In my career, I’ve been fortunate to experience business from many vantage points. I’ve led companies as an entrepreneur and know firsthand the struggles and excitement of a startup. I’ve also experienced a large and dynamic corporation by spending 13 years at IBM. The differences in the way those companies worked has given me a great appreciation for what makes an entrepreneur successful—which is why I now spend my days at Duke Fuqua grooming students to lead successful start-ups.
I’m taking the time to write because I think there is a lot of untapped potential in people who have great ideas for startups but aren’t connecting how an MBA can turn those ideas into reality.
Thus, I’m offering six reasons why if you are an entrepreneur you will not only make a great MBA student, but can also really hit it out of the park when you earn the degree.
1. You naturally want to learn.
Entrepreneurs are curious. They are constantly pushing the boundaries and looking for better ways to do things. It’s a mindset. They challenge their professors and their classmates alike. They are constantly pushing in new directions. This makes business school a particularly rich experience of really robust learning in a rigorous academic environment where everyone is smart and brings an interesting perspective.
2. You have the big picture and can use business school to quickly fill in the gaps to success.
I’ll be honest here: When I enrolled in my own MBA program at Fuqua, I had low expectations but figured it would probably be worthwhile in the long run to earn the degree. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I had to learn—and how much I did learn—from both my instructors and from my peers.
My MBA helped me when my career path turned entrepreneurial. What I’d learned about marketing, cost accounting, finance, and even ways of thinking—all mattered a lot when it came time to run a company. Prior to business school, it would have been hard for me to know the gaps I had because I didn’t have experience in those areas.
3. The class project is your company.
This is a great benefit—you can actually work on your idea for school credit. And you are doing so while bouncing ideas off smart faculty members, fellow students, and a network of alumni and university resources (although that network can vary from school to school, so ask beforehand about what’s available to you before you make an investment in an MBA).
4. You will be highly valued in the business school community.
Entrepreneurs are imaginative and creative; they’re unwilling to accept the status quo and think about how things could be improved. They’re also oriented toward action. This, I think, is the heart of entrepreneurship—many business school students have great ideas, but entrepreneurs are often the first to go out and implement these ideas.
Because of these qualities, entrepreneurially-minded students make business school a more interesting and exciting place to be. They’re often the most energetic and intelligent students, the ones who make it more fun to be in the classroom.
5. You will gain skills that will help you throughout your life.
The skills you gain as you earn your MBA give you the opportunity to create long-term value throughout your career, whether you start your own company, work at a small startup, or join a large firm. When I meet with corporate executives visiting Fuqua, they often tell me they are most interested in hiring our entrepreneurial students. This is understandable, as the greatest challenge facing firms today is managing innovation.
6. You gain a network that will also be with you for life.
The most obvious network you gain will be your classmates. Years from now, when you have a financial modeling question you can call the finance expert from your class: same with marketing, operations, and on and on. However, you’ll also have a network of alumni who can mentor and help support you. They will also have connections that might lead to financing or other direct help for your business.
Finally, you will have your professors. One of the things that makes me happiest is to chat with a former student, talking through challenges while also seeing the ways her or his idea has succeeded. I haven’t met a professor yet who doesn’t enjoy connecting with alumni to mull over current issues they are facing.
Not every startup is going to be a Google, an Apple, or an Amazon. However, the big idea alone didn’t build those companies. People who knew how to take products to consumers, market them, and develop and drive strategy built those companies.
That’s why in my mind, entrepreneur + MBA = unlimited potential.