"There is no way I would be where I am today without the opportunities that Cambridge and Cambridge Judge gave me"
Harry Tsao (Downing 1994) reflects on the impact of his MBA and his desire to give back
US and Taiwan-based alumnus Harry Tsao (Downing1994) and his wife Carol Chen have made a generous £2 million donation to support the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Simon Sainsbury Centre. Professor Christoph Loch, Director (Dean) of CJBS said, “We are very grateful to Harry and Carol for their generosity. Harry has shared that he wanted to give back to the School because it played a pivotal role in setting him on a path to business success, and he and Carol believe that an engaged community can be transformative to Cambridge Judge. And we are deeply appreciative of engagement with our global CJBS alumni community”
Here, Harry shares his thoughts on the value of the MBA to him, the paths his career has since followed, and why philanthropy matters to him and to Carol.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey since Cambridge Judge?
When I graduated from Cambridge Judge in 1996, I dabbled in the computer hardware space. First at Hitachi PC, then at Clarion, where we tried to put a Windows device in a car. Then I started a company and launched an online trade show called ShowExpo where I thought it would be a good idea to put ‘trade shows’ online, since they are all expensive and what you get in return are contacts and information. It was a good idea but executed in the wrong format.
Following my first failed business, I went to work for a company called GoTo.com. GoTo.com pioneered the sponsored search business and was later sold to Yahoo! While at GoTo.com, I was fortunate enough to be one of the first learners in the sponsored internet search space.
After GoTo.com, my partner Talmadge O’Neill and I started MeziMedia which began as an online coupon business, then expanded into comparison shopping, and ended up with a slew of content sites. We sold our business to ValueClick in July 2007, five years after founding it.
Since selling my business, I have mostly been a passive investor, mainly in tech and sports. But, that first business success really propelled me as a credible, strategic investor in a wide portfolio of extraordinary companies.
I have also co-founded and spent substantial time on two other companies, Juvo+, which is one of the biggest online marketplace sellers in the world, and Kitchen United, which is a ‘ghost kitchen’ concept in the United States.
Why Cambridge Judge and the University of Cambridge for an MBA in 1994?
I wanted to get an MBA because I saw it as a way to learn and a means of ensuring that I had a safety net if I were to be unsuccessful in business. If I couldn’t make it as an entrepreneur, I thought I would have sufficient knowledge to have a successful corporate life.
Being from Taiwan, and having gone to high school and college in the United States, I thought it would be great if I had the opportunity to experience another major economic zone, such as the UK or Europe. Cambridge has a great history, and I was lucky enough to get in.
How do you think the School and Cambridge have contributed to and shaped your success?
Huge. I would not have been recruited into GoTo.com without my MBA. In my three years there, I worked alongside some of the smartest people I’ve ever come across and they taught me a “ton of things”. There is no way I would be where I am today without the opportunities that Cambridge and Cambridge Judge gave me.
Co-Founding MeziMedia in 2002 and selling it on for $300 million in 2007 is an extraordinary achievement in just five years – why do you think your business model worked so well?
My business worked well because firstly I had a deep understanding of one of the most important advertising platforms in the internet space. My partner and I were able to effectively and profitably scale our business as soon as our first coupon site was launched. MeziMedia was profitable every single month of its existence – starting from month one.
We are immensely grateful for your extremely generous donation of £2 million to the School. What motivates you to give back to Cambridge Judge?
This is simple. There are few things in life you can point to as a turning point, and Cambridge was exactly that for me. For that, I am grateful. It is important for me to support the School, so that those who come after me can enjoy the benefits of the institution.
Would you like to see more alumni give back to Cambridge Judge and if so, why should they?
Giving is cultural, and your life experiences and background influence your perception of the value and importance of philanthropy. In Taiwan, few people would give to schools because they think all expenses should be included in the tuition fees. Education is very transactional – you pay tuition, you get an education. When you graduate, both parties have fulfilled the transaction. It’s an understandable approach, however, we know that there are innumerable expenses that are not supported by tuition, and require transformational philanthropy, such as major investments in facilities, support for a world class Entrepreneurship Centre, or having the ability to provide scholarships to those who might not be able to afford graduate business school degrees without them.
The American approach is about community building. It’s never a matter of the dollar amount, but rather the percentage of participation. When you have a vested community, everyone gets more involved. You build friends around your community, you laugh and cry as a community. When you are in a position to give more, you do just that!
It doesn’t matter if people can donate £1 or £1 million. Something great always happens when you have an engaged community.
What advice might you give to our current MBA students?
There are a few.
This is your time to reset. Your MBA will only give you a small window of opportunity where you can use your degree to get somewhere. When you first graduate, doors will open. You will likely get jobs that were previously unattainable to you. Learn everything you can. Work twice as hard as your peers. Learn a skill or an industry and take risks when you’re ready.
If you have aspirations to start your business, never ever quit your job and sell yourself the story that “I need to be fully dedicated to this” or “I need to give it 100 per cent.” Businesses always take longer to build, take more money than you think they will, and likely won’t be as successful as you would expect.
Be intellectually curious
The Simon Sainsbury Centre has enabled CJBS to bring its entire community under one roof, and created several new lecture theatres, seminar rooms, a private dining room for Executive Education and a dining café for the School. The addition of the Simon Sainsbury Centre is fostering greater collaboration, stimulating ideas and connecting people to facilitate great research, teaching and engagement.
Adapted from an interview originally published by Cambridge Judge Business School