How An MBA In China Made Me An Entrepreneur
The latest in our series of China MBA stories from the book—Changing Careers, Changing Lives—written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis
This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
Luca Valente is running out of space.
In his office, there are stacks of boxes upon boxes upon boxes, files overflowing with paperwork, desks, chairs, and computers crammed into every corner. Huge white boards cover the walls— complex calculations and engineering algorithms are scrawled across them.
Luca works six days a week, 12 hours a day, based out of the Hong Kong Science Park’s startup incubator. This is his third office—he’s already had to upsize twice. Every fortnight, he takes a weekend off to spend time with his wife, Vicky, and three-year-old son, Ryan, in Beijing.
Since completing his MBA at CKGSB in 2012, Luca has been living the high-octane life of a busy, dedicated, workaholic entrepreneur.
Over the past few years, Luca’s company, Ampd Energy, raised over $3.2 million in investment, grown his team to 15 full-time employees, and racked up the air miles travelling across Asia to develop his startup.
With his latest business idea, it looks like he’s onto something.
Born and raised in 1970s Brazil, Luca’s passion for adventure started from a young age.
He grew up in the nation’s capital, Brasilia, a man-made city shaped like an airplane. Luca spent much of his early life living in one of its wings in university-owned accommodation with his two sisters and his mother, a biology professor at the University of Brasilia.
“I made lot of very smart friends there, many of whom were sons and daughters of professors. That always challenged me,” Luca recalls.
“Back then, I knew nothing about China. But I knew I wanted to get out of Brazil to see the world and learn about different cultures.”
When Luca finished high school, entrepreneurship was still a relative unknown. But he always knew he was going to be an engineer. As a child, he’d disassemble his toys—cars and train sets—and put them back together again.
Luca went on to enjoy a successful engineering career in Brazil, working for Volkswagen and then Embraer, one of the largest airplane manufacturers in the world. But he always wanted more.
In 2005, 10 years after starting his master’s degree in engineering, Luca was on a plane to Harbin—a very cold, industrial city, capital of China’s northernmost province. Embraer had just opened up a new branch there, and Luca’s role was to lead the engineering team on manufacturing projects, logistics, and supervise the building of planes.
“Harbin was a hard place!” Luca laughs. “There was not even a Starbucks there at that time. I couldn’t go to movies, because there were no English subtitles. The average temperature in the winter was around -17°C (1.4°F). Nothing was easy!
“You really had to immerse yourself in the culture. Then, things started to get easier. I immediately tried to learn Chinese, tried various types of food, and spoke with different people. I even learned how to snowboard!”
Things started going well in Harbin. Luca met a local girl—Vicky, now his wife—on a plane back from watching Brazil in the volleyball finals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
But he soon reached a point of stagnation at work. He felt lost and was unsure of the future. To explore potential career opportunities, he decided to leave his well-paid job, and pursue an MBA.
“One day I thought, ‘Why not go crazy and take the leap?’” he says. “I spoke with my family and friends, and they all said I shouldn’t do it! But I wasn’t happy and I needed to do something to make a move.
“I started looking at business schools in China. And, from the top schools, I found that only CKGSB had a one-year program, and it was in Beijing, so I decided to go for it.”
At first, the MBA was a whirlwind of finance classes, accounting, strategy, marketing, balance sheets, and case studies. When he got the chance to sleep, he’d sleep with his tablet under his arm, waking up just to study again.
After a few hectic months in Beijing, and with support from his professors and classmates, CKGSB became the place where Luca’s first entrepreneurial ideas began to take shape.
“One of the things I realized at CKGSB is that opportunities are everywhere. They surround us, and most of the time you just don’t pay attention to them,” he says.
“CKGSB has done an amazing job creating a friendly environment where it’s easy to find colleagues and professors with similar interests. The school gives you all the tools to make you realize that you can chase your dreams, that you can do anything you set your mind to.”
Luca’s first startup idea came out of nowhere. He’d always wanted a motorbike. On a whim, he reached out to a guy renting out electric motorcycles. Before long, he was on the outskirts of Beijing, with two co-founders, starting up a company building high-performance electric bikes.
Soon, people from all over the world were calling him about his bikes—he had a half-page article published about the project in the South China Morning Post. Then, just when he thought things were taking off, one of his co-founders broke away and set up his own rival venture.
Temporarily, Luca was out in the cold. But from a challenge, came an opportunity. During a power cut, Luca realized that the electric vehicle batteries he was developing for his motorbikes could be scaled to power buildings and homes instead.
Now based in Hong Kong, Luca heads up the engineering team at Ampd Energy, designing and manufacturing lithium-ion- based energy storage systems which supply uninterrupted, backup power for companies all over Asia in emerging economies, and in data centers, airports, and hospitals—in places where it’s most needed.
He’s dropped the bikes—although he still has the first prototype for his electric motorbike battery crammed into his office somewhere. With his co-founder Brandon, he’s traveling across Asia to raise venture capital funding for his startup, while also managing the engineering and customer support sides.
Luca’s first objective is sales. He’s closing his first deal, selling up to 60 units to Vietnam, each worth around $10,000. But he also wants to do something meaningful. When the power cut out during a customer trial in a hospital in Indonesia, his technology ensured a live operation could continue. “We managed to save one life,” he says.
Luca knows that entrepreneurship is about the journey. Highs come with lows and it’s important to persevere, he adds. Visiting his wife and son in Beijing once a fortnight; communicating mostly over WeChat, being thousands of miles away from his family in Brazil—it’s tough. But Luca is ready for the fight.
“Doing the MBA gave me 20 years’ worth of experience in one year,” he says. “Taking the leap of quitting my job and going back to school was the key move that allowed me to be where I am now.
“I do miss the people and the food in Brazil. My mom is still telling me to come back! But life seems to be here now—I think I’ve passed the point of no return.”