“Do entrepreneurs need education?”
If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, considering an MBA, you have heard this question a million times. I know I have. The debate dives into the age-old question: Are entrepreneurs born or made? Examples of successful semi-educated entrepreneurs are brought up: the Gates, the Jobs and the Zuckerbergs of the world. You start doubting your choice of taking a year out to learn in an actual classroom. You now consider just starting and failing quickly. Hold on. Failing?!
As a wannabe entrepreneur and a big fan of analytics, I spent countless number of hours online trying to find decent statistics on probability of failure without education. I could not find any. I found, however, a number of successful companies founded and led by MBAs (or equivalent). The list seemed to be much longer than the list of ventures started by hustlers without formal business education. Case in point: Gerry Ford, founder and CEO of the very successful coffee shop chain Caffè Nero. Ford graduated from INSEAD in 1984 and subsequently started a private equity firm in the UK before diving into the coffee hospitality industry. Today, the company operates more than 600 stores and turns over nearly EUR 316 million per year.
And this is just the beginning: in my research through INSEAD’s entrepreneurial impact, I came across a number of inspiring trend-setters: from disruptive technology, through bespoke apparel, to fine bakery. As my research continued, I contacted several of these alumni entrepreneurs to get their side of the story. None of them had any doubts that the MBA played an instrumental role in their success.
This sealed the deal for me: MBA it is. But was INSEAD the best choice?
Choosing an MBA that works
I am actually quite lucky when it comes to MBA-shopping: I had access to first-hand information and advice and knew what I was looking for.
In my previous job, I worked for EFER, a foundation, which trains university academics to teach entrepreneurship. Started more than 25 years ago by a group of MBA graduates-turned-entrepreneurs, it has allowed me to explore a number of different MBA programmes and compare their approaches, impact and networks.
Furthermore, I have started a few ventures of my own and was able to identify my gaps in knowledge and skills. Learning from failure should never be underestimated!
So, what are the most important MBA features for an entrepreneur?
Networks. Networks. Networks.
Strong MBA programmes attract some of the finest talent in the world. You will be exposed to a sea of creativity, leadership, knowledge and diversity. Your MBA peers might make great co-founders, trusted advisors and drivers of innovation inside your company. Some of them will become investors; others will work in complementary industries. Regardless of their journey, your classmates will grow to be impactful leaders, with whom you share that one intimate secret—the MBA journey.
If you doubt any of the above, just take a look at the school’s alumni network. In INSEAD’s case, the sample list of entrepreneurs is already very inspiring. The beauty of alumni networks is that you belong to a special circle of trust—with shared traditions, experiences and emotions. Alumni are always willing to connect. They come back to show appreciation for the MBA experience. Just the other day, INSEAD opened the academic year with a talk by Ben Keswick (MBA ‘02D), a Fortune 500 CEO and driving force behind the growth of his family businesses Jardine Matheson. Later in the week, we met Hemant Aneja (MBA ‘06D), who as an intrapreneur leads Google’s activities in education.
Finally, the close collaboration between companies and business schools will always keep you disciplined about staying up-to-date with the market. Our MBA class is about to meet the leading consulting firms during week one of the programme. Week two gives way to the technology leaders. Week three welcomes banks and financing institutions. And so on, and so forth. Never a dull day—starting with your free copy of the Financial Times in the morning and ending with late-night industry research and networking.
The purpose of the MBA programmes is to provide well-rounded general management education. The academic scope could not be more relevant: as entrepreneurs, we always face the challenge of achieving customer satisfaction, while creating a sustainable organisation with productive employees and healthy numbers. As an MBA student, you will be required to master the basics of finance, operations, team management, negotiation, marketing and strategic business development.
INSEAD has built additional support for entrepreneurs through a wide selection of electives, which would help shape your academic experience. Many of these courses involve hands-on work, networking and close collaboration with entrepreneurs and investors. The school has attracted some of the leading scholars in entrepreneurship: many of the academics have and/or still run their own ventures.
The student-run Entrepreneurship Club, as well as the schools’ own Entrepreneurship Centre provide many additional opportunities to develop skills and experience: including study treks, bootcamps, networking and workshops. My favourite element is the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence programme, where INSEAD alumni entrepreneurs mentor students in their preferred industry.
Credibility of Your Skills
Starting your own company means being in the spotlight: customers, investors and partners will judge your decisions every step of the way. Your credibility will be constantly questioned: Are you too young, too inexperienced, taking too much risk? Do you really know what you’re doing?
In a way, the MBA diploma provides a form of such credibility. Joining a leading school means that you have successfully gone through a rigorous selection. Then, you somehow survived the jungle of alpha-males and females, while acquiring practical knowledge. Investors are reassured that you have the technical skills to run a company and they do not have to hire a CEO. Partners are signalled about your professionalism. The times when the business community would doubt about practicality of education is long gone: the best business schools have proven that they can keep up with the ever-changing world of commerce.
Last, but not least, an MBA degree manages to showcase one very “un-certifiable” skill: your ability to deal with and manage diversity. My INSEAD class of July 2016 brings together ambitious young people from 72 countries. Each of us speaks at least three languages and has lived and worked abroad at some point in life. In our current reality, when growth opportunities are strongly dependent on our ability to manage global operations and international teams, such diversity plays a vital role.
Some final inspiration
Through their extensive research over the years, Kauffman Foundation has continuously proven that new jobs are not created by big conglomerates, but by businesses younger than five years of age. I hope that you and I will one day contribute to this impactful trend!
If as an entrepreneur, you still doubt whether an MBA is for you, I would urge you to step away from mainstream media and look into some of the companies whose job-creation impact and innovation capacity you truly admire. The media love an underdog—the college drop-out in a small garage—but there are many more examples where success comes with education.
During my research of entrepreneurial INSEAD alumni in my preferred field of innovation and technology, one name came up several times—that of Wolfgang Marguerre (MBA ‘72J). Mr Marguerre is the Chairman of Octapharma Group, a pharmaceutical company which he founded together with another INSEAD alum, Robert Taub (MBA ‘83J). Today, Octapharma employs more than 5,500 leading medical experts to conduct ground-breaking research and develop new products. An accomplished entrepreneur and now a billionaire, Marguerre is one of those committed INSEAD alumni who give back to the school and support its entrepreneurial spirit. I was lucky and honoured to receive the Marguerre Endowed Scholarship for Entrepreneurial Talent to support my education. This is one of the many funding options, which are available for entrepreneurs at the school.
And if you think I am too INSEAD-biased, I will bring up another very recent case in point: one Mr. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba (yes, the same e-commerce giant, which went public in late 2014 at over EUR 205 billion market value). Mr. Ma is not only a graduate from one of China’s leading business schools, but also an academic. Now, that’s an inspiring breed!