Why Grad School Is Now Even More Attractive For Entrepreneurs
Not too long ago, I ascribed to the notion that higher education was an unnecessary waste of time.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve relied on ambition, creativity, a relentless sense of “getting things done” (sometimes at the expense of my personal life), the ability to wear many hats, the love of risk and adventure, and the awareness of the need to constantly adapt. All of these characteristics are not traditionally taught in school, in my opinion. So, naturally, when discussing professional graduate degrees like the MBA, I was the first to discount them. After all, what can an MBA teach you as an entrepreneur—to create spreadsheets with lifeless numbers, to make presentations a little nicer? It seemed pointless to me to potentially spend so much money learning “skills” I could otherwise gain on the job.
I have many startup friends who share that perception, which is only perpetuated by the fact that famous entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never even finished college, let alone went back to grad school.
But lo and behold, I write this now as an MBA / MPP student, pursuing a joint degree between the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Harvard Kennedy School.
I’m not a hypocrite—I just realized a few things.
An entrepreneur should consider grad school because unless you’re Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, passion and ambition only get you so far. And don’t get me wrong—those traits might get you really far. But, imagine what might happen if you added a separate set of people (network) and skills to your repertoire? I’m not so arrogant that I can deny the value of the following:
The greatest asset bestowed by my classroom experience so far has been the people, my classmates. They are top performers in different industries from all different countries, and moreover, they are people who genuinely want to improve the world. And maybe most importantly, they’re really interesting. A classmate, Natalise Kalea at Stanford GSB, came to business school aiming to redefine the music and film industries. She’s currently crowdsourcing an album project while at school, as well. Her story is moving and unexpected by most business school standards, but it’s inspiring to see her pursuing what she loves.
Another classmate, Danny Gal at Harvard, wants to bring about peace in the Middle East by creating an innovative city where Jews and Arabs can coexist. His startups, Terminal-Hub Jaffa and The Synched City, just may succeed at doing so one day. Yet other Harvard classmates, Caroline Mauldin and Aleem Ahmed, together started Love Grain, a super-food startup committed to improving the lives of families and smallholder farmers through better nutrition and access to markets.
Clearly, the demographics of top graduate schools have changed. Current students are breaking stereotypes with their own versions of what qualifies as success. The best part is, while most of the world is risk-averse, business, policy schools, and indeed others, I’m sure, are becoming increasingly filled with inspiring people who want to take risks on new ideas.
Selfishly, I also think it’s a great place, not only to be inspired, but also to find a reliable co-founder. In the real world, sometimes that task seems impossible, but business school makes that search a little easier since the institution has already done the hard part of filtering the exceptional and self-aware from the pool of success. Any serial entrepreneur will probably attest to the fact that self-awareness is one of the most valuable assets of a partner and employee. Especially in a startup situation where HR is non-existent, or at least underdeveloped, it is important to find people who align in terms of character and vision.
From the Innovation Lab at Harvard and the Venture Studio at Stanford to the Lester Center at Berkeley, students now have access to startup resources on university campuses that they would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Many schools also now hold business plan competitions (e.g., MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition), the winners of which often get seed funding.
When I was raising my first round of venture funding a few years ago, I couldn’t understand why, despite significantly outperforming one of my most well-known competitors, I wasn’t yet making traction with any of the big VCs. A friend of mine pulled up the competitor’s bio page and pointed to a single line: “Harvard Business School graduate.” Not that I think entrepreneurs need a big name brand to be successful, but the reality is that these credentials can be a fairly meaningful stamp of approval when talking with investors, early hires, and other potential stakeholders who are vetting your competency as a leader.
It’s no secret that entrepreneurship is about as risky an enterprise as any. I think, if nothing else, a graduate degree in today’s economy, which has become ever more competitive, can significantly mitigate one’s career risk, by virtue of the network gained and the fact that, as a student, you are placed directly in a pipeline to some of the world’s best companies.
The mentorship and feedback from faculty, thought leaders, and even industry titans can’t be understated. Several of my professors this year have eagerly offered their guidance on new ideas of mine. Additionally, entrepreneurs, business executives, and political leaders regularly visit campuses to give speeches and meet with classes. This year at the Kennedy School, in one class alone (Leadership and Innovation for a Livable City, taught by David Gergen), I have met Boston’s last two mayors, best-selling authors, and the founders of major enterprises, all of whom make such visits because they care about developing future leaders. I’ve also learned how city governments are increasingly leveraging entrepreneurship and lean development to solve public problems. At Stanford, top CEOs and people of influence from various industries give talks through “View from the Top.” In fact, Oprah, Al Gore, chef Thomas Keller, and columnist Thomas Friedman have all sat down with students.
A Culture of Truth
It’s not just that we need more entrepreneurs as students, but it’s also that we need more students willing to pursue what they love to make an impact on the world. Doing what you love can be an incredibly risky proposition for a student, because doing so often means ignoring safer, more popular decisions. But, top graduate programs are increasingly providing students with an environment and culture that prepare them to be confident, even if they’re taking the road less traveled.
At Stanford, non-grade disclosure means students aren’t obsessing about test scores or GPAs and instead are pursuing the activities that truly interest them. Students participate in “TALK”— a personal TEDTalk of sorts, sometimes exposing their deepest secrets—in front of the entire school, to learn to be vulnerable and own their honest identities. The Stanford MBA program, and others like it, was designed, I think, to help future leaders first hone in on who they are and what they truly desire, and then encourages them to venture out into the world and create a career based on that identity.
And this sort of culture of truth fosters as much personal growth as it does professional. Which is important because being an entrepreneur puts you in awkward, indeed grueling, positions where personal interaction and fortitude are just as challenging an obstacle as say fundraising, marketing, or product development. It’s simply vital for entrepreneurs to be able to navigate through interpersonal challenges in a genuine, consistent and ethical way—and just as vital to learn when to follow, to accept feedback, to defer to the expertise of others, and to resist the urge to not ask for help.
Graduate school won’t solve all your entrepreneurial woes, and not all programs are created equal, but there’s something to be said about growing with a cohort of people who are brilliant and ambitious, who are willing to leave their perfectly fine lives and commit to learning together. When else will 800 of the smartest, most ambitious people be forced to work together in close quarters? If nothing else, it’s an experiment in passion, ambition, and adventure… not unlike my last startup.