After the MBA: Going Off-Road in a Startup Career

Millennials are increasingly drawn towards the uncertainty and freedom of entrepreneurial careers. And business schools are answering that call.

Nobody likes failure.

But if you want a post-MBA career in the startup industry, you'd better get used to it.

Directors and officials at MBA programs specializing in entrepreneurship and startups say that the most important characteristic that an entrepreneur should cultivate is the stoicism to ride the emotional and financial rollercoaster of success and failure.

"We look at some of our alumni who are serial entrepreneurs. Some of them have been great and amazing and some of them have been total disasters--but they're willing to go through it again because they love it," says Debi Kleiman, director of the Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College.

"You do sacrifice a lot to be an entrepreneur. Our culture has made it somewhat sexy to be an entrepreneur, but the reality is much more difficult. You have to be prepared for that."

But many millennials aren't put off by the hardships inherent in entrepreneurship. Instead, for the free-spirited generation currently entering the workforce, the allure of the entrepreneurial lifestyle often outweighs the negatives.

"The appeal of being an entrepreneur or controlling your own destiny or creating value for others is very, very strong among the millennials," says Stewart Thornhill, Executive Director for the Zell and Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "The corporate side is mystified by how they are going to attract the best talent, because when they try to bring [today's students] into the corporate environment they say, no, I'd rather go do my own thing."

Although millennials often want to craft their own career path, that doesn't mean they're skipping out on school. Increasingly, aspiring entrepreneurs are pursuing MBAs instead of going it alone.

But this hasn’t always been the case.

In the past, prospective entrepreneurs may have foregone an MBA and jumped right into startup life. "If they were interested in being an entrepreneur, in most cases they would have just gone and done that,” says Sean Carr, Executive Director at the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

“But in the past five years, there's been a steady acceleration of applicants to top MBA programs who are willing to undertake the expense of time and the cost of tuition and other things, for the opportunity to come to business school as the ideal environment to develop skills and connections."

Indeed, an MBA program, since it covers topics in finance, product management, supply chain, and other aspects of business that are important to startups, might be just the ticket for entrepreneurs-to-be.

>See the Top 10 Business Schools for Entrepreneurs

And in recent years, many business schools have been developing MBA courses and other resources that are specifically designed for those who want to launch startups. Some schools offer specialized classes in entrepreneurship and innovation, and others, such as Copenhagen Business School have designed MBA electives that are designed around the Silicon Valley accelerator model.

Business schools all over the world offer students the opportunity to develop these entrepreneurial skills in an academic setting. Columbia Business School's Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, Stanford University's Center for Entrepreneurship Studies, UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, EMLYON Business School in France, IE Business School, and the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School all offer special programs that help startup-minded students access the resources and develop the skills they need to succeed.

Pressing pause on starting up 

But students graduating from these programs usually don't jump right into the startup scene, for several reasons. First, students often don't have enough money or resources to go right from school to the startup scene, says Thornhill at Michigan - Ross. Second, students often haven't been hit by the bolt of inspiration when they leave school.

"When you're in this academic bubble environment for a few years, you tend to be exposed to problems like, ‘how do you beat the line at the pub on a Friday night?’" says Thornhill. "The level of problems to which people can apply themselves are constrained by the environment. But once they get back into the work force, they're much more likely to find something to work on."

Instead of expecting students to leave business school with a startup plan, Thornhill says that he tries to instill a sense of curiosity in students and give them the tools they need to become entrepreneurs so that when inspiration strikes, they can jump into a startup.

However, although many MBA graduates work for several years before founding a startup, Darden’s Sean Carr says that students who already have their idea shouldn't hesitate to run with it.

"Don't wait," Carr says. "If you have an idea, start to pursue it. How? By building a prototype, gathering team members or friends. Launch your product or idea. Talk to people, present your idea, get partners quickly to validate what you're trying to do."

Battling online fraud with a startup

One example of a student who graduated from his MBA with a business plan in hand is Tyler Paxton, who originally pursued his MBA at Ross to switch careers and eventually find a job on one of the coasts. But at Ross, he entered a student business plan competition with an idea to start a company that battles digital and online fraud and abuse. Paxton went on to help found Are You A Human, a company that replaces CAPTCHAs, the letters and numbers on websites that help differentiate between humans and robots, with simple games that people can play to prove that they're not spambots.

Paxton says the lack of structure in the entrepreneurial lifestyle can be difficult, and that he found it difficult to pursue a nebulous path after school while the rest of his classmates were interviewing for high-powered jobs at established firms. But overall, working in a startup allows him to measure his own progress in a much clearer manner.

"Everything I'm doing is making a significant impact," Paxton says. "When I was at a larger organization, I felt like there were a lot of things that needed to change, but it was a much slower-moving process. You could put a lot of effort in and never see the results. As an entrepreneur, that cycle time on having an impact is a lot shorter. It allows you to see the fruit of what you're doing."

Image: "Berlin Startup Tour" by Heisenberg Media / CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

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