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Going Off on Your Own (or Not): MBA Electives in Entrepreneurship

How entrepreneurship courses can help students start their own businesses, or simply become better managers

From Richard Branson to Steve Jobs, entrepreneurs might be considered the defining business leaders of this generation. The attraction is clear: especially for many people who may work in large, faceless organizations, the idea of the entrepreneur – who literally creates a concrete business idea out of a vision – serves as a kind of idealized fantasy.

Even for many MBAs, entrepreneurship seems to be all the rage these days. And why not? In an MBA program, participants pick up a wide range of managerial skills from organizational management to finance and strategy, all of which are required in the agile, cross-functional world of the startup.

Even MBAs who might not know that they want to start their own businesses might take electives in entrepreneurship, perhaps out of curiosity.

“When they come into the class, 90 percent of them don't know what they're going to do,” says Alex Kalil, who teaches on two entrepreneurship courses at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. 

“What we're trying to do is stimulate their thinking process.”

To do that, in one of the classes he teaches, Kalil brings in a variety of guest lecturers from the business world. They talk about everything from budgeting to new product development and even mundane day-to-day office tasks. For the final project, students work with a real business to produce a revised business plan, helping to solve an actual problem for the company.

“It’s very practical,” Kalil says.

For many would-be entrepreneurs who are doing MBAs, “practical” is the name of the game. Indeed, many business schools have introduced a variety of MBA electives and other resources that help students put their skills directly to work. The Wharton School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, for instance, both offer business incubator facilities, while Rotterdam School of Management has a “Start-Up Bootcamp;” not to mention the numerous entrepreneurship electives offered by nearly every business school.

And some business schools have even introduced MBA electives which are based on the Silicon Valley startup accelerator model.

Earlier this year, Copenhagen Business School launched an MBA accelerator elective, which complements the core curriculum by “building on the idea that the students were already in a kind of a bootcamp, in a full-time MBA,” says Eythor Jonsson, who teaches on the course.

Because of this, he says, “they have much better understanding of business in general.”

With input from mentors, students in the course go through a process of business ideation, iteration, and refinement; the course ends with a pitching day, where students try to sell their startup ideas to investors. 

“From a learning perspective it was really an eye-opener, to understand how they can create something out of an idea,” says Jonsson.

Likewise, students who take the five-month long Venture Lab elective at IE Business School can expect a similar process: build a team, develop an idea, and then participate in a venture competition. 

“It's almost like doing an internship and spending a huge chunk of time on a specific activity,” says Liz Fleming, deputy directory of the Venture Lab.

Beyond the startup

Fleming says that about ten to fifteen percent of teams who participate in the Venture Lab eventually get their startups off the ground. Past successes have included Busuu, a social network for language learning, which last year closed a £3 million investment round led by a London-based VC firm. Another is Ticketea, a Madrid-based ticketing platform that has raised over €4 million in funding since launching in 2009.

But even for those who don’t go on to start their own businesses, the entrepreneurial skills that are picked up during classes like this can still go a long way. 

“What you're doing is identifying a problem, you're trying to figure out the best solution, and then implementing that solution,” Fleming says. 

“And that process is a challenge that business leaders are faced with every day.” 

Alex Kalil says that although some students who take McGill’s entrepreneurship electives do go on to start their own businesses, others leverage their newfound skills in social enterprises and other organizations. Or they’ll go into a large company and climb the corporate ladder, before eventually breaking off to follow their own business vision. 

“Even in the corporate world,” Kalil says, “you can have an entrepreneurial spirit and bring that kind of vision and that kind of drive to the company.”

“It can be applied anywhere.”

For more information, please see FIND MBA's list of Top MBA Programs for a Career in Entrepreneurship 

Image: Joe Goldberg / Flickr (cropped)

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