Entrepreneur Asia: Power Players

Why these executives abandoned the corner office

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for CNBC.com
Rene Mansi | E+ | Getty Images

The corporate suite isn't a typical breeding ground for entrepreneurs, but some executives find reasons to strike out on their own after climbing the ladder.

"If you keep your hand on the rail of the escalator, you'll have a nice ride to the top. It's as simple as that. And for some people, that's great," said Chris Wanden, who left an executive position at Discovery Channel to found Singapore coffee chain Dimbulah Coffee. But he added, for others, "It's in the DNA. At some point, you've got to recognize it."

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He believes people leave the corporate world for three reasons: "One is because they're tired of the (office politics) down the corridor. Two is because they have an absolute passion about something and they just feel this unbelievable drive to go out and make it happen. And three is because they see an opportunity, a gap in the market, and they believe they can pull the resources together and make it happen."

He added, "For me, all three happened at the same."

That's a view shared by a lot of corporate employees. Accenture's 2013 survey of 800 corporate employees in the U.S. found that only one in five believed their company offered management support to pursue entrepreneurial ideas within the company and 36 percent of employees and 30 percent of decision-makers said they simply didn't have time.

Of the 93 percent of the 200 self-employed individuals surveyed who had previously worked at a corporate organization, more than half said their employer wasn't supportive of their entrepreneurial ideas, Accenture said. Around 30 percent of those individuals struck out on their own to have the freedom to purse their ideas without focusing on other projects, the survey found.

Around twenty years ago, Wanden bought an Australian coffee plantation on a whim.

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"I couldn't even spell farmer, let alone be one. It just seemed like a good idea," he said. But it wasn't until 2002 that he left his position as head of affiliate sales for Asia Pacific at Discovery and started his first Singapore café, more than 3,000 miles away from the plantation providing his coffee supply.

"Singapore really was incredibly underserved in the coffee business. Australia was well-served," he said to explain why he didn't set up shop closer to his coffee supply. Dimbulah currently has five outlets, with Singapore revenue "well into the millions," although the plantation is currently technically in a loss due to development costs to boost output, he said.

A drive to make it happen

It was passion that led Khatiza Van Savage to leave her position as a trainer for the corporate world to begin Insightful Learning Journeys, leading volunteer and training missions in Bhutan.

"After more than 15 years of working in organizations focusing on bottom line alone, I made the decision I had to take a step back and come from a different perspective," Van Savage said. "How do you help an organization recognize their best talent will stay if they're helped with balancing their personal and professional lives?"

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Van Savage grew up in a remote area of India, where she learned about the culture of Bhutan, and developed an interest in applying the country's "gross national happiness" (GNH) measurement to organizations and corporations.

Bhutan developed the GNH to measure quality of life and social progress as well as a litmus test for whether proposed government policies will improve the country's well-being, rather than just its gross domestic product. The United Nations has since approved a resolution designating happiness as a fundamental human goal and making it part of its development goals.

Her Singapore-based company builds leadership training around sustainable, continuing volunteer projects in Bhutan, with Google one of her largest clients. Mindful leadership, which includes compassion and empathy, can only be learned when people are immersed in situations where they are exercised, she said.

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It's an effort to bring a distinctly Asian experience to management training.

"For a long, long time, we always assumed that the only knowledge came from the West. All the management learning came from the West. But there's a lot of learning that's right here," she said. "Having been exposed to rich cultures and then having a global lifestyle has allowed me to see the value of the East and West. How do I bring the two together and learn from both?"

Recognizing a need

It was recognizing a need for training that led Zsuzsanna Tungli to star Developing Global Leaders Asia, which provides cultural training for both expatriate and local employees.

While working for Arthur Anderson in the early 1990s in her native Hungary, she recognized that technical expertise simply wasn't enough for employees to work together in a global environment.

"I still remember these feelings in my stomach when the otherwise very professional and technically capable – particularly English managers at that time -- would come to Hungary and would see Hungarian general managers and ministers," she said.

"Often what the English people would say wouldn't make sense," she said, noting the country had only made its switch from a planned economy to a market-based one in 1989.

"For us, words like stock exchange (or) shares -- they were all abstract words," she said. "Often the things they would say or suggest to companies were not possible because of the system."

But it was many years later, in 2011 that she left a position lecturing on executive education at the Business School of the Central European University in Hungary and Romania.

Across Asia, companies can face cultural landmines when employees haven't been trained, she said, citing as an example a company which gave a Chinese client a gift of clocks with the company logo. In Mandarin, the words for clock and funeral are similar, with the gift of a clock viewed as telling the recipient to "drop dead." The company ultimately lost the client's business, she said.

Taking the leap

To be sure, leaving behind the corporate world isn't an easy step.

"I could have given the advice to any entrepreneur before," said Tungli. "Executing what your advice would be is difficult," she said.

Dimbulah's Wanden agreed. "You've got to be pretty brave," to walk away from a steady job, he said. "You have to be prepared to go on a really tight diet for awhile and you have to learn to like it ," he said, adding "you always miss the salary."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1