achilles Leung

As a business student, I always value practical applications over theories. That’s why last year I joined many business competitions to put into practice what I had learned in the classroom. By far, the competition that made me learn the most was SIFE.

The jury of SIFE (known as Enactus now) would not accept hypothetical business plans that are not pragmatic. Instead, they want to see business plans that are feasible and can be executed. The plans should take into consideration profits, social impact and empowerment to marginalised groups in society. To convince the jury of SIFE competition in front of you that you have done something meaningful is only to work hard.

Having been challenged by the SIFE executive committee and Bacardi, a company providing professional support to the adopted project teams, I have learned that within a 10-minute presentation, everything mentioned should fit into a larger framework and that you have to tell a convincing story to prove that the plan will work. There should be a sensible logical flow for everyone to follow. Each piece of information provided should be making a point. It is also important to summarise our business model within five sentences so our audience can grasp the key ideas. Instead of combing through a massive amount of details, we have learned to be succinct in our final presentation. I am glad that presentation skills are considered very important in CUHK’s business programmes and that we have made improvements.

I found it tough to be a leader of my team. Not all team members were committed to the project. Over the course of the year, the number of our members dropped from 14 to only 6. There are many tedious tasks when running a business, and it seems to me that these tasks would weed out those who are not so committed. In the end, the most interesting tasks would go to the committed members. It is also hard to keep up the team morale. As a leader, I needed to use my vision to show the team members what our final goal is and to motivate them to put in the hard work. A persistent approach is what helped me to push my team toward the finishing line.

The most important thing I learned about leadership was to trust my teammates and delegate important tasks to them. Doing everything by myself was exhausting and not sustainable in the long run.

We found that our market research, questionnaires and interviews sometimes gave us misleading information. Where is the most profitable target market? We found the answer to this question not through questionnaires but by selling door to door and listening to customers’ reactions to our pitches. Selling a minimum viable product to test the market is by far the most accurate market research. A minimum viable product is a low quality product that reaches the customer’s minimum standard of acceptance. Such product carries the intrinsic characteristics of the ideal product and is used to test customer’s reaction.

These are just some of the many examples that show that putting theory into practice is more complex than you think. I learned all these through the actual implementation of a business. Doing this through SIFE has allowed us senior students to gain professional support from the sponsors, as well as share our experiences with one another. I encourage everyone to try to start one’s own small business, whether through SIFE or other means. The University is a closely-knit community that is quite accessible for small-scale student-led initiatives or businesses.”

Contributed by Michelle Lai, an undergraduate student of CUHK Business School with editorial input from Louisa Wah Hansen