Making a Way on Your Own: MBA Programs with an Entrepreneurship Focus

Business schools are creating innovative curricula to attract entrepreneurs.

Many people think of entrepreneurship as just a brilliant idea, enough time, and a garage full of tools to make it all come together.

The reality, however, is that most small businesses struggle to get off the ground. US Bureau of Labor statistics show that 66 percent of small businesses are still up and running after 2 years; after 4 years, this drops to 44 percent. That means that less than half make it past four years.

Perhaps you are wondering whether an MBA will improve your chances of becoming a mogul. The Wire enthusiasts will remember Stringer Bell taking classes to learn business fundamentals and apply them to his growing (yet illegal) enterprise. In the same way, aspiring entrepreneurs with a bright idea can use the basics of business administration to set the foundation for a strong and long-lasting venture.

But don’t expect an MBA to give you all the answers.

“From an educational perspective, entrepreneurship is very much an applied discipline,” says Emily Gohn Cieri, managing director of Wharton Entrepreneurship Programs at the University of Pennsylvania. “You have to do it to understand it. You can’t just sit and study it.”

John Asmussen agrees. After attending Copenhagen Business School, Asmussen grew a company, Vaimala Ltd., which provides business-to-business services between Europe and China. What was missing from his business school experience that could have helped in his entrepreneurial activities later on?

"It would've been great to meet real people who'd stepped off the beaten track and simply done it by living out the dream,” says Asmussen.

Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs

Several MBA programs are now starting to cater more to the needs of students looking to build their own companies. UPenn’s Wharton School of Business expanded its entrepreneurship course options to meet growing student interest. It has developed co-curricular activities that include students across disciplines, fostering relationships between Wharton and other UPenn schools and departments.

At Babson College, in addition to offering an MBA, the Global Entrepreneurship MSc Program leverages the resources of three business schools – Babson, EMLYON in France, and Zhejiang University in China - to equip students with an international perspective.

“Students take classes in all functional areas, do business projects in each country, and experience working with real-clients first-hand,” says Nora Driscoll, associate director of Babson’s Global Entrepreneurship Program.

Babson appears consistently at the top of the U.S. News & World Report Entrepreneurship MBA rankings, along with Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT Sloan.

Several business schools are also developing inventive ways to provide resources for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, such as Stanford’s e-corner with podcasts of its Entrepreneurial Thought leaders lecture, or the new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Track offered to MIT MBA students.

While entrepreneurship programs and electives are now part and parcel of business school curricula, there is also a new trend called social entrepreneurship. This is the practice of applying business skills to social endeavours, like expanding education, alleviating poverty, and improving water sanitation. Business schools like Columbia, Duke Fuqua, Oxford Saïd, and ESADE now have dedicated social entrepreneurship programs that MBA students can actively participate in.

Whether you will use your entrepreneurial savvy to turn a profit or make a positive social impact (or both), searching for the right business school will be as individual as your background, interest, and needs. This means you should look closely at what kind of entrepreneurship concentrations, electives, student clubs, and dedicated research institutes are offered at various business schools.

“Prospective students should really explore the entrepreneurial community on campus,” says Emily Gohn Cieri at Wharton.“Talk directly to students involved in the entrepreneurial club, and see if it’s the right environment. I encourage students to do their due diligence and find out which school is right for you.”

Finding a good balance between a theoretical approach and its application will be the challenge for prospective students in an entrepreneur program. However, starting a business on one’s own is still a big step, no matter how much education and experience one has. Cieri finds that “the number of students actually starting a business is very small. Five to ten years out, that number increases.”

Between finishing an MBA and starting a business, many entrepreneurial-minded grads get their feet wet by working in a related field like venture capital, working for start-ups, or getting a management job at an established company in the sector they want to start a business in.

Those ready to take that step towards starting a business can find inspiration from those who’ve already done it. People like John Asmussen.

“Don’t worry too much about failure,” he says. “My advice is to simply go for it and do it!”

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