Entrepreneurs: born or made with an MBA?

DO not let Steve Jobs’s gown fool you in this photo. The recently departed, near-legendary founder of Apple and Pixar never finished his undergraduate degree, let alone got an MBA. In this picture, he is giving Stanford University’s 2005 commencement address. In the speech, he told his audience that he “couldn't see the value” in doing a degree and that the dropping out allowed him to follow interests that led to his eventual success. He’s not the only one either. Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg are all university dropouts too.

This is not exactly the best advert for MBAs. Yet many of the UK’s most prestigious institutions are now offering courses or facilities for building startups. Cass Business School, for instance, is investing in a business incubator and the London Business School is offering electives in new creative ventures.

Some people are really not convinced. David Scott, the entrepreneur behind Vestra Wealth says: “A true entrepreneur will often not follow the logical path but will be led by their gut instinct. An MBA will never teach you how to trust your gut instinct.”

There are, however, a number of high-profile entrepreneurs that credit their success to their MBA. Julie Meyer, the founder of Ariadne Capital, says: “Had I not gone to Insead, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It absolutely gave me the tools, network and the courage to build a company rather than just look for a job.”

Recent success Nick Jenkins, who is rumoured to have sold his online card business Moonpig for over £100m earlier this year, did an MBA at Cranfield University. In June, he told me that the purpose of going to business school was to “spend some time thinking of a business idea and drawing up business plans.” He came up with five ideas, setting his heart on Moonpig by graduation.

Nick Badman of Cass Business School doesn’t think you can teach entrepreneurship, but that doesn’t mean aspiring entrepreneurs shouldn’t do an MBA: “A lot of the problems entrepreneurs face are very similar, whether it’s working out how to raise finance, build a team or market a product – fast and on a tight budget.” Cass’s focus on teaching cashflow, risk management, selling, teambuilding and the role of the founder only serves to increase a business owner’s chances, he argues.

Serial entrepreneur Richard Farleigh sympathises with Badman’s view, but adds: “I have occasionally been amazed what some MBA holders I have met don’t know – such as spreadsheets or how to write a press release.”

Could the professional qualification improve your chances of getting investment? Doug Richard, investor and founder of the School for Startups, says he would be “unlikely” to invest in a company on the basis of qualifications, but he does think there is a role for MBA programmes: “Entrepreneurial training serves an important purpose of empowering people to take risks, hope for reward, and move on from failure.”

Perhaps then, Farleigh’s advice sums it up best: “Choose carefully. And when you pass the MBA, stay humble, the real learning is on the job”.


London Business School entrepreneurship electives include:

Entrepreneurship in emerging markets
Entrepreneurship summer school
Financing the entrepreneurial business
Managing the growing business
New creative ventures
New technology ventures

Cass Business School entrepreneurship electives include:

Entrepreneurship: From startup to success
Innovation and new product development

Cass entrepreneurship fund and business incubator

This £10m venture capital fund provides growth equity for startups